A 'religious pope': what difference it could make for the Catholic Church

By Simon Barrow
March 13, 2013

Unsurprisingly, the Jesuits are celebrating tonight that one of their own has become the first member of the Society of Jesus to be elected pope in the history of the Catholic Church.

That he is from a religious order of a particular character may be very significant in shaping this papacy, even if it proves to be a transitional one, as initial expectations suggest.

In an article circulated today, Gemma Simmonds CJ, from Heythrop College, University of London, asked in the online journal Thinking Faith, 'Time for a religious pope?' (http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130311_2.htm)

She explained: "The modern Church has become dangerously top-heavy through the increasing centralisation of power. Despite the personal sanctity and right intentions of the post-conciliar pontiffs, the abuse of power has flourished throughout its structures. A different approach to authority is what the Church needs now, and the place to look for this could well be in the rules of religious orders. The last pope to be ‘a religious’ in the full sense of being a member of a religious order was the Benedictine Gregory XVI (1831-46); perhaps it is time for another religious pope.

"Religious are accustomed to taking up the power of office only to lay it down again once their term is over. A pope with a deep-seated instinct for consultation and consensus, such as is found among the mendicant and monastic orders, would perhaps be more likely to take seriously Vatican II’s implicit and explicit teaching on subsidiarity. This would mean allowing local churches their proper level of self-determination and including widespread consultation of experts on the ground, whether clerical or lay, as a normative part of decision-making processes. It would mean having structures of governance that are more transparent, accountable and inclusive, presided over by a pope who provides a model to all in authority in the Church of being among the community as one who serves.

"The rhetoric of dialogue within religious orders is also very powerful. It can be a major challenge to achieve consensus within a worldwide body of people, often from radically different cultures and religious outlooks, despite living according to the same rule. Most orders have hierarchical structures of authority rather than functioning as a workers’ co-operative. In religious life the decision-making processes are predicated on the notion that discernment is a gift given not only to individual leaders but to the body as a whole, made up of all its members, whether those mandated to govern or play a specific spiritual role, or the ordinary members. The Augustinian Rule, on which many other orders, such as the Dominicans, base their life, gives due deference to authority. It warns those who have it not to abase themselves unnecessarily in front of those whom they have had to reprove in case it undermines their office, but it reminds them to ask forgiveness of God, if not of the erring brother or sister.

"So the dynamic of forgiveness and humility, but also of a measured understanding of the boundaries proper within the exercise of authority, lies at the heart of religious life. In practice, there have been monsters of autocracy in religious orders just as in any other walk of life, but the theoretical ideal is clear, and it has often held remarkably well. Authority is seen primarily in terms of service, but the subtlety of the relationship on both sides is made clear, with those in decision-making positions holding not only practical responsibility but also spiritual responsibility for the outcomes in terms of other people’s lives."

* Read the whole article, Gemma Simmonds CJ, 'Time for a religious pope?', Thinking Faith, March 2013, here: http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130311_2.htm

* Papal #conclave: news, comment, background and analysis from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/PapalConclave

* Analysis: What can we expect from Pope Francis I?, by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18166


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church with strong Anabaptist/Mennonite leanings, he has worked at a Catholic university college in the past, as well as within the ecumenical movement. He has a long-standing interest in, and appreciation for, Catholic spirituality and liturgy, alongside the peace and justice traditions of the Catholic Church.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.