Can you imagine the mayor of Grand Rapids taking a delegation of city officials to Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, the home of the OPC’s headquarters, to solicit last year’s moderator of General Assembly to attend this year’s assembly in Grand Rapids? I can’t. You can’t. No one can. The reason is that a moderator of an OPC General Assembly is not someone who is going to generate tourism dollars for local business. At best, last year’s moderator will show up (if not a commissioner) and plunk down maybe $1,400 in expenses between room, meals, parking, airport taxes, and miscellaneous items.
The reason for this thought experiment is the news that Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, received a bit of a cold shoulder from Pope Francis earlier this week. For a cash-strapped city, it is not enough to be hosting a world conference on families thanks to the Archbishop of Philadelphia’s responsibility. The conference scheduled for next should draw hundreds of thousands to the city. But Nutter wanted to persuade the pope to attend. Since Nutter is not a Roman Catholic (to my knowledge) and since Philadelphia’s origins are Quaker, the only logical explanation for Nutter’s arm-twisting is commercial. With the presence of the pope, maybe those flocking to Philadelphia will double?
Such attention to the papacy, however, has its downside:
The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope. Lacking such equilibrium and self-possession, the church cannot find its true voice. But to find this voice, Catholics will have to turn not to Rome but toward one another, which is where both the problems and the solutions lie.
The fixation on the papacy trivializes the faith of Catholics, the vast majority of whom throughout history have had little knowledge of, and no contact with, any pope. Traditionally, the papacy was the court of last resort in adjudicating disagreements among the faithful. But in the last century or so it has increasingly become the avenue of first resort, determined to meddle in every theological or ecclesiological dispute. If American nuns are flirting with novel styles of ministry, the Vatican intercedes. If translations of liturgical texts incorporate a bit of inclusive language, Rome takes out its red pencil. This meddling Vatican infantilizes the church’s bishops, who seem to change their tune (as well as their dress) in response to every new papal fashion. Bishops in turn demand deference from the clergy and laity. The consequences have been all too clear: As in any heavily top-down organization, local initiatives fail to gain a foothold, or fizzle out for lack of dynamic leadership, and apathy prevails in the pews. Institutional gridlock and paralysis have become the norm. Seminaries are empty, and clerical talent is thin on the ground.
At the same time, the advantage of the papacy is the one that goes with monarchy more generally. Imagine Mayor Nutter having to fly around to all of the largest dioceses in N. America, Africa, and Europe, to persuade archbishops to attend the conference and to pay for some of their parishioners to visit Philadelphia. It would break the Mayor’s travel budget. So with one person in power comes efficiency and decisiveness (no consensus-building among committee members).
And for that reason, Roman Catholicism will have trouble ever finding the road to the spirituality of the church even when the pope’s real power is merely spiritual.