Papal deeds speak louder
By John L. Allen Jr.
It's the nature of the office that a pope has to watch what he says.
Ironically, the 1870 declaration of infallibility at the First Vatican Council has probably inhibited papal freedom of speech more than any king or emperor ever could. Since even his “ordinary magisterium,” or regular teaching expressed in audiences and letters, is considered to enjoy a divine seal of approval, popes feel compelled to sweat over every phrase. Once it drops from his lips, it passes into tradition, and hence it must be “just so.”
That's inevitably a prescription for caution. Popes rarely speak off the cuff, and when they do, pulse rates in Vatican offices head for the sky.
Gestures, on the other hand, are by definition far more ambiguous. A pope can be himself in his actions in a way he never can be with his words. For that reason, often what a pope does is a better indicator of where his heart is than what he says. The pontificate of John Paul II illustrates the point.
Consider, for example, the December 1996 visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, then George Carey, and several of his brother Anglican bishops to Rome. On the occasion, John Paul II gave Carey a gold pectoral cross, the same gift he offers to Catholic archbishops on their ad limina visits. He offered silver pectoral crosses to the other Anglicans.
It was a kind gesture with just one glitch: According to Catholic theology, Anglican bishops aren't the real deal, and hence have no business sporting the symbols of the bishop's office. Most recently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made this point in a commentary on the 1998 document Ad Tuendam Fidem. It pointed to the invalidity of Anglican ordinations as an example of not-yet-declared infallible church teaching.
Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien has argued that this leaves two possibilities. Either the pope holds a different view about the validity of Anglican ordinations, or he is guilty of the canonical offense of falsifying the sacrament of holy orders by complicity in the fiction that the Anglicans really are bishops.
Most observers believe John Paul was trying to encourage unity between Catholics and Anglicans, whose dialogue since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has been a model of civility, even ahead of an ability to spell out quite yet the theological basis for that unity.
Other examples of actions speaking louder than words might include the pope's respectful, prayerful visit to the Grand Omayyad Mosque in Damascus in May 2001, not long after the Vatican document Dominus Iesus had asserted that non-Catholics are in a “gravely deficient situation”; or his March 2000 visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem amid acrimonious debates between Jews and Catholics.
Recent weeks in Rome have offered two more examples of the pope's “watch what I do, not always what I say” style.
On Oct. 4, in conjunction with an international conference marking the 700th anniversary of the birth of St. Bridget of Sweden, John Paul II took part in a gala vespers service in St. Peter's Basilica.
Present for the occasion were 13 Roman Catholic bishops, plus nine Lutheran bishops from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, one other Lutheran clergyman, and three non-Catholic prelates (two Orthodox, one Anglican). There were, in other words, an equal number on both sides.
The two sets of prelates were dressed in liturgical vestments, and they processed in and sat down with equal dignity. It was difficult to avoid the impression that the pope was recognizing some kind of brotherhood in holy orders for the Lutheran and Anglican prelates that official Catholic theology would struggle to explain. Privately, several of the Lutherans said that they experienced the event as an unofficial form of papal recognition.
John Paul's public comments on the occasion were not so daring. “In a spirit of brotherhood and friendship I greet the distinguished representatives of the Lutheran churches,” he said. “Your presence at this prayer is a cause of deep joy. I express the hope that our meeting together in the Lord's name will help to further our ecumenical dialogue and quicken the journey towards full Christian unity.”
At the level of symbolism, however, the pope seemed to be saying more.
Two days later, Patriarch Teoctist of the Romanian Orthodox church arrived in Rome for the start of a weeklong visit, reciprocating the pope's May 7-9, 1999, visit to Bucharest. John Paul welcomed Teoctist to the public Mass of thanksgiving for the canonization of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva Oct. 6, standing to embrace him in brotherly fashion before a crowd of 200,000, then ensuring that Teoctist was seated in an exact duplicate of the papal throne.
It was not the behavior of someone worried about underscoring his own primacy.
In fact, all the week's choreography seemed designed to make the two prelates seem like equally eminent heads of churches. The high point came with the signing of a joint declaration between John Paul and Teoctist on Saturday, Oct. 12.
The text of the declaration was itself interesting. “Our aim and our ardent desire is full communion, which is not absorption, but communion in love. It is an irreversible path that has no alternative: It is the way of the church,” the declaration reads.
It gets down to brass tacks, calling for a relaunch of the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, currently in a deep freeze after a disastrous session in Baltimore in July 2000. Those talks were paralyzed by accusations of proselytism against Catholics in Orthodox nations, debates over Eastern churches in communion with Rome, and most notoriously, differing views of the limits of papal power.
More important than the wording, however, may be the way the declaration was issued. The pope's repeated gestures of humility and fraternity, always careful to treat Teoctist like an ecclesiastical equal, were designed to assuage Orthodox fears about a Roman “imperial papacy.” In that sense, John Paul's conduct reflected a reformed papacy that Catholic theological language is not yet able to describe.
To understand what the pope is trying to communicate, therefore, sometimes it's a good idea to keep the pictures but turn down the sound.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002