Our Holy Church does not believe that the Bishop of Rome holds any special office or power, and we categorically deny the various “dogmas” these men have proclaimed over the past several centuries (Infallibility as well as the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of the B.V.M.). The word “pope” is not part of our vocabulary. Of course in charity we wish Bishop Ratzinger, a brother in Christ, well in his retirement. We also take this opportunity to pray that the Roman Church’s leadership takes this chance to recant of its dogmatic errors and in doing so work toward a unity among Churches based on model of the Church as it existed in the first millennium, a Church that is unified and Conciliar
Our denomination began on the second Sunday of March, 1897 – nearly 126 years ago. We celebrate the gift of our Holy Church every year on the Solemnity of the Institution of the PNCC, which the Third General Synod of 1914 declared to fall on the second Sunday of March. On this Sunday the parishes of our Church remove the Lenten purple from their sanctuaries and replace them with flowers. The Gloria is again recited and the vestments are white or gold. On this special feast day we celebrate our religious freedom and our Catholic democracy.
It is important to consider some history in light of recent events. As the Bishop of Rome nears retirement, the Roman Church will meet to elect a successor. Such a resignation has not occurred for six centuries. That previous resignation was to bring an end to a period of men competing for the office who were ensconced in and supported by the powers of those days: France and Rome. What we do not see discussed in the media are the politics, bribery, and military force that played a deciding factor in this extended period of intrigue. The intrigue rose to such an extent that the office of the Bishop of Rome was deemed compromised.
A nascent democratic movement, referred to as the Conciliar Movement, arose in opposition to this corruption. The supporters of the Conciliar Movement insisted that ecumenical councils be held regularly and independently, and that they function as the highest Church body. The Council of Pisa in 1409 attempted to limit the authority of the Bishop of Rome’s office, and also elected a third contender for the office in an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the factions in France and Rome. The principle of the supremacy of the Council over the Bishop of Rome was affirmed by the Council of Constance in 1414-1418, which actually voided the authority of the sitting Bishop of Rome and elected a single replacement. The Conciliar Movement continued through the Council of Basel less than 20 years later. Unfortunately, the Bishop of Rome once again seized absolute power and tried to destroy the Conciliar movement in a competing and more successful Council in Florence.
Bishop Hodur knew this history. He immortalized Jan Hus (who was condemned at the Council of Constance and was killed despite a pledge of indemnity) in a stained glass window of our Cathedral in Scranton. It was Hus who argued against the assumed power of the Bishop of Rome and called for a return to “gospel poverty.” He spoke of the true Church as opposed to the hierarchical one, championing ecclesiastical democracy, all of which led to his being burned at the stake for heresy.
In celebrating the founding of our democratic Catholic church, we celebrate the continuation of the Conciliar Movement. The PNCC Constitution of 1922 stated:
“The task of the Synod is to: 1. Interpret authoritatively the bases of faith and morals; … In matters concerning religion and morals, the Synod decides unanimously; in national and social matters, as well as administrative ones [it decides] by a simple majority of votes.”
According to the report of the 1935 Synod, Bishop Grochowski was not anxious about this democratic authority, but rather extolled it as truly Christian:
“Bishop Grochowski announced the order of the Synod and informed the Synod that the Synod is the most important authority in the church. It was so from the very beginning of Christianity, but with the passage of time the clergy took away from the faithful those rights which the National Church returns to those belonging to it.” (Minutes, p. 190)
With an eye to the Conciliar Movement, Bishop Hodur wrote in the 1931 catechism:
“These priests, especially of the higher rank, cultivate under the guise of the religion of Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, and Mohammed worldly politics, personal business, and very often stand in complete contradiction to divine principles of pure religion, democratic issues, general enlightenment, the welfare of the masses, freedom of conscience, brotherhood, and social justice.”
Reflecting on these words we see the prophecy contained therein. In recent days, Roman Catholic Bishop, Keith Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland, spoke out publicly to urge an end to required celibacy for clergy (the PNCC has allowed its clergy to marry since 1921). Within a day making such a declaration he was publicly accused by other clergy of inappropriate behavior. Odd how the struggle to maintain the status quo and to stifle voices for reform rears its head. The politics of such a process cannot be hidden away as it once was.
Our Church’s remedy to inordinate power and corruption is a democratic model of Church consistent with the ideals of the Conciliar Movement and more importantly earliest Christianity. It is time that Roman Catholics consider whether the voice of the Bishop of Rome is preeminent or whether they should find a home which is modeled on Church of the first millennium, one that is at once fully Catholic and free, democratic, and Conciliar.
My thanks to Fr. Randolph Calvo of Holy Name of Jesus in South Deerfield, Massachusetts for his words, which I have significantly borrowed, and which inspired this writing