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Look to Peter, not CEOs, to understand the papacy

By Joseph Wakim - posted Friday, 15 February 2013

Joseph Ratzinger has been hailed for his humility in reminding us all of his humanity. But there is a danger that his retirement message is misconstrued as reducing the Papacy to CEO status.

In public discourse, the secular logic is seductive:

Bravo to the man who finally concedes that this colossal job of being the shepherd over 1.3 billion Catholics belongs to a younger candidate 'due to an advanced age'. It is absurd that this 'top job' be offered to a person aged 78, which is 13 years after most men retire. When popes are so old, they are naturally old fashioned. By his own admission, Pope Benedict XVI shaped a new job description that this person must ' today's world, subject to so many rapid changes' and the key selection for occupying this seat must include 'strength of mind and body' so the candidate can sustain himself. This sets a positive papal precedent that the position is for a limited tenure, pending regular 'fitness' checks, just like any other senior posts. It is no longer some life 'sentence' with no expiry date, but a human job like any CEO that has finally come home to the fold.


It is flawed logic to equate age with ability, when we have seen astute leaders such as John Howard who was still Prime Minister at age 68, yet weary leaders who were much younger who had run out of puff. It is also flawed logic to assume that less years means less conservative.

But there is a more fundamental flaw with these 'logical' inferences: the papacy is not a job, it is Petrine – it is a succession to the apostle Peter. In his brief retirement speech, Benedict refers to 'Saint Peter' on three occasions, and to 'govern the bark of Saint Peter' and the 'See of Saint Peter' may indeed be a hard thing to do. This is apt because Peter found his discipleship difficult and denied knowing his master Jesus three times after the arrest, then Peter affirmed his love for Jesus three times after the resurrection by way of reconciliation.

Can the Petrine Ministry of popes seriously be compared with the tenure of global CEOs?

Popes wear the Fisherman's Ring as a reminder of Peter's profession before following Jesus and this fishing metaphor is used to cast nets to catch people and bring them to the Gospel. CEOs may be expected to market and grow the 'followers' of their company, but not to convert people to their death defying faith.

Peter was far from perfect and renowned for his weaknesses. He failed to stay awake when his master agonized alone before being arrested. He failed to stand by his master during the persecution, trial and crucifixion. Given this cowardly character, popes should not be afraid to face their own failings in the shadow of the first encumbent. However, CEOs displaying such disloyalty are normally dismissed or disciplined, not given an opportunity for forgiveness and salvation like Peter.

Peter was anointed for his honesty and his rock solid faith when Jesus announced 'You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.' CEOs are given a limited tenure with regular reviews depending on their ability to achieve key performance indicators. They are not given eternal shares in the company and promises of a place in paradise.


Peter was the first apostle to perform a miracle after the resurrection. After devoting the rest of his life to preaching and converting, and casting his new net out far and wide, Peter was imprisoned, persecuted and crucified upside down because he was 'not worthy' to die like his master. CEOs are normally protected and indemnified by Pty Ltd status and cannot normally be personally prosecuted.

This does not mean that the Petrine Ministry and the Via Dolorosa (the way of suffering) needs to be taken literally by popes like stations of the cross. But it does mean that the job description of the 'papal primacy' must honor the 'apostolic primacy' of Peter.

Popes do not need to be persecuted, imprisoned or crucified. But they do need to rise above the mortal call of duty, and step aside when they morally feel that what they can offer is 'not worthy' of the Petrine Ministry. As Pope Benedict put it: 'my strengths…are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry'. Like Peter who self censored himself for his weaknesses, Benedict also humbled himself to 'ask pardon for all my defects'.

So before we strip down the papacy to a modern day CEO, this needs to be juxtaposed against the modern meaning of a Petrine Ministry. It cannot be compared with CEO, or MD, president or monarch because all of these are seats that are made on earth, not made in heaven.

Therefore, it is a fallacy to misunderstand Pope Benedict as pathing the way for a more tenuous papal seat. Instead, he is actually fulfilling and following the way of Peter.

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About the Author

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

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