Ever since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has committed itself irrevocably to the task of restoring the unity of the church of Christ. Then, as it entered into dialogue with sister churches and ecclesial communities, they, one after the other, voiced their common concern: there is a need to find new ways of exercising the papal ministry. Since all baptized persons are incorporated into Christ and they, too, have the Holy Spirit, their virtually unanimous demand should give us pause.
It has given pause to Pope John Paul II. The result is his extraordinary encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They Be One, 1995). In it he charts new ways. He accepts that the Roman Catholic Church is in need of perpetual conversion, metanoia (No. 15). Then he pointedly recalls how the Master concerned himself with Peter’s conversion (No. 91) and adds that his own ministry is open to a new situation (No. 95). He goes on to conclude, I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the Pastors as theologians of our churches, that we may seektogether, of coursethe forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.
The pope, the teacher, wants to be a learner. To make sure that his point is not missed, he insists, This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself (No. 96).
Theologians and leaders of churches were taken by surprise and were at first slow in responding to the pope’s request. Then they began to understand the invitation and take up the challenge. Some scholars and members of the hierarchy held symposia (two in Rome, one in Innsbruck); others published articles and books; and now, a healthy disputation is spreading and expanding among Catholic and non-Catholic Christiansthat is, within the entire church of Christ.
Avery Dulles, S.J., a professor at Fordham University, made a contribution to this exchange through an article in America ("The Papacy for a Global Church," 7/15). His approach is clear but puzzling. The information he provides is partial. He reports the activities of the center faithfully, but he does not speak of the weaknesses in the provinces. Then, on the basis of incomplete data, he reaches the conclusion that no significant change is needed. As for the ecumenical outcome, here is his position: It will be for members of the other churches to judge whether a strong and energetic papacy is ecumenically acceptable. In other words, the contemporary way of exercising the papacy is not open to a new situation.
A puzzling response, indeed, to the pope’s demand. Surely, John Paul II meant what he wrote: he wants to preserve the substance of his office intact but does not want to cling to unnecessary historical accretions that can impede the union of the churches. To achieve that goal, he asks for fresh ideas and creative insights. Among theologians, an honest disputation is in progress. Learned, wise and responsible scholars from the world over are joining it. (One of the first meetings was sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith!)
All Is Not Well
All should welcome Father Dulles’s contribution. His opinion must be respected and subjected to careful scrutiny. This has been the rule for disputations ever since the Middle Ages. In this spirit, I intend to examine his positions but do not wish to get entangled in useless controversies (John Paul’s words in Ut Unum Sint, No. 96). In a positive fashion, I wish to move beyond what divides us into a broader field of vision and show Catholics and non-Catholics alike that our tradition is rich enough to be the source of inspiration for new ways of exercising the papal ministry without losing any of its substance. For this reason the title of my article is The Papacy for an Ecumenical Age. Ecumenism, not globalism, is John Paul’s concern.
Father Dulles’s point of departure offers an overview of the achievements of a strong and energetic central government. In recent times, the Roman Catholic Church has become more visible in the entire world than ever before; it is enough to think of the two million young people celebrating the jubilee in Rome. Its administration is well ordered and efficient. Should trouble arise at any place, it is able to intervene with speed. Those entrusted to speak in the name of the church are loyal in words and deeds. The secular principalities and powers admire us as never before; they are sending their ambassadors to the strongest moral power on earth. And the church stands in the forefront of the struggle for human rights. For these things we must be grateful.
No sensible person would contest the overall truth of such an assessment; no wise person wants to weaken the church in its service to the human family. Yet in assessing the state of the church, we have a duty to search for the full truth, no matter how disturbing facts and events may bean inquiry that Father Dulles did not undertake. True, the church is strong and energetic in its center; in its outer regions, however, it suffers from internal weaknesses. To begin with the gravest one: for lack of priests, more and more communities are deprived of the Eucharist on Sundays. Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, was reported recently as sounding an alarm. Without priests the sacramental nature of the church will disappear, he said. We’ll become a Protestant church without sacraments. We’ll be another type of church, not Catholic (EWTN News, London, 5/12).
