The Problem with Universal Jurisdiction

Maureen Mullarky fears a resurgence of anti-Catholicism in response to Pope Francis’ discussions of economic and political matters:

As Francis’ insinuates himself into geopolitics and seeks to influence America’s immigration policies, Blanshard’s long-dormant question—Is this a foreign power?— begins to stir. Catholics themselves recoil from his will to inflate the episcopal jurisdiction of the Chair of Peter into an imperial mandate to determine secular agendas. Catholics and non-Catholics alike wince at the spectacle of Francis grinning delightedly with Iran’s President Rouhani. They shrink from his embrace of Raúl Castro, wonder at his regard for major figures of liberation theology, and resent his effort to undermine American authority over its own borders.

A solution to this would be a pastor who only ministers God’s word.

But the complications of universal jurisdiction become more complex. Imagine what a Roman pontiff will do with a Donald Trump presidency:

the Vatican is surely worried about the candidacy of Donald Trump. Vatican diplomats tend to be drawn from the same families, attend the same schools, and read the same magazines and newspapers, as their secular counterparts. It is no secret that the governments of Europe are appalled and frightened at the prospect of a Trump presidency, and that fright is surely shared at the Vatican. And, because opposition to immigrants is such a central part of Trump’s political rise, and concern for immigrants has been such a central focus of Pope Francis’ articulation of the Church’s social doctrine, it surely occurred to the Vatican leadership that an archbishop who has spent the last nine years in Mexico could be uniquely valuable at this point in time. As well, immigration is one issue on which the U.S. bishops are not only united, but on which they are totally in sync with the Vatican.

Again, the solution may be to worry less about worldly matters and attend more to the keys of the kingdom, the one not of this world.

But what if having all that power and having so much to say about the world’s affairs leads to pride?

Pope Francis, it seems to me, is described as a “humble” leader for a few reasons:

He rejects various aspects of papal ceremonial.
He moved out of the papal apartments.
He says things like bishops should “smell like their sheep.”
He emphasizes the “bishop of Rome” title.
He says he values decentralization and dialogue, has had a Synod and tweaked the Curial structures just a bit.


But perhaps it is also fair to ask…

..knowing the role of the Pope, and understanding how easily misunderstood the role of the Pope is by most people today, is it a mark of humble leadership to allow your own words to become the dominant public face of Catholicism – on a daily basis?

So here’s the paradox. No, the contradiction: to brush away certain external expressions of papal authority while actually doubling down on the authority. Communicating in one way the supposed diminishing of the role while at the same time using the role to speak authoritatively to the entire world out of your own priorities on a daily basis.

If this isn’t clear, think of it this way: Change up the situation and imagine it happening in your workplace, your school or your parish with a new boss, principal or pastor.

What would you think then?

Here’s another comparison:

The Catholic Mass developed over time as an elaborate ritual in which the priest-celebrant was hidden behind a mysterious language, ceremony and vestments. It was, it was claimed, necessary to strip all of that so that the people could more directly encounter Christ. The end result is that all we have to look at now is the priest, and the “proper” celebration of Mass is completely dependent on his personal manner and how his style makes us feel.

One wonders if this is the best way to encourage humble leadership.

For all the reforms of Vatican II, the legacy of papal supremacy haunts even the least hierarchical of popes.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Universal Jurisdiction

  1. Bonhoffer—The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. gives us the “biblicist” and “New Testament” answer.

    We are saved by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone. HOWEVER, in the New Testament believers express their faith in the context of a local church where the word is preached, the sacraments are administered, and where elders disciple those entrusted to their care, and exercise discipline when necessary…
    Christians themselves are called to take personal responsibility for their own growth and maturity, but this should not be done without pastoral oversight… New Testament spirituality is primarily centered around the regular gathering of believers under teachers and pastors and elders…


  2. What this article assumes is that statements on systmes used in this world, such as economics, does not come, at least to some extent, from God’s Word. Such would imply that economic systems, or at least the one we are employing, are completely neutral with respect to God’s Word.

    In addition, what this article forgets is history. A history that says in times of turmoil, such as prior to the French, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions when the Church has sided either actively or passively with the status quo, then the forces of any kind of change will understandably target the Church as an opponent of change and progress. Thus, the Church has provided a stumbling block to hearing the Gospel for those who are working for change.

    So the Church has a choice between trying to speak prophetically to the world or siding with the status quo. At this point one must judge the Church, the Pope in this instance, not in terms of general actions, but in terms of specific statements made. For either we can support or oppose the right or obigation of the Church, the Pope in this instance, to speak on subjects like economics, or we can judge what was actually said. And there should not be an exclusive or here. For it would be a mistake to oppose the obligation or right for the Church to speak on economic issues if what the Church was saying about economics was biblically sound.


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