It all starts in a restaurant not far from the Vatican. Over spaghetti and vino, the author, a Catholic journalist, converses with a “Vaticanologist” about the future of the papacy. His colleague believes in defining papal authority downward.

Russell Shaw is reporting, but he's not buying.

In his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), Pope John Paul II invited the Christian world to suggest new ways for the pope to exercise primacy in the Church. This book reports on the resulting dialogue, citing contributions from Anglican and Orthodox theologians as well as Catholic responses from bishops and radicals.

It seems that a lot of people would like to “tame” the pope. Many want to decentralize authority in the Church and give more autonomy to the local bishop. Some contrive democratic structures for consultation and papal elections. There's even been a call for term limits. Shaw surveys this entire landscape, providing an insightful reflection for Feb. 22, feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

With a veteran reporter's analytical eye, Shaw details the Church's perennial struggle to maintain independence from worldly powers, from Constantine to Napoleon. In the crucible of history, the Church learned that the pope has the last word in doctrinal disputes and that pronouncements of an ecumenical council are valid only when approved by the bishop of Rome. Shaw demonstrates how the nature of the papacy became more clearly understood as a succession of pontiffs navigated the bark of Peter between the whirlpool of conciliarism and the jagged boulders of Caesaro-papism.

Vatican I defined the doctrine of papal infallibility in the mid-19th century, but political unrest interrupted the council before its work was completed. The Second Vatican Council made progress toward a definition of the bishops' role in the Church, in their respective dioceses and collectively. Vatican II, so to speak, painted the second panel of the diptych. The question in many minds today is, how does collegiality work in practice? Exactly how should the two panels be hinged together?

“Bishops are neither the pope's local representatives nor his rivals for power,” writes Shaw. “They are leaders — pastors — of the Church in their own right, with a duty to teach, sanctify and govern the faithful in union with the pope and one another.”

Collegiality, as Shaw presents it, is not so much a theological formula to be pinned down as it is a complex, unfolding story. It is this story that the journalist tracks down. Radical critics of the papa-cy are part of the story, and the author lets their views be heard.

Shaw's commentary is skillful, engaging and thoroughly up-to-date. A fascinating appendix on “How the Pope is Elected” spells out the latest rules published in 1996. The author also cites thought-provoking statements on the subject by Cardinal John Henry Newman and others.

A genuinely Catholic image of the Church emerges — a Church not just for all nations, but for all times. The pope cannot be subject to majority opinion, principally because he is bound to ageless Truth.

“The pope is not the principle of unity; the Holy Spirit is,” Shaw writes. “But the pope is a principle of unity, and an indispensable one. He does not perform this service through a symbolic primacy of honor, but by authoritative teaching and governing. Yet even though he is not subject to any other authority in the Church, the pope is totally subordinate to Christ, and the answer to the question ‘Who will guard the guardian?’ is in this case: ‘The Holy Spirit.’”

Michael J. Miller writes from

Glenside, Pennsylvania.