The challenge of collegiality and the controversy over synodality – Catholic World Report

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It looks for all intents and purposes that we are witnessing an attempt to alter fundamental Church teachings on a range of important issues in the name of “listening”.

The challenge of collegiality and the controversy over synodality – Catholic World Report
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass to open the process that will lead up to the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 10, 2021. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

Debates and controversies over matters of doctrinal development never happen in a vacuum or in the abstract. Which is why it is always critical to assess both the intellectual milieu in which such debates take place and the history that led up to that moment in time.

Because Christian doctrines are first and foremost elucidations of a Mystery – the Mystery of God’s self-Revelation in Christ – they are therefore not merely conceptual constructs ordered to our reason in a strictly deductive and logical register. They are also, and perhaps more importantly, an appeal to an infinite Good, which pertains to the will and all of our imaginative capacities for the symbolization of our deepest transcendental desires in the light of that Revelation. Therefore, it is of vital importance to ascertain what the imaginative hopes and fears were of the various parties involved in the debates since they have a direct bearing on why certain doctrinal ideas became hot button triggers for a host of deeper questions.

In other words, what were the often hidden “issues” behind the “issue” at hand?

Collegiality and the Papacy

Such is the case in assessing one of the most contentious doctrinal debates at Vatican II, on the topic of episcopal collegiality and the relationship between the authority of a local bishop and the authority of the pope. Central to that debate was the question of whether or not an individual bishop, in virtue of his consecration as a bishop, has the power (potestas) of teaching and governing in a manner that is sacramentally given by God and not, as recent Church teaching had stated (e.g., Pius XII in Mystici corporis Christi), delegated to the bishop from the pope as a sharing in the pope’s supreme jurisdictional and teaching authority.

Vatican I, which had famously defined the dogma of papal infallibility (which included an affirmation of the Pope’s supreme jurisdictional authority over and in the Church), ended abruptly before it could go on to discuss the topic of the episcopal munera (functions) and the relation of those functions to papal authority. Leading up to Vatican I, there had already been a marked tendency toward greater and greater centralization of power in Rome and a diminution of the authority of the local bishop. Thus, the doctrinal definitions of Vatican I acted as a super accelerant to a fire that had already been burning for a long time, as can be seen in the hypertrophy of papal power, if not an outright papalotry, in the ensuing century.

Combined with the power of the newly minted media of radio, film, and then television, the pope became the public face of Catholicism, and his every word took on the tonality of an oracular inspiration directly from God for most ordinary Catholics, not to mention most non-Catholics. No less a light than St. Pope Paul VI once said that the Pope answers to nobody but God himself, a statement that fits well within Vatican I and its assertion that the Pope answers to nobody in the Church, which is the logical conclusion to the notion that the Pope’s authority alone is the rock upon which Christ founded his Church, with the other apostles being little more than vassals of Peter’s authority.

The ressourcement theologians at Vatican II, as well as an overwhelming majority of bishops, insisted the idea that local bishops do not teach and govern via a power given to them by God, but rather only as extensions of papal power, was of recent vintage. They stated that the older and truer tradition of the Church had always maintained that elevation to the episcopacy granted those powers to the bishop by divine right.

However, a vocal minority of bishops strongly and repeatedly dissented from this view. Paul VI, aware that the Council was developing various doctrines on several fronts and desiring to protect the reputation and integrity of the Magisterium, was keen on making certain the minority voices were not only heard but genuinely incorporated into the text to preserve the notion of a material continuity in doctrine. To that end, he approved the famous “nota praevia explicativa” which became a kind of appendix to Lumen Gentium, and which made it clear that even if a bishop has, in virtue of his ordination, the powers of teaching and governing, such powers would always be exercised “sub et cum Petro” [under and with Peter].

It worked, and the minority bishops were placated. Paul VI had gotten his wish of a unanimity of voices, deftly woven together into a balanced and internally coherent document. The doctrine of episcopal collegiality with bishops teaching and governing on their own authority – an authority given by God and not delegated from the Pope – was now the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

A legitimate fear?

In hindsight, it is perhaps easy to view the minority bishops as old-guard obstructionists who simply wanted to maintain a hyper-papalism rooted in a stubborn adherence to discredited theological concepts. But hearkening back to my opening paragraph, it is important that we dig a bit deeper and ask ourselves: what was it that these bishops feared?

In short, they feared a runaway neo-Gallicanism and the reduction of papal authority to a mere symbol of unity without juridical teeth. They feared a resurgent conciliarism and the rise of national episcopal conferences now empowered to launch synods and councils of their own with an ambiguous relation to the universal Magisterium of the Pope. And perhaps most noteworthy of the “issues behind the issue” was a fear that the progressive wing of the Church, long desirous of extreme changes in Church doctrine and practice, were merely using the issue of collegiality to bring in through the Church’s back door heretical doctrines and dangerous practices that they could not get in the front door.

