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“Yes, But Not Too Much...”

Atila Sinke Guimarães

Book review of Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium by Russell Shaw
Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2000, 186 pp.


Papal Primacy in the Third Millenium book cover
The work in question is one of a whole ensemble of books and articles that have appeared in the religious press since John Paul II invited pastors and theologians to look for a new way of exercising the Papal Primacy in his Encyclical Ut unum sint (May 25, 1995).

Recently, there has been more discussion about the topic of this reform. A list of only some of the American sources I have been following would include the book The Reform of the Papacy by Archbishop John Quinn (1999), the articles of the Jesuit magazine America: “The Millennium and the Papalization of Catholicism” (April 9, 2000) by John O’Malley, “The Papacy for a Global Church” (July 15, 2000) by Avery Dulles; “The Papacy for an Ecumenical Age: A Response to Avery Dulles” (October 21, 2000) by Ladislas Orsy; and the article “The Papacy under review” by syndicated columnist Richard McBrien (The Tidings, December 1, 2000). These pieces, added to those mentioned in the book of Russell Shaw, give the impression that there could have been some recent directive to deal with the subject in order to create a propitious climate for exactly such a reform.

If one takes seriously the statements of Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels to Reuters Agency (October 19, 2000), when he said that he would not be surprised if John Paul II would resign after the year 2000 (1), then one could suppose that the mentioned wave of publications is preparing for the announced reform in view of a possible resignation that already would be on the agenda.

In my opinion, John Paul II would be the one to make this reform. He himself affirms in his Encyclical Ut unum sint:
“I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new sitaution.” (n. 95).
Before retiring from the Papacy to some monastery in Poland, Karol Wojtyla probably would carry out this last task for the victory of progressivism: the reform of the Papacy. The following sequence of events cannot be excluded from what could potentially occur: John Paul II would convoke a Conclave under his direction. He would impose the reform of the Papacy, and then resign. The Conclave would acknowledge his resignation and would elect one or various other “popes,” depending upon whether the progressivist cupolas that dominate the Church think that Catholic public opinion is ready to receive all the prepared innovations at one time.

Shaw’s book is one of these preparatory works for a reform of the Papacy and presents the position of a centrist or “moderate.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver directs some introductory words to the reader in praise of the book as “an outstanding, balanced, and very readable primer which ought to be enjoyed by everyone interested in the future of the Church.”

Now, Archbishop Chaput is considered a conservative. Therefore, with his support, Shaw’s book takes on a little of the same conservative tonus, even though the text in itself would not permit his position to be considered anything more than centrist. What we have, then, is an ensemble with three ingredients – Shaw’s thesis, Chaput’s introduction and Our Sunday Visitor as publisher – which ends by presenting an initiative that can be considered moderate-conservative.

When I refer to this classification, I am not concerned about “anathematizing” this position. I am only trying to expose objectively to my reader an important part of the present day ideological spectrum regarding the reform of the Papacy. I intend to publish two other articles on the subject: one on the thinking of the moderate-progressivism, when I write a review of the work by Archbishop Quinn, and another when I present the major points on the reform of the Papacy called for by the We Are Church Movement and other radical progressivists. This series of articles should also serve to clearly present my own position of traditionalist or counter-revolutionary. Thus, I will be offering my reader the four basic positions that make up the panorama for the reform of the Papacy: the radical progressivist, the moderate progressivist, the moderate conservative and the traditionalist or counter-revolutionary. With this, he should have a good view of the whole topic.

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholics Bishops and author of many other books. He also is the editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine.

The author is intelligent and lays out his thinking with ease, sufficient clarity and with a certain autonomy from the general ecclesiastical patterns. The subject in itself is not light, but Shaw knows how to make the reading more facile.

In the first chapter, the author makes a superficial exposé and critique of four proposals for the reform of the Papacy: that of Archbishop Quinn, that of Fr. McBrien, the Anglican proposal, and that of the Movement We Are Church.

In his second chapter, Shaw presents a brief history of the Pontifical Primacy. He tries to show that the Catholic Church developed into a strong and monarchical Papacy either influenced by or in reaction to the various temporal regimes, which were always trying to make the Church submit to their orders. This would have been the general line from Constantine until Charlemagne, passing then to Henry IV, Louis XIV, and the French Revolution and Napoleon. Conciliarism, Anglicanism, Protestantism in general, Gallicanism, the errors of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy – all would have had the same origin: the desire of the temporal power to dominate the Church.

