When leaders—be they Presidents or Popes—reach insecurity and uncertainty they often assert ascendancy and primacy.
In the sacramental ritual of ordination in Johns’ gospel, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in 13:1-17. All accepted that liturgical rite except for one objector: “Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’” (13:8). So Peter gave in. Then followed these words of the sacrament with Jesus speaking:
“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (13:2).
That is John’s sacrament of priestly ordination and mandate for ecclesiastical leadership. And that final sentence sounds to me like a warning, like an expectation of non-compliance: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (13:2).
Then, at the start of his next chapter, John has Jesus make this deeply enigmatic promise: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (14:2). I take that to mean that there are diverse forms within the full spectrum of Christianity. I consider Roman Catholicism one of those “dwelling places”—a rather big one, to be sure, but, then, there is nothing in John about size counting towards precedence.
All Christian leadership is mandated by, and modeled on, Jesus—outside of that basis it has no validity even if habit or custom, fear or power, can establish sovereignty. Validity demands accountability and transparency and, without, those aspects, leadership will soon be corrupt and evil. As Jesus said later in John, “I have spoken openly to the world” (18:20)—openly—without lies, cover-ups, witnesses silenced, victims bribed, legal protections, or judicial evasions.
The papacy and hierarchy of Roman Catholicism have failed both its community and its tradition by refusing their sacramental vocation as envisioned in John’s gospel. That vocation is to lead by serving from below rather than by ruling from above. .And, once again, it is Peter that sets the contemporaray example—be it for resistance or acceptance, be it for obedience or disobedience.
At precisely this moment in history, an assertion that the Roman Catholic Church is the fullest expression of Christ’s will is almost like a very bad joke. It invites the obvious response that it may be the emptiest. In Another’s words: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?’” (6:46).