Rome and the Bishops

Rev. Peter Timmins

A debate between two high-profile cardinals is currently receiving a lot of attention and, hopefully, it will be seen to have occupied a significant part of the agenda of the October Synod in Rome.

One of the prelates, Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, supports the time-honoured view that gives the papacy absolute power. This means that the bishops can participate in the governing of the universal church, but only if they are called upon to do so by the Holy Father in an ecumenical council, or to simply speak with a common intent under what is termed as "his guidance".

The defenders of this tradition, whose roots go back many centuries, would see the local churches as being led by their own bishops who are subordinate in all things to the papacy. Even when the bishops of a country come together to respond to the particular needs of their nation, they are said to do so without any authority other than that specifically given to them by Rome.

In 1965, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had something very profound to say about this subject. They concluded that it is the College of Bishops with, and under the Pope, that governs the Catholic Church. The argument made today by many bishops and theologians is that the Roman Curia's behaviour has, from the start, largely nullified this declaration. It is a senior and much respected member of the Curia, Cardinal Kasper, who is currently leading the forces who believe in the vital importance of the Second Vatican Council's decree on episcopal collegiality and the need to deal now with the distortion of this doctrine.

The Curia is something like the civil service so well portrayed in the British TV series, "Yes, Minister". The skilled bureaucrats of the Vatican, who make up the Curia, often appear to manipulate the Pope as they give him the information they think he should receive, and then put their spin on his comments to the church at large. This is not to imply that these churchmen are evil and cunning. They are simply entrenched, and honestly believe that they alone know what is best.

Cardinal Kasper, one of their most influential members, sees them and therefore, himself, as being in office to serve the Pope and also to be of service to the bishops of the world, by responding to their expressed needs, rather than issuing directives of their own and, as seems frequently the case, scrambling the lines of communication between the Pope and the bishops. And so, while Cardinal Ratzinger has perhaps several hundred years of tradition on his side, Cardinal Kasper probably has the vast majority of bishops and theologians on his. Cardinal Kasper argues that the local churches or the national conferences should have much more to say about their own internal affairs, as well as being the major input into matters concerning the entire church.

Local bishops have long been treated as delegates of Rome. "This is not right," says Kasper, for whom collegiality is something that comes from Jesus Christ, not from a generous Curia.

Is collegiality all but limited to ecumenical councils, so that national conferences and episcopal synods are only advisory in nature? And is the entire church, as a result, subject to the Roman Curia on a day-to-day basis? This, in very general terms, is where we are. How did we get here? My understanding begins with the subject of authority. So too does this limited overview, the purpose of which is to stimulate discussion among reasonably well-informed Catholics from every walk of life.

All legitimate authority must be traceable to God in whom ultimate authority resides. All human authority is therefore delegated. A parent, for example, has his or her authority from God, and can delegate it to a school administration. Society can delegate its authority to its courts and law-enforcement agencies but can do so only when that society speaks with the voice of the majority of its members and for the common good as defined by its most sacred traditions of truth, goodness and human dignity.

The most authentic voice of authority is that one which reflects most accurately the will of the ultimate "Author".

With authority comes power; power to reasonably support and enforce that authority, but once again, with that all-important caveat, "for the common good".

Vital to the above concept is expertise and integrity on the part of all who exercise authority and its concomitant power.

Unlike authority, power can come directly and simply from strength. It can come from wealth, from weapons, from political control and from many faces of force.

There can be no disputing the fact that Jesus possessed unheard of authority and power. The exercise of authority was central to his ministry. Consider the following passages from Mark's gospel : Chapter 1, verse 22-27; Chapter 2, verse 5-10 and 23-28; Chapter 11, verse 28.

Institutions rely upon continuity with the past for their authority. The Roman Catholic Church relies upon the person and teachings of Jesus for its authority and has done so for twenty centuries. During this two thousand years the church has taught, ruled and sanctified. For most of its history, at least within the western world, its influence was unmatched in both temporal and spiritual spheres.

It begins and ends with Jesus, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word made flesh, who dwelt amongst us and spoke with a divine authority that was properly his. The power he possessed was limitless. He was perfection. He could do no evil. He was unique on the face of the earth. When he became one of us, he did not do so in some modified way. He shared our humanity in all its facets but sin.

As an infant, he was nursed and bathed by his mother. As a child, he learned at the feet of his parents and teachers. That means he acquired knowledge and understanding. He was not faking it! The Scriptures themselves attest that he grew in wisdom and understanding. Surely he played with cousins and friends, scraped his knees and came weeping to Mary's lap for comfort. Joseph and Mary knew he was special but not « how special ». No doubt he sensed his own uniqueness but, to what extent, we will never know. As a child and as a youth, he was never deceitful, never mean or cruel. He was always respectful and felt more than a little "at home" in temple and synagogue.

He must have taken great pleasure in the beauty of nature and the goodness of his family and neighbors. Like David, he must have laughed and danced as well as wept and mourned. Gradually he grew to know his relationship with his Father which had been obscured to whatever point necessary so as not to limit the fullness, the wholesomeness, the integrity of his humanity. There is great mystery here but there is also wondrous reality.