According to the different epochs and circumstances, the Popes at times would have allowed themselves to be dominated. At other times they would have tried to surmount the temporal power that was striving to overwhelm them. From this conflict would have come the strength of St. Gregory VII, the importance of Innocent III, the weakness of Pius VI and Pius VII, the reaction of Gregory XVI and Pius IX. The end result of this process would have been a monarchical and excessively centralized conception of the Papacy.

This view of history, attractive due to its simplicity and because it contains more than a parcel of truth, is nonetheless quite superficial. It does not take into account the good and necessary influence that numerous Emperors and Kings, some of them saints, had upon the Church. It does not take into account that even if the temporal power were not trying to influence the Church, the Church, given her own natural vitality, would naturally tend toward her perfection by the law that governs all just societies. That is, by the force of the principle of the natural reduction of the many to the one – reductio ad unum – the Church would tend toward a monarchical form of government.

It does not take into account the role developed by two important currents of thought in the fight between the Papacy and the Empire. One was that of the Guelphs, partisans of the superiority of the Papacy over the Empire; the other was that of the Ghibellines, who held the opposite. Above all, the author does not take into account the anti-Catholic conspiracy that for so long a time has been developing in the West to destroy Christianity and the Catholic Church.

Another disagreeable point for me is to see the tacit endorsement Shaw gives to the opinion of Ignaz von Döllinger against the papal primacy (p. 41). Döllinger revolted against the dogma of Papal Infallibility, became a heretic, separated from Rome and founded the sect of Old Catholics. I do not think that his opinion has an objective historical value independent from his errors and resentment of the Papacy.

In this second chapter, I appreciate Shaw’s intellectual honesty in two points. He is not afraid to attack the two Ecumenical Councils of Constance and Basel as conciliarist. In my own readings on Church History, I had reached the same conclusion (2). But, outside of some closed academic circles, it is rare to see someone who enjoys the blessing of the ecclesiastical establishment have the courage to speak out against the myth that ecumenical councils cannot err. I draw a practical consequence from this fact. At a time when a great effort is being made to impose the conclusions of Vatican II upon all Catholics without any discussion, the precedents of Constance and Basel are very useful to show how one can and should reject many things in the last Council.

Here is my suggestion to the reader: pick up a good book on Church History, study the Councils of Constance and Basel, compare them to other condemned councils – such as the Synod of Pistoia – and then apply your conclusions to Vatican II. I promise that you will find many points of affinity.

Also in this second chapter, one can find an important contradiction in Shaw’s exposition. In his historical summary, he correctly criticizes the error of conciliarism. When, however, he exposes the position of Vatican II, he praises the voting of the assembly (pp. 71-72) and the affirmations of Lumen gentium whereby the plenitude of power in the Church should not reside exclusively in the Pope, but in the whole – the Pope and the College of Bishops (pp. 73-74). Now, this position in essence contains the same errors that Shaw justly condemned in conciliarism.

In effect, conciliarism affirms that the power of the Pope is inferior to that of the ecumenical council. In the proposition of Vatican II, the Pope would only have the plentitude of ecclesiastical power when he would govern or teach in union with the College of Bishops. This is equivalent to saying that the Roman Pontiff does not possess per se the plenitude of power, which would be a prerogative of the College. This is, then, merely a variant of the same error of conciliarism (3). It is lamentable that the author, who has the lucidity to attack the Councils of Constance and Basel, does not see an analogous error or lack the same courage with regard to Vatican II.

In the third chapter, Shaw sets out some of the reasoning for changing the Primacy. The arguments of greatest weight are the declarations of Paul VI and of John Paul II that the Papacy, and especially the Papal Primacy, constitutes a great obstacle to ecumenism. In the wake of these statements, the author exposes the indignation of Bernard Häring, a well known German theologian, against the monarchical character of the Church, against its “absolutism,” its structures, its “worldly trappings, triumphalistic pomp and ridiculous titles of honor.” Some points of the agenda of We Are Church also enter into the exposition of motives that would justify the change of the Papacy.