Further, the large majority of the faithful are shunning the sacrament of penance in its medieval-Tridentine form, but they are not allowed to receive it in another fashion. This is an important issue because the spiritual life of the community depends strongly on the sacrament of healing and forgiveness. The educational ministry of the church, which shapes the minds and hearts of future generations, is rapidly diminishing. Religious orders, immense sources of spiritual energy for the whole community, are declining. Our dedicated laity, especially women, are frustrated since they are virtually excluded from all decision making processes.
The distinction between clergy and laity is sharper today than perhaps at any other time in history. The movement toward the unity of Christian churches is slowing down. The Christian population in the regions of the great ancient cultures is hardly increasing, and so forth. To offer such a list is not complaining, it is not being pessimistic; it is pursuing the full truth, an eminently Christian exercise.
The point is that all is not as well as Father Dulles presents it. He fails to perceive the immense energies of the Holy Spirit in the bishops’ assembliesenergies unused. He does not mention the supernatural instinct of the faithful that can guard and infallibly recognize the truthan instinct that hardly ever is allowed to play a role. In failing to contemplate such invisible realities, the unduly restrictive nature of several legal provisions (to be named as this article progresses) escapes him. Yet the purpose of canon law is precisely to create a friendly climate for the operation of the Spirit.
To be sure that we follow the right path in our reflections, let us return to the request of John Paul II and search for its meaning to the fullest extent. Surely, his demand is not (and cannot be) an invitation to produce just cleverly conceived norms and guidelines (a kind of blueprint) for the exercise of his office. Propositions, good as they may be, are without life. New ways must grow out of the living church; they must be the organic product of the body that is the church.
It follows that if we want (if John Paul wants) a new understanding and fresh ecumenical practice of his office, the whole church must be involved. It must become strong and energetic not only in the center but everywhere in searching for and finding new ways to exercise the papacy. The movement toward an ecumenical primacy must begin by strengthening the Roman Catholic communion in the provinces, where the weaknesses are. When the whole body, in each and every part, is functioning fairly and fully, other churches and communities will notice it. They will be attracted by the strength and harmony manifest in the community. Of course, the road to unity will still be long, but we would be marching with increased hope.
Here is our central suggestion: The new manner of exercising the Petrine office should begin by strengthening the Roman Catholic communion in all its parts. The words of the Lord to Peter come to mind, Strengthen your brethren (Lk. 22:34). After all, what else can a future ecumenical primacy be than the ongoing strengthening of the whole body of Christ in all its members, in their unity and in their immense diversities?
Before we turn to particular issues, some general principles must be clarified.
The Universal Church and the Particular Churches
Father Dulles’s theology of the church (as it is displayed in his article) rests on a principle for which he invokes the authority of Vatican II. He writes, The particular churches were, as Vatican II puts it, fashioned after the model of the universal church,’ which is therefore antecedent to them even though it in certain respects depends on them (see Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 23). From this principle of antecedency, he argues for a highly centralized administration and then concludes that the principle of subsidiarity is debatable. The council, however, never used the term antecedent. Father Dulles’s translation of the Latin original (ad imaginem ecclesiae universalis formatis) is questionable, if not misleading. In Tanner’s edition of the council documents, Clarence Gallagher of Oxford, who is well practiced in interpreting conciliar texts, is closer to the original: particular churches [are] formed in the likeness of the universal church (Decrees, vol. 2, p. 867). A scrutiny of the Latin text and of the surrounding debates suggests the meaning (my paraphrase): the internal form of a particular church reflects the image of the universal church, that is, particular churches are one, holy, Catholic and apostolic as the universal church is. But what is the universal church? The council gives a straightforward answer in a balancing clause that Father Dulles does not quote: it exists in and from (in quibus et ex quibus)the particular churches; in other terms there is no universal church (not even conceptually) apart from the particular churches. (All this is technical but indispensable. The principle on which we build must be sound and clear.)
