What Does Collegiality Really Mean?
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What Does Collegiality Really Mean?

What Does Collegiality Really Mean?

Editorial FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2013

“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one” (Jn 17:20-21)

From the moment Pope Benedict announced his retirement voices in the media and from within the Church have been calling for reform. Many of the more theologically aware commentators have articulated their reform agenda by invoking the principle of collegiality. This notion, “the principle of collegiality”, appears to have a pedigree within Catholic theology and as such it lends a certain degree of respectability and intellectual clout to those clamouring for reform. No doubt some degree of reform is needed: the Vati-leaks affair and its aftermath was a disedifying spectacle. However, using the principle of collegiality as a catch-all slogan is problematic. Quite simply, its meaning is vague. It is open to a variety of different emphases and interpretations, some of which may be helpfuland foster the renewal of the Church at an institutional level, others of which may well prove a hindrance to the process of renewal.

Certain interpretations of the principle of collegiality use it to bolster the autonomy of individual bishops in their dioceses. These interpretations become unhelpful when they locate a conflict of interests between the autonomy of the local bishop and the norms of the universal Church. Advocates of this view would argue that the local bishop needs a heightened autonomy over and against the norms of the universal Church. The local bishop, who is directly acquainted with the exigencies of his local situation, should be able to establish for himself and for his own diocese local norms concerning ethical issues, ecumenical practices and questions such as who may be admitted to the sacraments and under what circumstances.

Furthermore, the Church’s unity is not arbitrary or contingent upon the accidents of history. Understood properly the Church’s unity is a much deeper reality. It is an expression of God’s basic intent throughout the whole of his dealing with humanity. 

All too often in these interpretations the principle of collegiality degenerates into code-speak for the enactment of the by now very tired canon of dissent: contraception, married clergy, women priests, weird made-up liturgy
and all the usual suspects – which in passing we note have been tried among our separated brethren and have not brought renewal.

Advocates of this view find their justification in a particular account of the relationship between the First and Second Vatican Councils. Pastor Aeternus, one of the documents of Vatican I, had stressed the primacy of the Pope by declaring that “full power has been given [to the Pope] by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal Church”. This, they contend, had reduced local bishops to little more than legates of the Pope.

They then claim that Vatican II, and in particular chapter 3 of Lumen Gentium, was an almost revolutionary pushing back against the excesses of Vatican I. In this narrative the full implementation of the principle of collegiality would radically assert the autonomy of the local bishop and would be no more than the logical conclusion of the process set in motion by the Second Vatican Council.

However, to view the relationship between these two councils through an optic of conflict and revolution is simplistic and misleading. Rather, in chapter 3 of Lumen Gentium the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council complemented the teaching of Pastor Aeternus on the primacy of the Pope by noting “the collegiate character and aspect of the Episcopal order”. It is certainly true that Vatican II’s teaching on the “collegial union” of the bishops balances the earlier assertions of Vatican I. Moreover Lumen Gentium also teaches that “the individual bishops … are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches” and as such individual bishops enjoy their own proper authority in their diocese.

Nonetheless, an explanatory note was added as an appendix to Lumen Gentium: “‘College’ is not understood … as a group of equals who entrust their power to their president, but as a stable group whose structure and authority must be learned from Revelation.” It is quite a step from the authentic teaching of Lumen Gentium to conceiving of the relation between the authority of an individual bishop and that of the universal Church in terms of a power struggle. This is fundamentally mistaken. A local bishop’s authority is simply not in competition with the universal Church. This would impose categories of power and authority drawn from the sphere of earthly politics upon the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ.

Even if one were to go down this route, asserting the authority of the individual bishop in this way would, paradoxically, in the long run only weaken and undermine the bishop concerned. Certain matters of ecclesiastical discipline may legitimately vary from place to place; but when one asserts the autonomy of an individual bishop to such an extent that his authority can be exercised against the norms of the universal Church, ultimately one fractures the unity of the Church. A divided Church is a weakened Church – and a weakened Church means that all her members, bishops included, are weakened. These readings of the principle of collegiality fail on two grounds. One is theological; the other, which is perhaps more direct and compelling, is empirical.

