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The Reality of Restored Papal Authority
Pope Francis Asserts Authority of the
Papacy at Synod of Bishops
by Thomas D. Williams, Ph. D.
In his most important address yet to the bishops gathered for the Vatican Synod
on the Family, Pope Francis reasserted his authority Saturday, reminding the
bishops that the synod operates “not only with Peter, but also under Peter.”
“The synodal path culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome,” Francis said,
who is “called to teach as ‘Pastor and Teacher of all Christians,’ not from his
own personal convictions, but as supreme witness of the faith of the whole
Although the Pope gave a nod to proposals of his predecessors John Paul II and
Benedict XVI for a rethinking of the exercise of the papacy, he left no doubt
regarding who is calling the shots.
The pope, Francis said, guarantees “the obedience and the conformity of the
Church to the will of God, the Gospel of Christ and the Church’s tradition.”
“The fact that the synod always operates with Peter and under Peter—thus, not
only with Peter but also under Peter—is not a limitation of freedom but a
guarantee of unity,” Francis said.
“In fact, by the Lord’s will, the pope is the perpetual and visible sign and
foundation of the unity, both of the bishops and the multitude of the faithful,”
he said. So the bishops are united to the Bishop of Rome through episcopal
communion, “and at the same time hierarchically subject to him as Head of the
College,” he added.
At the same time, Francis said, this hierarchy, unlike that of the powerful of
this world, must be understood as an “upside-down pyramid,” with the vertex at
the bottom rather than the top. Those who exercise authority are called
“ministers” because, according to the original meaning of the word, “they are
the smallest of all,” he said.
And just as Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, Francis said,
“the successor of Peter himself is nothing but the servant of the servants of
God (servus servorum Dei).”
For the disciples of Jesus, Francis insisted, “the only authority is the
authority of service, and the only power is the power of the cross.”
And so, he continued, in a “synodal Church,” the Pope “is not by himself above
the Church, but within her as a baptized member among the baptized” and “a
bishop among the bishops.”
And yet he is also called as Peter’s successor “to guide the Church of Rome that
presides in love over all the Churches.”
As the Bishop of Rome, I know well that Christ ardently desires the full and
visible communion of all Christians, he said. “I am convinced that in this, I
have a particular responsibility” and must seek “a way of exercising the primacy
which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is
nonetheless open to a new situation,” he said, quoting Pope John Paul II.
Despite his forceful reaffirmations of the centrality of the role of the Pope in
the Church, Francis also spoke of a need for greater “decentralization” and an
increased role for ecclesiastical provinces and regions, special councils, and
especially Episcopal conferences in the governance of the Church.
In a synodal Church, he said, “it is not appropriate for the pope to replace the
local episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their
territories. In this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.