Does Rome Have An Eternal Covenant?

The city that self-identifies as “eternal,” think about it: is it a given that Rome will always be at the center of Western Catholicism?

Roman Christians came to recognition in early Christianity not only because they lived in the foremost city of western civilization, but because of their steadfast witness of faith in the most trying and horrific of circumstances. Other Christians, as I understand my history, gave Rome a listening ear because if you’re persisting in faith in the face of martyrdom, you must be doing something right.

I noticed the tussle in the combox about the supposed “coterminal” nature of “this” Church (I assume Roman) with Jesus Christ. And it got me thinking. Rome as a human city isn’t eternal. In several million years, Africa will ride up through the Mediterranean and mountains like the Himalayas will result. If humans are still alive and on the planet, and if Rome has ceased to exist due to continental drift, will Catholics likewise be adrift without Rome?

Maybe that’s too far in the distant future to consider. In Harry Turtledove’s alternate history work on alien invasion during World War II, Rome suffers a nuclear attack. The author doesn’t treat the religious impact within Catholicism or Christendom in his novel. What happens to Catholics without Rome? We know Christ doesn’t end with the destruction or death of an earthly city, right?

Getting back to the “coterminal” discussion–I would have used the mathematical term “congruent,” by the way. When the hierarchy of the Church acts in a sinful way, I certainly don’t think we can say that Christ resides with that part of the Church–not unless we want to junk Dominus Iesus for starters and move from there. Such people have removed themselves from Christ. No matter what degrees of ordination they have received, or what their forebears in the faith have done.

Suppose Rome were to give a witness contrary to the Gospel, and to render it in a scandalously public way that would negate the tradition of the martyrs. Could a local Church, even Rome, give such a witness that the rest of Christendom, or even Catholicism, would rebuke it in such a way so as to lose a certain stature? Suppose Rome were to be found to have harbored sex offenders of children, and the cry of outrage and condemnation were such that it lost all credibility? What if Catholics had to choose between evangelization or even survival as a religious tradition and Rome itself?

I wouldn’t see this as the end of Catholicism. But maybe there’s a deeper ecclesiological issue at stake. Maybe Rome is essential for Catholicism. What would that mean if human beings lived on other planets or in other star systems in millennia to come? Would Rome still be relevant if it were light years away?

So what do you think? Is Rome the city essential for Catholicism? Is the bishop of Rome essential for the Church? If so, what happens if and when Rome ceases to be a viable city or community? If not, how bad does it have to get? What happens if a public witness of sin and human fallibility were to erase the witness of Roman martyrs?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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17 Responses to Does Rome Have An Eternal Covenant?

  1. bill bannon says:

    I would like to see the magisterium leave Rome soon. They once did and were in Avignon for quite some time which means it was not eternal even historically. You’ll notice that your question 200 years ago if asked by a Catholic…would have included the whole of central Italy which Pio Nono saw as essential and God permitted it to be taken away from the Church (I’m often surprised Castel Gandalfo didn’t go also). I often wonder how many poor people the world over convert because they want to be with a financial winner which is the impression Vatican City gives those who are far away and poor….irrespective of all the explanations (guarding art treasures for the world et al). Christ allowed the nard to be used on Him by the woman but He gives the reason….for His burial. We chose to forget the reason and imitate that one tiny moment of luxury out of His life of non affluence and make it rather than His lowliness…the standard of of our headquarters. I think it has a bad effect on why millions from the third world convert and then we are surprised to see priests in Africa with unofficial wives. No one converts to the Amish for carnal reasons of wanting to be with a financial winner. They have problems with runaways to some extent but they have none of our problems with non unity of those who don’t run away in their teens.

  2. Liam says:

    Well, the Church actually lived through an extended era where the bishop of Rome did not live in the city of Rome. And it was succeeded by another era (shorter but still extended) when there were two, then three, claimants to the see.

    And the kicker is that this wasn’t even the nadir of the see. (For which, see much of the 10th and early 11th centuries.)

    The see is, in other words, one mighty tough bird to count out. Rome the Idea, like Jerusalem the Idea, is not bound by its walls of stone.

    The draw of the see and the city is such that the official name of the city that tried to supplant it is New Rome (Nova Roma: aka Constantinople), and has had its nadirs. And Moscow in turn tried to be the Third Rome (it too has had its share of nadirs).

    Interestingly, I am not aware of any historical argument about Antioch as a Petrine see with any kind of universal primacy.

    Because, while the Petrine foundation of the Roman see is well known, what is less commonly remembered today was the fusion of the witness of Peter and Paul. It’s not for nothing that the relics of the heads of both apostles are enshrined above the high altar of Rome’s cathedral, and that when bishops visit Rome on their required official visits, they are considered to be visiting the shrines of both apostles.

  3. Liam says:

    And, I should add, that two popes in succession were imprisoned in France by Napoleon (Pius VI and Pius VII). Pius VI had the foresight to arrange for a conclave at the island monastery of S Giorgio Maggiore in Venice (even though Venice was within the Napoleonic empire at that point, Venice has always been a place that’s hard to control from a distance) to elect his successor.