One might say they had a legitimate fear that the centrifugal forces at play in the culture of modernity required an equally strong centripetal force at the Church’s center. One could read the dogmas of Vatican I in a similar light, as the Church’s assertion of a centrifugal power structure to combat the fragmentation of Christendom into scores of secular nation States, as well as the rise of the centripetal forces of amoral, free market economies, democratic and egalitarian political Liberalisms, and the reduction of reason via the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution to a mere cipher for competitive domination of the world.

The minority bishops at Vatican II were not wrong to fear such centrifugal forces. And they were not wrong in their belief that the papacy had to a great extent acted as a centripetal counter punch keeping the Catholic Church from becoming, like the Episcopalians, a collection of ill-assorted local churches held together by nothing more than vague and multi-valent faith statements.

Ultimately, however, and despite these legitimate fears, the papacy could only act in this fashion for so long, if for no other reason than it is contrary to a sound and proper ecclesiology. And therefore, Vatican II was entirely right to correct the hypertrophy of papal centralization and to seek a more collegial Church. However, the Council did not entirely spell out in specific theological and canonical detail how this collegial Church was to work. Thus, it was left to later popes and national episcopal conferences to work this out — and it is far from clear, even now, what the exercise of episcopal authority sub et cum Petro actually looks like in practice.

Collegiality: The good, the bad, and the unclear

Along these lines, remember that the concept of collegiality was not an attempt to make the Church more in tune with the democratic impulses of modernity, but was instead a genuinely theological development of what a true pluralism really is in the Church. It was an attempt to empower the peripheries of the Church vis-à-vis her juridical center, and as such was an articulation of how the delicate waltz of centripetal vs. centrifugal forces could be exercised with the Pope leading the dance, but without clumsily stepping on the feet of the episcopacy. It was not a purely juridical restructuring of the Church’s lines of authority, although it was that in part, but was first and foremost a theological assertion of the Church as a “communio” of nested hierarchies.

Recently, a narrative has emerged that focuses almost exclusively on the juridical aspects of collegiality; it alleges that Pope John Paul II stalled Vatican II’s putative call for a more “democratic” Church, since he failed to implement collegiality in this juridical sense. It is further alleged that with Pope Francis we “finally” have a Pope who is implementing that vision after decades of delay and papal obstruction.

But this is a highly tendentious analysis. It ignores the fact that after the Council, the centrifugal forces within the Church had run wild and the Church, by the time John Paul took over in 1978, was threatened with being torn apart by those forces. It is instructive to remember the words of Msgr. Gerard Philips, one of the most influential theologians at the Council and no “conservative”, who commented on the debates over collegiality and noted that “the extremists of the left have made our task very difficult.” Sadly, after the Council this extremism of the left won the day, and this is what confronted Pope John Paul.

But if the “issue behind the issue” was the legitimate empowering of the peripheries, then one can see that John Paul’s many travels and his untiring struggle for human rights was precisely and truly just such an empowering. His travels were not exercises in papal theatrics or an attempt to gin up a hyper-papalist cult of personality, as is often alleged, but were his effort to use the power of the papacy to empower local bishops in their struggles with oppressive cultural and political forces. Wherever he went, the visible symbol of Peter’s unifying function empowered the local episcopacy rather than neutering it. His visits, especially in places like Poland and Central America, gave the local bishops a transcending, transnational fulcrum that ignited the local Church and galvanized it for the struggle at hand. And if the juridical aspect of collegiality was, for clear and good reasons, not fully implemented, it remains true that the theological aspect of the Church as a communio of believers sub et cum Petro was profoundly affirmed and enacted.

By contrast, the current movement toward synodality, while laudatory in theory, reeks of those elements feared by the conservative minority at the Council and which Msgr. Philips warned against.

It looks for all intents and purposes as an attempt to alter fundamental Church teachings on a range of important issues all in the name of “listening”. Listening to what, exactly? The Belgian bishops have just approved a new ritual for blessing same-sex “unions” despite repeated Vatican statements to the contrary. Many German bishops, Cardinal Marx included, have said that even if their own “synodal way” did not reach the two-thirds majority required to change Church teaching and practice, they were going to still implement it in their dioceses. Cardinal Hollerich, the relator appointed by Pope Francis to run the upcoming Synod on synodality, is on record opposing Church teaching on homosexuality. And Cardinal Tobin of Newark has just released the results of the “listening” sessions in his Archdiocese, and it seems the Holy Spirit sounds a lot like the ladies on The View.

Is any of this what the Council meant by collegiality? In a word… no. The entire affair comes across as a ruse, a game, and a cynical strategy for doing an end run around Church teaching.

Add to this the fact that the ruling style of Pope Francis has been anything but collegial or synodal, and you end up with a deep suspicion that “synodality” is merely a synonym for liberalization. Whether it be by papal diktat as in Traditionis custodes, or the canning of a Puerto Rican bishop without due process and for no stated reasons, or the suspension of ordinations in a vocationally thriving French diocese – also for no stated reason – or the faux “democracy” of the neo-Montanist synodal “listening”, it all amounts to the same thing: the baptizing of the plausibility structures of secular modernity.

And this is not what the Council meant by collegiality, either juridically or theologically.

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