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Where Would We Go without a Pope?

The other day I was bored so I watched the movie “Angels and Demons” on Time Warner’s On Demand.

The central premise of this movie is that some ancient enemies of the Church were conspiring to bring about its end. The way they planned to do this was to destroy St. Peter’s Basilica during a papal conclave. The reasoning? By destroying that church and all the cardinals in it, the Catholic Church would therefore cease to exist.


First of all, the Church is not the institution. It will continue to exist despite such a calamity.

Secondly, St. Peter’s Basilica is not the center of Catholicism. If you want to pick some building that is the center of the Church, it would not be St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s is important because it is a pilgrimage church built upon the grave of St. Peter. The actual Mother Church of the Catholic faith is the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the seat of the bishop of Rome.

But let’s indulge Dan Brown for a moment. Suppose there was no pope and all the cardinals were victims of an antimatter attack on a conclave. From an institutional standpoint, who would lead the Catholic Church?

The answer is deceptively simple and rooted in our ancient Christian history. It has to do with the concept of the Five Ancient Patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. These are the five ancient centers of Christianity, and they are ranked in order of importance. Each of them has a modern bishop that follows their ancient tradition, except Jerusalem, where a Latin (Roman Catholic) patriarch is anachronistically installed along with bishops of other Christian traditions. Jerusalem is the only ancient patriarchate that has not produced a distinct liturgical, theological and cultural tradition in modern times.

Rome is the first in honor of all the ancient patriarchal sees. It was always considered the final court of appeal, so to speak. So if Rome were institutionally decimated, the answer from our Christian history is quite simple. Jurisdiction would revert to Constantinople as the second see. The reconstitution of the Roman hierarchy and the election of the Bishop of Rome would become the responsibility of His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch, the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Patriarch of Constantinople would have to arrange for the succession of the Roman Pontiff and the safeguarding of the Roman tradition.

The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church would therefore be worked out in a small building, called the Phenar, in the middle of Istanbul, in Turkey, a predominately Muslim country. There the Ecumenical Patriarch would be challenged to do what is best for the world’s one billion Roman Catholics while respecting the differences between his own tradition and the Roman tradition. Most likely we can assume he would do an admirable job, as he already presides over a diverse communion of many independent Orthodox churches. One imagines he would handle it as all leaders of Orthodox Churches are chosen: election by synod. He would call a synod of all Roman Catholic bishops to elect the new bishop of Rome.

Dan Brown, for all his ridiculous notions and silly ecclesiology, may have given us something significant to ponder. If such a catastrophe as depicted in “Angels and Demons” were to occur, it would not be the end of Christianity, but rather a new era for the disciples of Jesus. Through the fraternal, pastoral intervention of Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism would be saved. And God, as is his wont, would pull triumph from tragedy, bringing us a new vision of Christian unity through the power of the Holy Spirit. The politics and theological dialogues we have engaged in to date would suddenly wither in importance in the face of such a concrete expression of unity in diversity. And we would be catapulted toward the vision of Jesus that all his followers would be one.

So let’s not categorically dismiss the effects of Dan Brown’s blockbuster. It’s certainly laughable on many levels, but perhaps it can make us consider anew what the Church truly is. The Church is not the institution, or the pope, or the cardinals. It is all the baptized, including the Orthodox, who stand ready to rise to our aid from the mists of history if we ever need it. Should we pray that such an intervention never becomes necessary?

2 Responses to “Where Would We Go without a Pope?”

  1. Oh Eric – this is good, really really good. Thank you for posting this, it is meant to be shared more widely.

    I have not seen the film but, back in the days of my frequent travel, I read the book. It is not hard to get me going on Dan Brown!

    Anyway, thank you for this very insightful piece.

  2. Fran recommended your post on FB. I’m glad I came and read it as it just delighted me. Thanks to you I have learned something I did not know and which fills my heart with laughter and happiness.
    Not that Dan Brown has ever seemed theologically relevant to me (I loved the Da Vinci Code, but found the end weak — and the feminist in me loved to see the Vatican rattled).
    Anyway, I will forward your reflection as it is truly seminal.
    Thank you.

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