Is the Pope always right?? He is infallible, after all. The second Sunday of Advent marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the First Vatican Council. Times. At this bishops' meeting, there was controversy about the role of the pope.
Interviewer: The pope as the final authority in matters of faith. Why was that in the 19. The Church of the Twentieth Century is not as uncontroversial as we might think today?
Jan-Heiner Tuck (Professor at the Institute for Systematic Theology of the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Vienna): In the background of the definition of the first Vatican Council, which is certainly the most significant event in church history of the 19. In order to understand the decision, there are three historical traumas that must be taken into account.
This is, first, conciliarism, which places the council above the pope, i.e., also says that papal doctrinal decisions are valid only if they meet with the approval of the bishops. Secondly, the trauma that there is state interference in the freedom of the church, starting with the French Revolution under Napoleon quite massively. And third, the field of conflict associated with Enlightenment rationalism and political liberalism. In contrast, then, the authority of the pope is to be strengthened. First of all, this is the background that you have to have in mind in order to classify the whole thing.
Interviewer: But formally one must say that the pope is actually also "only" a bishop, namely the bishop of Rome. Why did he get so much power in the course of the centuries??
Tuck: Behind this, of course, are centuries of developments. In the first millennium, one can say, the pope was a witness of faith, in the second millennium the role of the pope has also taken on political contours. He received, in short, the function of an absolute monarch. And this transfer, actually, of the state concept of absolute sovereignty to the pope and his primacy, that is quasi in the background of the first Vatican Council.
Interviewer: And yet there were also critics of the planned dogma of infallibility at the Council. Why could they not actually assert themselves??
Tuck: In the run-up to the Council, Henri Maret and Ignaz von Dollinger criticized the emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of the Pope as a break with tradition, because the role of the bishops was virtually overplayed. This criticism was also accepted by the minority (Minderheit) of the Council bishops, but was not able to prevail, because the ultramontane movement, which sought quasi refuge with the Pope and wanted to establish here an anchor point also of the Catholic Church, ultimately prevailed. The minority bishops then also left before the final vote, in order not to snub the then Pope Pius IX. not to snub.
Interviewer: The background was, after all, the Franco-Prussian War, which there, as a secular event, had quite practical effects on the First Vatican Council. What advantages did it have for the Church at that time that through the dogma the Pope became indisputable as the supreme guardian of the faith??
Tuck: The matter is of course rather complex. The Council represented a torso. It had to be broken off prematurely because of the war, so the doctrine of primacy is not embedded in an overall ecclesiological conception. That is certainly a disadvantage. This was then interpreted in such a way that the pope was attributed all competences and that an episcopal co-responsibility for the leadership of the whole church was excluded.
I think that this interpretation is wrong, because it is clear from the acts of the Council that the College of Bishops was granted a co-responsibility for the whole Church; however, this did not find its way into the definition. There is talk of the pope being able to decide on his own, "ex sese", as it is called in Latin. It says so explicitly, because they did not want to accommodate conciliarism or Gallicanism in any way. But very important is also the attitude that Pius IX had. This is the position taken by the German bishops vis-à-vis the declaration of the German bishops, who, in opposition to Otto von Bismarck, at that time asserted the independence of the bishops even vis-à-vis the pope.
In the background there is a secret circular dispatch that Bismarck had sent to the European heads of state at that time, where he had spoken of the absolute monarch and had seen the bishops in the role of mere civil servants or executive organs. The German bishops oppose this, and Pius IX affirms and supports this protest against Bismarck. Rarely have the German bishops been so praised from Rome as they were then. But that means that the primacy cannot be interpreted in a maximalist way, so that there could no longer be any question of a co-responsibility of the bishops.
That means for us today, also after the Second Vatican Council, which supplemented the first one, that primacy and episcopacy, that is, the role of the pope and the role of the community of bishops, have to be brought into a new balance if we want to make progress.
Interviewer: The Second Vatican Council then took up the ies again about 100 years later, such as the role of bishops, the role of priests. These days, after all, Pope Francis emphasizes the communion of bishops and says again and again that the role of bishops on the ground is important, locally, in the local church. How can a good balance between the pope and the local churches be achieved nowadays??
Tuck: First of all, it must be said that the Second Vatican Council has not yet solved the problems, because two ecclesiological concepts stand side by side: on the one hand, the communio model, which emphasizes the community of bishops, and on the other hand, the model of the church as a hierarchically structured "societas perfecta" that follows on from the First Vatican Council. Now, after the Council, there was initially a tendency to strengthen Roman centralism again.
This can be done under John Paul II. who has pushed through bishop appointments past the local churches, who – as is well known – has also ied bans on discussion. Pope Francis has now programmatically initiated a salutary decentralization, that is, he wants to strengthen synodal elements. This can be observed in the synods of bishops, which have always begun with surveys, where the faith of the faithful is asked, so all problems are openly and frankly put on the table and then discussed in synods, so to speak, with the bishops present. This is certainly a strength and also a correction of the steep doctrine of primacy of the First Vatican Council.
Nevertheless, I would caution against a romantic transfiguration of synodality, because a universal church like the Catholic Church also needs an office of unity, so that the store does not fly apart in the face of the disparity of simultaneous tendencies. In conclusion, this means that we must conceptualize the primacy of the pope in such a way that, in the words of the fundamental theologian Hermann Josef Pottmeyer, it takes the form of a communion primacy, where unity and diversity are brought into balance in such a way that it can be promising for the future and perhaps also ecumenically more acceptable.
The interview was conducted by Mathias Peter.