What are the principal ideas that normally are presented to modify the Papal Primacy? Shaw enumerates the following:
* the ecclesiology of communion,
* the notion of an “inculturated” Church, that is to say, a decentralized Church that adapts to local cultures,
* and a special interpretation of the principle of subsidiarity, understood as a barrier to keep the Pope from exercising his power on the intermediary bodies of the Church and the faithful, except when it is strictly necessary.
As befitting a “moderate,” the author makes faint eulogies and weak criticisms of various applications of these ideas. What is lacking is élan, the enthusiasm that characterizes the zealous Catholic. What is missing is the intellectual penetration that characterizes a man of brilliance. Shaw is a tepid tour guide who, motivated by mere professional obligation, describes with some clarity, but without admiration or repulsion, scenes that should properly arouse a great love or a great hatred.

What are the principal concrete points that have been presented to change the Papacy? The author exposes the following:
* To convoke periodic councils, as a way to emphasize the opinion of the College of Bishops and diminish the importance of papal decisions.
* To change the rules for electing a Pope: participants should include not only Cardinals, but also Patriarchs, presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences, outstanding laymen, and even the heads of the Eastern schismatic churches.
* To increase the role of the Synods of Bishops and make them decisionary and not just consultative bodies. To reform the Roman Curia and transform the Vatican into a mere forum for discussing the ideas and programs that come from the local churches.
* To give more power to the Bishops Conferences.
* To change the rules for choosing Bishops, with the objective of taking advantage of a greater participation of the “local churches.”
Once again, Shaw vapidly relates the various opinions with some few short commentaries here and there devoid of any real value.

In the fourth chapter, the author presents his own opinion on the agenda of a reform of the Papacy. To democratize the Church? Yes, but not too much. To decentralize the Church? Yes, but not too much. To give more emphasis to collegiality? Yes, but not too much. What about the concept of subsidiarity? The author does not agree with a direct application of the principle of subsidiarity, which he considers appropriate only for political societies and not for the Church, but he agrees with the progressivist aim that the Papacy should be presented principally as a service and not as an authority.

Inculturation? Yes, for Shaw inculturation is inseparable from the action of evangelization. Should the “local churches” be strengthened? Yes, but not too much. To make the Bishops Synods stronger? As much as possible, without damage to doctrine. To convoke frequent councils? Yes, but with certain reservations. Should only Bishops participate in them? Or should they include ecclesiastics and laymen, and even members of other religions? Yes to the latter question, but the other participants should only have the right to speak, not to vote.

Reform the Roman Curia? Yes, and not only the Roman Curia, but also all the local curias. This is one of the few definite opinions that I found. Should the Bishops Conferences be given more power? No, and the power of local Bishops should also not be further increased. Should the rules for the papal election be changed? Yes, they should become more “representative of the whole of the Church,” but not too much. Should the rules for choosing Bishops be changed? Yes, but not too much. Finally, the central question: should the Papal Primacy change? Yes, the Pope should be presented as a servant and not as the principle of unity, but the change should not be too much…

In the fifth and last chapter, Shaw returns to some of the points that he already dealt with, and he gives some advice to the next Popes: Yes, they should travel, but not too much; yes, they should write documents, but not too many. He is very pleased to imagine that “most Catholics who think about these things would probably prefer a reasonable middle ground” (p. 151).

Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium is a work on a pressing topic of the day, but one without “claws;” intelligent, but without brilliance; correctly-written, but without talent. In my judgment, Shaw’s book is a significant example of what the “moderate” Catholic thinks and wants. He always walks a little more toward the left, toward the progressivist aims, but not too much.

It is not difficult to foresee that, little by little, tomorrow his position will “evolve” to the position the progressivists hold today. The blessing of Archbishop Chaput does not change this inevitable tendency. It only encourages more innocent persons to drift along the path of centrism and moderate conservativism.


1. National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000, p. 8.
2. See Animus Delendi - I , Chap.IV, footnote 130, 1, C, a-f, pp. 265-267 (Los Angeles: Tradition in Action, 2000).
3. A detailed analysis of the error of this proposition, which is contrary to the perennial teaching of the Holy Church, can be found in the work Animus Delendi – I, Chap. IV, 4, B, first erroneous position, pp. 256-272.

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