Collegiality: The issue

Rev. Richard P. McBrien

Collegiality is likely to be the decisive issue when more than 100 of the church's cardinals under the age of 80 gather, as eventually they must, to conduct the election of the next pope.

Some readers will undoubtedly balk at the suggestion. Collegiality, they will say, is an in-house issue that pales in comparison with the great pastoral challenges related to evangelization.

But that begs various questions: Who decides what evangelization entails? Who determines its scope and content? And who chooses the pastoral leaders who are to direct the process?

Should evangelization focus on the social teachings of the church, as Pope Paul VI insisted it must in his 1975 pronouncement, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), or would that "politicize the Gospel," as one of the current pope's most prominent and vociferous partisans once put it in an interview with The New York Times, in the aftermath of the murders of six Jesuits and two laywomen in El Salvador in 1989?

According to the church's current style of governance, such decisions are entirely in the hands of the pope, which means, for all practical purposes, under the direct control of key figures in the Roman Curia. Diocesan bishops around the world are expected simply to abide by and faithfully execute curial mandates.

Too often the Vatican's attitude toward the pastoral authority of the bishops has been less a matter of indifference than of blatant disrespect. For example, when the bishops of a single country or of a whole region agree upon an acceptable translation of biblical, liturgical and catechetical texts, they are regularly second-guessed and overruled by church bureaucrats, some of whom do not even speak the language in question.

A reaction began to set in a few years ago, but only gradually at first and in muted tones. Some of the bluntest language emanated from ecclesiastical figures who were by then safely retired and out of retribution's reach; for example, Franz Koenig, former cardinal-archbishop of Vienna, and John Quinn, one-time archbishop of San Francisco.

However, the issue is completely out in the open now. Cardinals disagree with one another in print about the proper relationship between the universal church, headquartered in Rome, and the local churches spread throughout the world (as Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper did in America magazine a few months ago). Others give interviews to the media in which they make clear their unhappiness with the high-handed manner in which the Roman Curia sometimes relates to individual bishops and to national episcopal conferences.

At the consistory of cardinals last May, collegiality surfaced as a persistent theme. Several cardinals argued that the current balance of power in the church is out of alignment. Even Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston proposed that synods be held annually and with an open agenda.

And at the month-long world synod in October on the role of bishops in the church, there were widespread calls for greater pastoral autonomy at the diocesan and national levels and for stricter limits on curial power. The synod submitted more than 60 propositions to the pope, ten of which dealt with the relationship between the Vatican and the local churches.

These latter propositions called for meetings between bishops and representatives of episcopal conferences, on one side, and members of the Roman Curia, on the other. They also proposed that regional bishops be consulted on the appointment of new bishops in their area, "as stated in canon law," and that the decisions reached by national episcopal conferences, on such matters as the translation of liturgical texts, be given greater weight and respect by the Curia.

What this cluster of propositions makes clear is that the synodal bishops have been unhappy with the manner in which synods have been conducted in the past and they want the pope to call an extraordinary synod just to discuss the matter.

Even at that, the propositions were said to be milder than the discussions that actually occurred on the floor of the synod. According to one report, more than 50 of the 250 assembled bishops explicitly criticized the excessive centralization of authority in this pontificate.

To whom were these cardinals and bishops speaking? To one another? The pope? The Curia? "Yes" to each question, but their words were directed more particularly to those cardinals who seriously hope to be elected at the next conclave.

The message from the consistory and the synod is clear: No candidate will receive the necessary two-thirds vote unless he assures the cardinal-electors that he will govern in a collegial manner, respecting the authority of the bishops and sharply limiting the power of the Roman Curia.

Father Richard P. McBrien is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Published: Friday, December 7, 2001
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