In truth, the question Which is prior, the universal church or the particular churches? is a misconceived question, a trap for the unwary. Anyone who walks into it must choose either the one or the other. It is like asking Which is prior, the body or its members? A body without members is no body; members that do not form a body are not members.
In the post-apostolic Catholic tradition, there has never been, and there could not be, a universal church without particular churches. Such an abstract church could not even have a head, since Peter’s successor is the bishop of Rome! And in the apostolic times, the Spirit descended on the church of Jerusalem; in it and from it the universal church then and there arose.
Once the antecedency principle is discarded, the principle of subsidiarity appears in a new light. It is not a luxury; it is not an option. It is the intrinsic law of any organic body. For the body to operate well, each of its members must function to its normal capacity. If the brain unduly interferes with the heart, the harmony of the body is lost. Now Father Dulles is correct in noting that the principle was first articulated with reference to secular societies, but he fails to see that it was the discovery of an operational law applicable to every human community. The grace that pervades the church does not take away its humanity. (Perhaps a better name for the same principle would be principle of integrity, in the sense that the operational integrity of every single organ is essential for the health of the whole body.)
It would have made no sense for Vatican II to affirm collegiality, nor for opponents of the doctrine to resist it so fiercely and for so long, if by collegiality the council fathers meant mere consultation. Nor would it have made much sense to proclaim collegiality at length if it can be operational at an ecumenical council or through a universal consensus of the bishops only. For centuries no one doubted that in such cases the bishops acted collegially. The action of the council makes sense only if the fathers perceived a need for the practice of effective collegiality in the ordinary, day to day, operations of the church. After vigorous debates, the council proclaimed the doctrine. It left, however, the creation of appropriate norms and structures to the legislator. As yet these do not exist.
Father Dulles fails to perceive the distinction between consultation and collegiality. He represents the celebration of synods, the meeting of the pope with various groups of bishops as collegial acts. They are consultations. Collegiality means participation in the act of a decision, as it happens precisely at an ecumenical council.
So much for general principles: we are now in position to turn to particular issues.
The Appointment of Bishops
The internal well-being of the church depends to a high degree on the laws and ordinances for the selection of the bishops, which have varied a great deal in the course of history. There is not, and there cannot be, any secular model for such procedures, because they are meant for a unique ecclesial act. Father Dulles is right in saying that the selection should not be left to any civil authority, but he is wrong in insinuating that the only alternative is the system presently in place. Our tradition is much richer than that. There is enough wisdom in the church to find alternative ways without going to the secular power. Once again, history can be our magistra vitae, a teacher for living.
In our 2,000 years of existence, three constituencies took turns in playing a leading role in the process of selecting bishops.
In the early centuries, the voice of the people was well heard and given effect. After all, they knew their local church and could identify fitting candidates. Later, when large and half-converted groups flocked into the established church of the state, such democratic practices could not be sustained. Yes, the secular power often succeeded in usurping what should have remained ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Gregory VII, who was pope from 1073 to 1085, did much to reclaim the church’s exclusive right.
By the 12th century, new rules were in effect. A good example of them can be found in the most enduring collection of canonical norms, Gratian’s Concordance of Discordant Canons: When a see falls vacant, the bishops of the province should elect and ordain a deserving deacon or priest to be the new pontiff. There is testimony, if we need one, of the practice of episcopal collegiality. Such a process, however, did not exclude the intervention of the Apostolic See in an emergency. Besides, for various reasons (often accidents of history), the appointment to some sees was reserved to the pope himself.