In time, the self-knowledge with which a child or youth could never cope, was his as an adult. He was able to say of himself, 'Before Abraham came to be, I am". He declared, "I am who am". Both statements speak of the eternal present, the realm of God alone.

It was this son of Mary, son of God, who took charge of the small community which was beginning to form under the leadership of his cousin, John. This was a community of devout Jews who lived for the day when their Messianic leader, long promised by the Scriptures, would manifest himself. This Jesus did when baptized by John in the Jordan river. The humble servant, the Lamb of God was revealed.

For three years he ministered to the people of Israel and carefully trained his chosen apostles. Large crowds followed him. He taught them, he cured them, he admonished them. No power, material or spiritual, was able to master him. Those who condemned and executed him did so only because he permitted it, but they were no less free for all of that.

In rising from the tomb, he destroyed death and opened the way to eternal life. But he did not leave his followers as orphans, at least not for long. He promised them the Holy Spirit, the spirit of wisdom, the spirit of understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord. He also left them one very nervous, very contrite, very humble man. That man's name was Peter and upon that rock of a man he would, through his spirit, build and preserve his church, his people, the people of God.

Less than two months after Jesus' resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity, was made manifest. God entered into our midst in yet another mode of expression. We relate to that presence when we pray, 'Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful ones, and enkindle within them the spirit of your divine love. Send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth".

Strengthened by God, Peter and the other apostles came out of seclusion and began to proclaim the good news to the people of Israel. It was a new day for Israel, a new Covenant with His people; a new chapter for Judaism, or so the followers of Jesus assumed. This was not intended to be a new religion but rather an affirmation and a fulfillment of the old. But with this news came a very hard pill to swallow. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and though he had come as prophesied from the root of Jesse, he had come for ALL of mankind – Jews, Greeks, Romans, alike.

God chose Paul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen of Jewish birth, theologian, debater, and philosopher, to preach the gospel of gentile equality. It was a hard sell, even for some of the apostles, and it finally failed to win the acceptance of the leadership of the Jewish community, who balked at allowing newly-baptized gentile converts to participate in the life of the synagogue and temple unless they were, at the very least, circumcised. Paul said, "No, you do not need to be a Jew to become a Christian". Many, if not most leading Jewish Christians, disagreed. Feelings ran high. They turned to Peter for a decision. Peter became convinced by Paul's argument and ruled in his favour. Because of this ruling and others closely associated with it, many Jewish converts, especially those of the Jerusalem community, abandoned the Christian Way as being inimical to Judaism.

Thus did Christianity begin to stand on its own two feet. These were days of great pain and sadness for all concerned.

Many of the remaining Christians felt Peter was wrong in giving in to Paul and others thought Peter had not gone far enough, but his word was accepted as final. Why ? Because the Holy Spirit was with Peter, James, Paul and the others, as they debated their relative points of view. But even Paul who, because of his exceptional dedication and legendary intellectual skills could easily overwhelm Peter, knew full well that Peter would have the last word and that that word would carry with it divine approval. For Paul and James, at opposite ends of the spectrum, each with his own following, knew that Peter was the rock, the foundation on which the church would build. (See Matthew Chapter 16, verse 18; Luke Chapter 22, verse 32, and John Chapter 21, verse 15-17).

Peter was to be the symbol of unity. He was the elder among elders; the universal pastor. Paul taught the Ephesians (Chapter 2, verse 20) that the church was built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Clearly, Peter was not alone, but his role among the apostles was unique because Jesus had singled him out to be the first among his equals and he was accepted and respected as such - his office, his service is designed to guarantee the unity of the church and the unadulterated teachings of Jesus.

Peter died somewhere between the year 64 and 67 and Linus was chosen Bishop of Rome and, therefore, like Peter before him and John Paul after him, was considered possessor of a specific authority associated with the mission and well-being of the whole church. This mission implies a power of jurisdiction for the oversight of all the other bishops and churches, the purpose of which is to guarantee unity and continuity in essential matters of faith and morals.

Though the above wording is my own, I think it reflects the reality which in turn suggests that the universal jurisdiction of the papacy is limited to essentials.

Early on, the church adopted the organizational grid of the Roman empire. It was divided up into provinces and dioceses whose natural centre was Rome. The Bishop of Rome, once appointed by his equals, was accepted as the inheritor of Peter's office and ministry.

As the church evolved within the context of political and social conditions, the danger of unchallenged ecclesiastical jurisdiction being expanded into political power was ever present and sometimes realized.

The growing power and influence of the Roman church meant that civil powers feared domination and loss of control and began to threaten the independence of the church. By the Middle ages, the Popes were claiming monarchical status and acquiring extensive landholdings, armies, etc. Needless to say, all sorts of shameful excesses followed. The scene was being set for the Protestant Reformation.

