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Restoring collegiality new pope’s first task


I have not regretted becoming a Catholic. The church nourishes me. But part of the vision that many saw at the time I made my move into the church -- shortly after John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council -- has faded.

At the end of the second millennium, Pope John Paul II has governed the Catholic church in the style of Pius XII rather than in that of John XXIII. The Vatican II doctrine of collegiality -- that the bishops, with the pope, govern the church as a college in succession to the apostles -- has been interpreted by this pope as meaning that the team is being collegial if they say the same thing as the captain.

Meanwhile the curia -- the papal civil service -- has tended once more to take over the role of the church’s central government, whereas in fact their proper function is to be a papal instrument. “The curia treat us as altar boys,” one English-speaking cardinal said to me in Rome.

Will future observers from the vantage point of the third millennium judge John XXIII and his council to have been a blip on the screen of history?

Pope John Paul towers over the church. It is as though the papal office were on a level of its own, with bishops, priests and lay people subjected to it. The bishops’ own voices are subordinate even though they are declared by Vatican II to be themselves vicars of Christ in their own dioceses. This pope is certainly one of the greatest men of the 20th century and very possibly a saint. The lives of millions have been touched by him. Saints can be hard to live with, however.

The secular Western world sees John Paul II as a hero, but warms to the singer rather than to the song. Yet the song is magnificent. “Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it.” In Christ is the truth about what it means to be human; to be contrary to Christ is to be contrary to the truth.

What prevents the song from being more widely heard? This pope, who was so successful in the first phase of his pontificate, when he shook the rotten tree of communism to such effect, became more pessimistic in the second phase, when he rode out against the permissive relativism of the developed West. Sometimes he has shown his anger. He urged a third way for Poland between communism and capitalism and it was not forthcoming. He hoped that Europe’s Eastern half would re-evangelize its Western half and it did not happen.

Catholic believers, for their part, will be modern in their own way. Quietly, many have renegotiated the terms of their membership. They widely believe, for example, that the use of contraception to plan their families is licit. They are not going to be driven out of the church for this reason, although John Paul II has reasserted the ban on contraception in such strong terms as to suggest that anyone who infringes it is denying the sovereignty of God.

The credibility gap

It is bad for Catholic authority when some doctrines that are advocated so strongly by the pope are widely rejected. The credibility gap on these issues is dangerous, and the laity’s loss of confidence extends to the whole hierarchy. People do not expect bishops to speak their minds on contraception, optional celibacy and women priests: They know their pastors have to toe the party line, for otherwise they will not survive. They see that issues such as the reception of Communion by divorced persons remarried without an annulment are not allowed to be discussed.

A more pluralistic format allowing a genuinely collegial approach would make a dialogue possible. Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the ban on contraception, Humanae Vitae, was not a collegial act. How much greater would have been its authority, Cardinal Leo Suenens pointed out, if it had been -- but it would then also have been different.

Which way will the popes of the third millennium tilt the balance? The documents and intention of the Second Vatican Council remain determinative. If future popes decide to opt for greater pluralism, there is only one way to start: with the bishops. And if they want to counterbalance the curia, they will have to give collegiality a stronger expression.

That is what the Second Vatican Council did not do. It set out the doctrine of collegiality in the third chapter of its beautiful constitution on the church, then left it side by side with the restated doctrine of absolute papal primacy. There was now a moral obligation on the pope to govern collegially -- but he did not have to.

To close the gap between theory and practice, Paul VI instituted the synod of bishops. It was meant to perpetuate the conciliar experience, but has instead become a rubber stamp. One synod that stands out as an example was called in 1980 -- the first of John Paul II’s papacy -- to discuss marriage and the family. All the lay couples invited were ardent supporters of Humanae Vitae, and the synod’s proceedings and recommendations were manipulated thoroughly. When the papal document subsequently appeared, it could have been written without the bishops ever having gone to Rome; but the pope could now appeal to their “consensus.”

Pope John Paul II has ruled like this because he judged that the Catholic church needed it. He thought there was an emergency. But emergencies cannot go on forever. There will come a pope who will make changes. It seems to me certain that they will be in the direction of greater pluralism.

But how could such a pope proceed without breaking up the church? An ultramontane liberal could do what is necessary, but then there could be the same polarization, only in the opposite direction as with Pope John Paul II, who has governed the church from the right.

A reforming pope

A reforming pope would need to enlist the bishops’ majority support. Where might he begin? The key is the Code of Canon Law, the instrument of centralization in the hands of Eugenio Pacelli. In helping to draft the code, the future Pius XII knew exactly what he was doing when he had a canon inserted for the first time claiming that the right to appoint all bishops everywhere belonged to the bishop of Rome in virtue of the primacy he exercised. Until the 19th century, by contrast, the appointment of bishops was left in the vast majority of cases to the local church.