The College of Bishops

Dealing with the theology of the college of bishops, it should be noted that Lumen Gentium talks not so much of the “principle of collegiality” as of the “collegiate character” of the episcopate, and of the “college” of apostles or bishops. That might seem a hair-splitting distinction but invoking the “principle of collegiality” gives the impression that it is a maxim to be acted upon; that it summons us unto praxis. Lumen Gentium doesn’t imply that bishops must be empowered to enact collegiality; it simply assumes the college of bishops as a given feature of the constitution of the Church.

The meaning of this feature has perhaps most eloquently been explained by the then Cardinal Ratzinger in a paper he gave on Lumen Gentium in Rome in 2000. He wrote:

“The Constitution on the Church has notably treated the episcopal ministry in chapter three, and explained its meaning starting with the fundamental concept of the collegium. This concept, which only marginally appears in tradition, serves to illustrate the interior unity of the episcopal ministry. The bishop is not a bishop as an individual, but by belonging to a body, a college, which in turn represents the historical continuity of the collegium Apostolorum. In this sense, the episcopal ministry derives from the one Church and leads into it.”

Where some commentators invoke the “principle of collegiality” in order to fragment the Church and her teaching, actually the “collegium Apostolorum” bears witness to the unity of the Church. At a single moment in time the bishops are united synchronically in one college; and across the ages they are united diachronically to the original twelve apostles and to all the bishops who have come in between and will come in the future. As the Church is one, so too is the college of bishops.

Furthermore, the Church’s unity is not arbitrary or contingent upon the accidents of history. Understood properly the Church’s unity is a much deeper reality. It is an expression of God’s basic intent throughout the whole of his dealing with humanity. Unity is the one of the keynotes of salvation history. This is an insight that is perhaps best expressed again in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, this time in 2001 writing in America magazine:
“The basic idea of sacred history is that of gathering together, of uniting – uniting human beings in the one body of Christ, the union of human beings and through human beings of all creation with God. There is only one bride, only one body of Christ, not many brides, not many bodies. The bride is, of course, as the Fathers of the Church said, drawing on Psalm 44, dressed ‘in many-coloured robes’; the body has many organs. But the superordinate principle is ultimately unity. That is the point here. Variety becomes richness only through the process of unification.”

One would be very hard pressed to make a case against Ratzinger’s interpretation of salvation history but his case is absolutely clinched by the words of Christ’s priestly prayer in John’s Gospel. “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one” (Jn 17:20-21). On the night before his passion Christ prays not only for the unity of his apostles but for the unity of “those who will believe in me through their word”; that is, the Church down through the ages.
The unity of the Church and its expression and concretisation in the unity of the college of bishops is foreshadowed throughout salvation history and explicitly desired by Christ. To invoke whatever cognate term of the college of bishops one desires in order to undermine the unity of Christ’s Church is intellectually incoherent.

The Lessons of Recent History

One of the features of the unity of the Church is a special role for the successor of St Peter. But the primacy of the Pope should not be conceived of as in competition with the authority of the local bishop. Our Lord commanded St Peter to “strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32) Too often advocates of the principle of collegiality cannot see beyond the categories of capitalist politics. In recent years we have seen a quite breathtaking instance of the successor of St Peter “strengthening his brothers”.

On 19 March 2010 Pope Benedict XVI wrote a pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland addressing the child abuse crisis and instructed that it be read out in every parish in Ireland. The successor of St Peter had no direct responsibility for disciplinary matters in the Church in Ireland. Certainly, from a secular media point of view, to associate oneself unnecessarily with this scandal was an inconceivable, even borderline suicidal, course of action.

A canny politician would run a mile from a scandal if he could plausibly deny bearing any responsibility in the matter. Pope Benedict could most certainly do that. But the Pope is not called to be a canny politician; he is called to be the successor of St Peter and to strengthen his brothers. And so he knowingly and willingly placed himself at the eye of the storm in loving service of the Church. He wrote:

“Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Church in Ireland, it is with great concern that I write to you as Pastor of the universal Church … For my part, considering the gravity of these offences, and the often inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in your country, I have decided to write this Pastoral Letter to express my closeness to you and to propose a path of healing, renewal and reparation.”

