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Breaking the papal monopoly on tradition

Because the Catholic church looks to the pope as its unifying center, there’s a natural temptation to confuse what is “Catholic” with what is “papal,” and to assume that the latter is always and everywhere the best measure of the former. This tendency is reinforced by the fact that the pope, working through the Roman curia, assumes the administrative power to define what’s in and out of the tradition at any given moment.

But the plain truth is that a given papacy is not always the best embodiment of Catholic tradition. Sometimes it can be a distortion of what is authentically Catholic. This is precisely the case under John Paul, a heroic figure, but nevertheless a pontiff whose centralization of power and creeping infallibilism has tilted the church’s historic balance away from diversity toward a stifling uniformity.

Given the charisma of this pope, combined with the inclination of many Catholics to defer to authority, it is not always easy to perceive how far the tradition has been bent out of shape on John Paul’s watch.

In recent weeks, however, retired Cardinal Franz König of Vienna has -- gently but clearly -- broken the scarlet code of silence that says cardinals do not criticize the pope they serve. In so doing, König has outlined how this papacy has led the church off-course and what we must do to find our way back.

König first took on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a Jan. 16 article in the London-based Tablet, where he responded to news that the congregation has launched an investigation of Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis. König expressed deep concern for the potential chilling effect on inter-religious dialogue.

“With its long-standing, extensive experience over centuries, one should surely be able to rely on the doctrinal congregation to find better ways of doing its job,” he wrote. Most pointedly, König said that the congregation must find a way to shed its Western bias when dealing with theologies emanating from non-Western cultures.

König next offered a broad vision of the church’s future in a March 26 Tablet article. His key theme was the need to combat “inflated centralism.”

König is unflinching: “In the post-conciliar period ... the Vatican authorities have striven to take back autonomy and central leadership for themselves. ... The style of leadership of the universal church which is being practiced today is not entirely in keeping with the council’s intentions.”

König calls for two reforms. First, the college of bishops must be allowed to share in the governance of the universal church, especially through the synod.

The cardinal asserts the curia has overstepped its bounds. “In fact, however, de facto and not de jure, intentionally or unintentionally, the curial authorities working in conjunction with the pope have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college,” König writes. “It is they who now carry out almost all of them.”

Second, König says that bishops must have more freedom to administer their own dioceses. “Lumen Gentium 27 makes it quite clear that the bishops are not the pope’s emissaries, nor are they here, as some maintain, to carry out the pope’s instructions.

“We have to return to the decentralized form of the church’s command structure as practiced in earlier centuries,” König concludes. “That, for the world church, is the dictate of today.”

König is not alone in this diagnosis. His words echo retired Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco in his memorable Oxford lecture, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium, who called for a program of decentralization more than three years ago, and the 41 bishops who spoke at the Synod for Asia on that theme.

He also joins the approximately 40 U.S. bishops who issued a document in 1995 calling on their colleagues to take a less subservient stance with respect to the Vatican, and demanding more freedom to speak openly on issues such as women in the church and contraception. Signatories included Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Bishops Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., and Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich.

The need for a more flexible approach from the Vatican is underscored by the letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which rejects key recommendations from last fall’s Dialogue for Austria. The inescapable conclusion for many Catholics is not only that the church will never change, but it is not even remotely interested in what they think.

König, Quinn and others who advocate a more pastoral, open-minded approach are hardly radicals. They represent the moderate heart of the church, a center that desperately needs to be restored.

The next time the college of cardinals files into St. Peter’s for a conclave, they would do well to have such thoughts in mind.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999