REFLECTION: Political models for the papacy

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by Thomas Reese, S.J., NCR

Defenders of the status quo in church governance often say, “The church is not a democracy,” with the implication that the church can learn nothing from civil governments. The truth is that the church has been borrowing government structures from civil society almost from the beginning.

0317_pope_full_600In fact, we know that bishops, including the bishop of Rome, were elected by the people in the early days of the church. Later in Rome, the Roman Senate was sometimes involved in selecting popes prior to the creation of the College of Cardinals.

Not surprisingly, the cardinals for many centuries saw themselves as successors to the Roman Senate, and until the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, the College of Cardinals was referred to in church law as a senate. During some periods, the cardinals were so powerful that the pope could not do anything without their approval.

The Greek and Latin origin of many church terms reveals their political origins. “Ecclesia,” the Greek term we translate as “church” was a common term for an assembly, or a gathering of people in a public place. “Diocese” was a territorial division in the Roman Empire. “Curia” was the Roman Senate or where it met. “Dicastery” was a court or judgment hall.

Historically, the church changed its governance structures to match changes in civil society. Thus, by the 13th century, the Vatican had an Apostolic Chancellery, which matched the chancelleries in European countries. The chancellery handled appointments of bishops and abbots as well as bulls and rescripts. Before becoming pope, John XXII (1316-1344) had been chancellor to the French king. He used his expertise in organizing the chancellery to handle papal business….

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