Of course this was not a thoroughgoing enactment of structural reform in the Church in Ireland. And no one would deny that this was needed. Such reform would follow and it will probably take many years to bear fruit. However, the Pope’s symbolic, prophetic act definitively shattered any possibility of a cover-up; and it definitively placed child protection at the top of the agenda for the Irish Church. In the end the crisis was simply too big for the Irish ecclesial authorities and they needed to be strengthened by St Peter’s successor. In the long run the Pope’s authority was not exercised at the expense of the Irish episcopate, but rather in order to renew and to strengthen it.

Those who conceive of the principle of collegiality as a strengthening of the local bishops over and against the interventions of the successor of St Peter should think again. The recent history of the Irish Church shows us that the college of bishops does not need to be more fragmented. Rather, it needs to be united – and united with its head, the successor of St Peter.

Reform of the Curia

At this point the proponents of the “principle of collegiality” might reply that the real issue is not so much the relationship between the Pope and the bishops but the tension between individual bishops and the unpastoral bureaucrats of the Roman Curia. We must be wary of simplistic caricatures but this, we think, raises a valid point. The precise administrative procedures that guide the relationship between the Roman Curia and diocesan bishops can and probably should vary depending on circumstances that obtain at that point in the Church’s history. The details of any such reform should be left to those with sufficient experience and the requisite competence for these matters. Pope Francis’s decision to set up an advisory body of eight Cardinals from around the world to look into thesematters is to be welcomed.

However, the notion that one can be loyal to the Pope while loathing and at every opportunity obstructing the work of the Curia is questionable. The Roman Curia is an instrument that serves the successor of St Peter. While the Pope cannot be held responsible for the good manners or personal probity of every individual that works for the Curia, nonetheless Christus Dominus, one of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, clearly states: “The Roman pontiff makes use of the departments of the Roman Curia which, therefore, perform their duties in his name and with his authority for the good of the churches and in the service of the sacred pastors” (italics added).

The Real Issues

Ultimately, those most vociferously advocating the full implementation of the principle of collegiality are not interested in the finer points of ecclesiology and the Church’s nature. But we would go further and say that neither are they really interested in the balance of power between the Roman Curia and individual diocesan bishops. If the Roman Curia were to abandon the teaching of the Catholic Church on sexual ethics, divorce and remarriage and the reservation of the sacramental priesthood to men only, you could be quite sure that many of the voices now clamouring for the reform of the Curia would then be raised in jubilation, in praise of the same Curia.

The real issue is a crisis of faith. We should have great sympathy with many of those calling for curial reform, because what drives them is their encounter with painful pastoral realities: broken families, broken lives and all the carnage wrought by sin. It is easy to sympathise with those who, faced with these realities, might look somehow to ameliorate or water down the demands of the Gospel. However, to do so is a mistake for two reasons.

First, it misunderstands what the Church has to offer. The Church’s mission is not to offer clever and comforting human accommodations. She must offer the only thing she ever has to offer: Christ. Second, it misconceives the true solution to the situation. Clever and comforting human accommodations cannot undo or protect us from the devastation of sin. Only Christ can redeem us from sin, and we have to be honest and admit that the protection he offers us from sin is not comfortable and safe: it is the protection of the cross, in which we must all have a share.

“The value of the service rendered by the Roman Curia to the universal Church is not predicated upon the merits and talents of those who work therein”

It is quite possibly true that some of those who work in the Roman Curia may be insulated by their position from many of these painful realities, but the value of the service rendered by the Curia to the universal Church is not predicated upon the merits and talents of those who work therein.
The Roman Curia serves the successor of St Peter and his presence strengthens the Church. His voice, in union with the college of bishops, stirs our consciences. It is tempting to shy away from this authoritative teaching especially when what is taught is an unpalatable or challenging truth. And we are capable of all sorts of clever dissimulation to justify our avoidance of the truth. We can invoke this or that respectable sounding theological principle and we are even capable of convincing ourselves that we are acting out of conscience. But we are not: we are shying away from the cross of Christ.

This Year of Faith has been given to us as an opportunity to renew our faith in Christ and in His Church. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by theological sophistries we run the risk of squandering this opportunity. Pope Francis has reminded us in his weekly catechesis that the Holy Spirit “enlivens and guides the Church, and each of us within the Church”. He goes on to exhort us in these words: “Let us renew each day our trust in the working of the Holy Spirit, open our hearts to his inspiration and gifts, and strive to be signs of unity and communion with God in the midst of our human family.”

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