    When the archives of Pius XII are fully revealed, we may discover how he intended to deal with being captured and perhaps executed by the Germans. The cathedral chapter of Rome (the College of Cardinals in more formal guise nowadays) has has managed to elect popes when popes have been taken prisoner and martyred. The residual custom could readily revive if chaos did.

  4. Dale Price says:

    For me, it’s answered by this question: is Rome a “holy city”? No, even though it is a site of pilgrimage, I don’t think Catholicism identifies with the earthly Rome the same way Jews do with Jerusalem and (especially) Muslims do with Mecca. Rome is a city with more than one identity (pagan/Imperial/Catholic), which means that Catholicism doesn’t identify with the Urb in those terms.

  5. Jason says:

    Walter Miller also imagines a fictional relocation of the Vatican in his dystopian sci-fi novel, “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” set 1000 years in the future, 600 years after a catastrophic nuclear war destroys 20th century civilization, in which the papacy is relocated to New Rome, somewhere in the vicinity of present day St. Louis, complete with Papal States. In this story, the institution not only survives, but retains its moral authority in the surviving world.

    (It’s really a fantastic novel–the kind that appeals to people not normally interested in sci-fi.)

  6. Jason says:

    (I did the math wrong…it starts out 600 years in the future, after nuclear war destroys 20th century civilization, and follows in three parts, each 600 years after the previous.)

  7. smf says:

    I would make only two points. One, Rome has in fact faced scandal of the greatest possible sort in the past, even involving the papal household. This did not end the role of Rome.

    Second, during the time the pope was note in Rome, did not one of the women religious now a saint admonish him to go to Rome?

    In any case, it is quite possible to imagine that perhaps the see of Rome could survive long after the city does. After all, there are titular sees today for places that no longer exist at all, often used by officials of the Holy See in fact.

  8. bill bannon says:

    The tertiary not nun, St.Catherine of Siena who lived with her father urged the Avignon Popes to return.

  9. Jimmy Mac says:

    I just finished listening to Now You Know Media’s CD series on Vatican II by John O’Malley, SJ.

    In his ending summary, he covered some possibilities for the future reflections of, by and for the church. He did talk against a Vatican III Council. He believes that, reflecting the makeup and growth of the church now and for the apparent foreseeable future, it would be more appropriate to have a Kinshasa I, Nairobi I or Sao Paolo I.

    Until and if this church gives more than lip service to its universality, it will continue to be viewed as a European, church with limited relevance to the non-European world, wherein its growth will be. Wait until we have the next non-European pontiff. There will then be enormous pressure on him to stress the other ways of being church other than parroting architecture, raiment and theologies that were crafted in another time and place for other peoples.

  10. Jimmy Mac says:

    Coterminous: “Linked or related and expiring together; Having matching boundaries; or, adjoining and sharing a boundary; Having the same scope, range of meaning, or extent in time; Meeting end to end or at the ends.”

  11. Liam says:

    Hardly a generation has gone by since the sack of Rome in AD 410 that Rome’s decline into irrelevance has been feared, hoped for, or expected. The expression of those fears, hopes, and expectations usually say more about those who posit them than about Rome itself. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….

  12. Sean says:

    I was thinking about Rome reaching out to Lefebvre recently and it I have been wondering what would happen if the half to two thirds of Catholics who don’t go to church anymore started their own church. If it was in the United States, it could have a lot of financial resources and maybe could bring Rome to heel. Rome seems to respond to power more readily than begging and being nice.

    Maybe that would be a good impetus for change in the long run.

    Just a question to put out there.

  13. Liam says:


    Nice thought, but most people who leave already have an array of choices to suit their combination of preferences, and even then many do not bother. Inertia is powerful. Founding *and sustaining* a new church takes enormous amount of energy that most people lack.

  14. Jimmy Mac says:

    There is no need to found and sustain a new church. I have been part of doing exactly that a few years back and it can be an excruciating exercise.

    There are many churches whose membership has been strengthened and expanded by an influx of former Romans. They are usually welcomed with open arms, much moreseo than they were in their own former church.

  15. FrLarry says:

    I don’t know about Rome, but if global warming continues and the ocean levels rise, the see of Venice will have to move somewhere this century. There could be a lot of sees on the move!

  16. Liam says:

    Well, Venice itself inherited the patriarchates of two former sees in the northern Adriatic: Grado and Aquilaea. Venice knows about titular sees….

  17. pauline Dewey says:

    Are you people even Catholic? Rome is eternal-“And this is how we came to Rome”-book of Acts. The blood of the matyrs-Cosmos, Damien, St Sebastian makes it Holy ground-I’m sorry you seem to show such little faith-“It is said that,to be connected with the chuch is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers, & hypocrites of every description. It also at the same time, identifies you with saints, & the finest persons of heroic soul of every time, country, race & gender. To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin & the finest heroism of soul because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves.”Fr. Rotheiser. Godbless.

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