Vatican Deliberations

Later this month the church’s 184 cardinals will gather at the Vatican for the sixth consistory of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. The subject of this meeting, the first since 1994 when the pope broached the idea of issuing an apology for historic Catholic offenses, will be to chart the direction of the church for the third millennium. John Paul’s apostolic letter Novo millennio ineunte (At the Start of the New Millennium), which was released January 6, the last day of the Jubilee Year, will serve as an outline for the four-day gathering (May 21–24). It is expected that the consistory will influence the agenda for next October’s synod of bishops in Rome.

During John Paul’s pontificate, synods and consistories have been criticized for being tightly managed by the curia and consequently for reflecting the Vatican’s agenda rather than the concerns, legitimate interests, and views of the church’s bishops. Sadly, there is little indication that this shortsighted approach to episcopal collegiality will change. Contentious issues, such as the priestly discipline of celibacy or the control Rome now exerts over the appointment of bishops, are almost never raised. There is an element of charade to the whole enterprise. Yet the church needs inspiring leadership at all levels, not just from the pope, and not just as a chorus behind every papal declaration. A few brave souls can occasionally be heard urging publicly that the bishops speak in their own voices and take back a fair measure of authority from Rome. Cardinal Carlo Martini, the archbishop of Milan, in responding to the pope’s apostolic letter, recently called for "more concrete forms of collegiality"—in short, more power sharing between the Vatican and local ordinaries. Archbishop John Quinn boldly accepted the pope’s invitation in Ut unum sint (1995) to rethink the Petrine ministry in light of the ecumenical challenges of the modern world (see "The Exercise of the Primacy," Commonweal, July 12, 1996). But timidity and docility predominate when bishops are faced with Vatican edicts, as the American bishops demonstrated in reversing themselves on Ex corde ecclesiae (see "Theologians in the Dock," page 6).

As the cardinals and the pope draw up what John Paul calls "an effective post-jubilee pastoral plan," they have much to consider. Reviewing the jubilee year and celebrating its achievements—the pope’s pilgrimage to Israel, World Youth Day in Rome—the apostolic letter also assesses the continuing difficulties surrounding ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, biotechnology, and modern materialism. John Paul warns that whatever practical plans are put in place for evangelization, unless the church lives the gospel and in so doing "shows" the face of Christ to the larger world, nothing lasting will be accomplished. Catholics must open themselves to the universal call to holiness, because holiness is "a message that convinces without the need for words." The church must also strive for a real "spirituality of communion," which can also show, by the strength of the church’s own unity, what the true Christian life means. "The new century will have to see us more than ever intent on valuing and developing the forums and structures which, in accordance with the Second Vatican Council’s major directives, serve to ensure and safeguard communion," the pope writes. That will entail a reexamination of the Petrine ministry. "There is certainly much more to be done," John Paul adds, in reforming the curia.

John Paul’s enormous personal impact, Rome’s increasing centralization of power made possible by modern communications, and the curia’s inherent self-aggrandizing tendencies, have all combined to push Vatican II’s promise of greater episcopal collegiality further and further away. The church’s cardinals should now do the pope the honor of taking him at his word about reform, as should the bishops’ synod next October. In the new millennium, the church must show itself to be increasingly collegial, increasingly open to scrutiny (especially in the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), increasingly attentive to how its own internal structure and operation too often contradict the message it preaches. Yet even as the pope invites change he seems to deflect it. In the same section of Novo millennio ineunte where John Paul champions the development of new "structures and forums" such as priests’ councils, he is quick to remind readers that they "are not governed by the rules of parliamentary democracy because they are consultative rather than deliberative."

The Catholic church is hierarchical, not congregational, and its ecclesiology should not strictly mirror democratic procedures. At the same time, a more responsive decision-making process is needed. Synods of bishops, for example, are also consultative rather than deliberative. But shouldn’t bishops be more than the pope’s amen corner? A genuine collegiality would recognize that the pope shepherds the church in unity with the bishops, not as a monarchical figure with absolute authority over his junior ministers. Of course, the unity John Paul desires is not easy to achieve when authority is more widely dispersed. But false, or merely imposed, unanimity is worse still. The pope and the curia may "govern" the church’s structure, but increasingly that structure—as the pope’s call to the new evangelization recognizes—is seen as distant and unresponsive by people in the pews. Even worse, the longer Rome presumes to dictate and rarely to listen, to demand obedience but never to relinquish power, the more Catholics grow indifferent to the very idea of religious authority. If Rome cannot trust its bishops, let alone laypeople, to deliberate and not just to consult about the future of the church, what does the "spirituality of communion" really mean?

Published in the 2001-05-04 issue: 
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