A canon that is comparatively recent and breaks with tradition could obviously be revised. A reforming pope might first announce that he was convening a gathering of the senior metropolitan archbishops to help him work out how to give the synod of bishops a more deliberative function, with careful safeguards to preserve his own position.

“I need help,” he might say. “I cannot, like Atlas, take the whole world on my shoulders. To strengthen myself, I have to strengthen my brothers. They must enjoy fully the say in the government of the church that the Second Vatican Council allotted to them. The Catholic doctrine of collegiality must become Catholic fact. Henceforward, executive authority must be shown by structural expression to belong not to the pope and the curia, but to the pope and the synod.”

He would go on, of course, to pay a well-deserved tribute to the devoted work of the curia, without which -- whatever radical changes may have to be made to it, especially if there is ever prospect of reunion with the Orthodox -- no pope could fulfill his function.

Such a move would receive massive support from the world episcopate, including the most conservative. There would then be no difficulty in revising the canon that reserves all episcopal appointments to the pope. A commission of canon lawyers could be instructed by pope and synod to suggest a range of forms for appointment to the episcopal office appropriate to the local churches. No candidate could take up office until confirmed by the bishop of Rome, who would also reserve the right to appoint bishops for churches under persecution.

Perhaps there might even be a return to a process by which the people would play a significant part in electing their bishops. Such a move would be hugely popular among the Catholic laity upon whom, in the last resort, the church depends. (As Cardinal John Henry Newman said, it would look pretty odd without them.)

Only a starting point

This would be only the starting point. It would be no gain if bishops started behaving like ultramontane popes in their own dioceses. They would need in their turn to confirm and deepen their collegial relationship with their priests and lay people, actively encouraging the public opinion in the church, which Pius XII said was essential.

They would need to free theologians to develop pluralistic approaches in keeping with the scope of their endeavor, which, since Vatican II, is as wide as human experience itself. The vision of Vatican II is of a hierarchically structured people’s church on pilgrimage with humankind.

That reaffirmation of Christian humanism implies particular theologies to meet particular situations. It implies inculturation -- the earthing of the gospel in particular cultures. But when liberation theology sprang up in Latin America in answer to the needs there, it was checked or outlawed from the center: The two instructions from Rome deployed a range of arguments against it, and there was of course a case to answer. But as a result, Pope John Paul II’s preaching in the Third World was not able to seize the moral and intellectual high ground to the extent it had in Eastern Europe. He did not have a word of similar power for the poor of the Third World.

The reforming pope I have posited would know that his collegial move would also kick-start the stalled ecumenical process. The Catholic church’s deep commitment to ecumenism is today not in doubt: It breathes through every page of John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint. The blunt fact is, however, that unless the Catholic church is governed through a collegiality that is structurally safeguarded, no Orthodox, Anglican or Protestant church will take a single practical step toward unity with it.

I can well understand that there would be those in Rome who would have great doubts about this imaginary pope’s reforming program, just as they had about Pope John XXIII’s calling of a council. What need is there, they would ask, to open windows to the modern world: You never know what may fly in. Ever since Pius IX famously declared in the Syllabus of Errors in 1864 that the papacy had no need to reconcile itself with “progress, liberalism and modern civilization,” the Catholic church has been struggling with the question of whether to be modern, and if so, how.

Modern industrial societies are engaged in a project of pluralism that is new. From a plurality of races, religions, philosophies and lifestyles, they are trying to construct civic cultures that give equal rights to all, within the rule of law. The basis is a universal respect for human beings, because of their unique dignity, which entails claims about how they should be treated. This is a profoundly ethical endeavor because it recognizes as a universal requirement the duty to one’s neighbor.

Threat of relativism

But everywhere the viability of these modern societies is threatened by relativism. The idea that no group has a determinative place but all must share can be easily subverted by the idea that no position or lifestyle is better than any other. For relativism, there are no absolutes. Where pluralism is a debate about how one ought to choose, relativism merely affirms the fact of choice.

The Catholic church can practice pluralism without relativism. It already does. But there should be real subsidiarity: Decisions should not be taken at a higher level than necessary. An unreformed command structure will always emphasize an ethics of control rather than of responsibility. It will start from the hierarchy and end with the people, instead of the other way round, as the council did. In assessing the claims of truth and freedom, it will tend always to draw the boundaries in such a way that freedom comes off worse.

There needs to be greater internal freedom in the Catholic church. Then it could evangelize the world’s freedom more effectively.

John Wilkins lives in London. He has been editor of the The Tablet, a Catholic weekly, since 1982. Previously he worked for 10 years in the BBC’s External Services as a scriptwriter and broadcaster. Books he has edited include Understanding Veritatis Splendor.

This is the ninth of eleven articles, edited by Gary MacEoin, to be expanded and published as a book, The Papacy and the People of God, by Orbis Books.

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 1997