Although the last two or three hundred years have seen a preponderance of good and holy men at the helm of the church, we are still weighed down by formality, a "royal" court, and powerful courtiers, princes (Cardinals), palaces, regal robes and crowns, etc. It can be hard to find the humble fisherman!

The last couple of centuries has seen the papacy reassert itself as a spiritual reality rather than a political force even though, in recent times, it has been seen to have had a major influence on the politics of eastern Europe. This influence, however, far from being scandalous, has been generally accepted as being grounded in many generations of service to humanity.

Stepping back for a moment to pick up another important thread, we recall problems of communication and theological perception between the Western and Eastern Churches bringing about a major split in the 11th. Century. Also, at the root of this rift was the papacy's felt need to control and direct Eastern Churches at every level. In effect, Rome was bent on achieving a level of administrative centralization which would not only clip the wings of the eastern patriarchs, who zealously protected their own apostolic traditions and jurisdictions, but also those of literally all of the local bishops throughout Christendom.

What was happening was that the traditional but, from time to time, blurred concept of the Church being a unique communion of local churches unified by The Petrine Ministry, was in danger of being completely absorbed under one roof and one "super bishop". In fact, that is what many believe is where we are today. Where will we be tomorrow ? This, I suggest, brings us back to where we began. The two cardinals.

I believe that collegiality will become a reality. According to Vatican II, (Lumen Gentium, October 30th, 1963.) it is the College of Bishops with and under the Pope, that governs the church. At the present time, it appears that the role of the bishops has been usurped by the Curia, the civil service. The position that I feel will eventually take precedence is that effective collegiality means that assemblies of bishops have authentic power emerging from their communion. This power is limited, but not as limited as the Curia would like. For example, conferences of bishops cannot rewrite the Apostles' Creed, but they should be able to commission and approve vernacular translations of liturgical books, most, if not all, major canonical dispensations, and episcopal appointments and retirements. Above all, they should be able to ensure that all of the faithful have access to the Sacraments, and take whatever means are required to that end, within the context of the most ancient traditions of the church and its creed, current Canon Law notwithstanding. Such measures should be carried out with the assistance and resources of the Curia, but in no way by their leave.

The bishops have an inalienable right to exercise the authority vested in them through ordination, and it is hoped that the papacy would support even the occasionally radical approaches to be taken by various episcopal conferences as they endeavour to meet their own specific pastoral challenges. This is the only way to bring about a climate of unity in a church characterized by diversity. Today the slogan is, "one size fits all", and it is not working. It goes without saying that a complete redefining of the mission of the Curia is not only in order but urgent. I believe that the bishops of the future will be chosen by the people of the diocese and welcomed into the episcopal college by the Holy Father, without question. And I am forced to ask the question, are Nuncios and Apostolic Delegates an anachronism, or can they serve some useful purpose in the church of tomorrow?

I look forward to a declericalizing of the church, where the clerical culture will be, at last, laid to rest. I think the time has long since passed when the church's image is enhanced by symbols of royal splendor and power which impressed the average person in Europe and Great Britain of centuries past, but simply confuses and often alienates Christians of today. There might well be a place in our liturgies for beautiful churches, works of art, sacred vessels, etc., but all within limits and in keeping with local reality. But let's be done with sacred ministers draped in gold, precious mitres, royal titles such as "Your Excellency", "Your Grace", "Your Eminence", and while we are at it, can we stop calling mayors, "Your Worship"? That really makes me choke!!

I believe that bishops should be recognized in some way by their dress, both on the street and in the sanctuary, but a drastic down-dressing is in order.

With all due respect for its' current membership, I don't see any need for the College of Cardinals to exist in this day and age. Surely the Pope could be elected by a world synod of bishops.

I don't mean, by all of the above, that the Pope should go around in a gold and white jersey with a big number one on his back. Dignity must be preserved, but we must see the excesses for what they are and be done with them. There is, however, much to be preserved and visible continuity with the past is essential.

The signs of things to come are everywhere. All over the world local churches are being challenged to examine their management of human and material resources. Well-informed, devout Catholics are expressing expert, balanced opinions as never before and are often heard to be questioning current Vatican positions and policies. We seem to be evolving into a very different looking Church. It will remain the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. We have Jesus’ promise on that; but it will be a revitalized community of maturing people who will expect the opportunity to live their Baptism in all of its implications.

Well, in a somewhat disjointed and certainly incomplete nutshell, that is how I see and understand it, and it is what I would like to see in the future, but I am just one person, with no great expertise. What do you think? PLEASE TAKE THE TIME TO SHARE YOUR VIEWS. The purpose of this page is for you to listen and to be heard. Please confine your comments to the subject matter at hand, and later on, if there is sufficient interest, we will move on to other subjects such as the people of God, their parishes, their pastors, their ministries and their role in the decision and policy-making process of the local and universal church.


Your comments are welcome.

Click here to return to the list of articles.

Go to top

Welcome | Living Our Story | Just A Thought | Reader Comments |
Author's Remarks
| Newspaper Reviews | Free Downloads | Contact Us | Links