Should the Papacy Be Downsized?

This is Michael McGough's first weekly column for The Times. He is Washington-based editor at large for the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette.

Never having been made a cardinal, retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco will not be participating in the conclave that will elect a successor to Pope John Paul II. But the 76-year-old Quinn thinks that some of the electors could literally take a page from his book in choosing the next pope.

Quinn’s book, published in 1999, is called “The Reform of the Papacy: The Costly Call to Christian Unity.” In its proposals for a downsized papacy and a more collegial relationship between the pope and other bishops, the book echoes arguments by liberal (and some not-so-liberal) Catholics. If a significant number of cardinals are attracted by Quinn’s analysis, the next pope could be a more circumspect shepherd than John Paul.

That could actually be a mixed blessing for liberal Catholics, as we’ll see. Still, Quinn’s critique is intriguing, especially because, as he argues, a papacy reshaped by the “poverty and humility of the cross” is not his idea but John Paul’s.

Paradoxical as it seems, the larger-than-life pontiff, whose “popemobile” ran up mileage around the world, issued an encyclical in 1995 expressing interest in a quieter papacy, in finding “a way of exercising the primacy, which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nevertheless open to new situations.”


The encyclical, “Ut Unum Sint” (That They May Be One), is the starting point for Quinn’s critique of Vatican over-centralization. Perhaps its most startling feature is the suggestion that the pope might return to the lower-profile job of bishop of Rome, as it was understood in the first 1,000 years of Christianity, before the schism with Eastern Orthodoxy. In those days, John Paul noted, the bishop of Rome merely “acted by common consent as moderator” when Christians disagreed about beliefs or practices, rather than as an ecclesiastical micromanager.

What would a papacy shaped by the encyclical look like? For one thing, it would be more parochial, more local, with, most likely, an Italian pope who tended to his Roman flock and didn’t stride so much on the world stage.

A re-imagined papacy also would not have to be a lifetime office, sparing John Paul’s successors the anguish he experienced in recent years, which, however edifying, is not an ordeal imposed on other aged bishops. (Quinn dismisses uneasiness about what would happen to papal infallibility if a future pope stepped down at 75 the way other bishops do: “When the man ceases to be pope, that prerogative would cease to accompany him.”)

As the pope and his Cabinet, the Roman Curia, drew back, diversity would flourish, but it would be a diversity not of “doctrine” (basic beliefs that, for John Paul, included a male-only priesthood) but rather of “discipline” (for example, whether married men may serve as priests is actually a matter of practice, not doctrine -- there are already married priests in the Eastern churches in communion with Rome).


A humbler papacy would tolerate a greater role in decision-making not only for local bishops but also for the laity. “The church is not just the bishops or the priests; it’s the whole body of the church, and there has to be a much greater place for the role of lay people,” Quinn said.

Acknowledging the dissension over homosexuality in the decentralized Anglican Communion (to which the U.S. Episcopal Church belongs), Quinn concedes that too much decentralization breeds anarchy and chaos: “How the authority is exercised is the question, not whether it’s there or not there.”

That said, conservative Catholics who venerated John Paul are likely to be suspicious of Quinn’s gloss on “Ut Unum Sint.” Does that mean liberal Catholics will enthusiastically embrace it? Not necessarily.

As in American secular politics, where a strong presidency is attractive if your party controls the White House and “imperial” if it doesn’t, for some Catholics the literal bully pulpit of the papacy is divinely inspired only if its occupant agrees with them. Liberal Catholics thanked God for John Paul’s preeminence when he mended relations with Jews and criticized the war in Iraq, just as conservatives were gladdened when the pope’s preeminence amplified his attacks on same-sex marriage.

Quinn thinks that a pope speaking in concert with other bishops might have even greater authority, but it’s just as likely that a downsized pope’s pronouncements would be diluted by being presented as committee-speak.

There is a further complication in trying to return the church to the days when the bishop of Rome intervened as a last resort: technology. Christians who were dissatisfied with their local bishop in the year 900 had to wait years for the pope to hear their plea; today’s dissidents can go right to the top with an e-mail to the Vatican.

Quinn has an answer to that problem: “Rome has to exercise a certain amount of restraint and say these are local questions and we don’t deal with those unless there’s a major problem.” In other words, in a new-old papacy, some missives would have to be treated as spam.