Since the 19th century, the Holy See increasingly has asserted its own exclusive right to appoint bishops the world over. When a see falls vacant, the pontifical legate (nuncio, apostolic delegate) plays the central role. He is duty bound to consult widely among the local bishops and the clergy, and he may consult lay persons eminent in wisdom. At the end his recommendations are paramount; he proposes the terna. It is a method that has done much to extinguish provincialism and exclude politics. Still, the question remains: could a way be found to let the wisdom of the episcopate and of the laity play a more significant role? Why should we fear them?
The system in place is not wrong; it just lacks equilibrium. Any highly centralized government is tempted (and often tends) to favor unity over diversity, to reward unquestioning loyalty and to distrust creativity. If that happens, there will be weakness in the limbs and the whole body will suffer from it. In the church no administration can be catholic unless it promotes with equal force unity and diversity. Let us recall that if the pope is the principle of unity, the local bishops, each one of them, are principles of diversity.
The ideal candidate for the office of the bishop should have the beautiful balance of character that marked the life of Paul the Apostle. When he was confronted with the pastoral problem of the imposition of the Mosaic laws on converts among the Gentiles, he knew that he had to resolve it in communion with Peter and the others. As he tells it: I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas...then...I went up again.... And I laid before them the Gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain. But when Peter failed to respect the policy approved by the council, Paul did not hesitate to speak up: But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face. There is unity at its best, there is diversity at its strongest (cf. Gal 1:18, 2:1,3,11).
The inspiration for handling the business of the church through the assemblies of bishops comes from the Acts of the Apostles. When the conflict just mentioned erupted about the imposition of the Mosaic laws, the apostles and the elders held a meeting to look into this matter (Acts 15:6). No small matter: the first issue of planting the Gospel in another culture. An assembly was needed to resolve it.
Ever since, when a crisis emerged in the community, or when a pressing need demanded attention, bishops gathered, prayed, deliberated and then decided with an amazing authority: It pleased the holy Spirit and us.... The people listened, and with that supernatural sense (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 12) that faith alone can give, they recognized the voice of their authentic pastors. Undoubtedly, the Apostles, the elders and the people remembered the promise of the Lord: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Mt. 18:20). If that is true of a gathering of the faithful, how much more must it be true when the shepherds come together!
From early times the community distinguished the great synods (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon and so forth) from assemblies of lesser significance. Yet as far as we know, it never occurred to them that a regional meeting of bishops would be deprived of a special assistance of the Spirit. For this reason, while the church recognized the great synods as the decisive witnesses of our tradition, it also respected lesser assemblies as having authority in the Spirit.
Out of this old tradition grew the institution of the episcopal conferences. The same energy of the Spirit is welling up in them (they are bishops!) that animated the particular synods through centuries. They are not infallible, they do not possess the highest degree of prudence. Some of their doctrinal statements may eventually demand completion or even correction; some of their practical actions may need adjustment or even reversal, but that is not the point. They gather in the name of the Lord.
Moreover, the conferences are needed because within the great cultural regions of our world, the voice of a lonely bishop is hardly heard, his action scarcely noticed. The bishops must join forces to proclaim the Gospel forcefully. Together, they must plant the seeds of the Kingdom into the soil of their culture. In order for these things to happen, the conferences need fair freedom and well-measured autonomy.
Suffice it to say here that today the canonical regulations for episcopal conferences are such that the bishops have little freedom, if any at all, to cast fire upon the earth (Lk. 12:49). Yes, there is a need to announce with one voice the good news, but there is the crippling rule of unanimity for any doctrinal statementand what preaching is not a doctrinal statement? Yes, there is a need for creative initiatives but no action can be effective unless reviewed by Romeand by the time the answer comes a precious opportunity may be lost. In the practical order, episcopal conferences exist and operate at the good pleasure of the Holy See.
The Roman Synod of Bishops
Paul VI instituted the Roman Synod (the periodical meetings of the representatives of the episcopal conferences with the pope) to build a closer link with the world wide episcopate. He may have intended it to develop into an effective practice of collegiality. No such development has taken place; the synod has remained a consultative body. Its members are invited to discuss the issues laid before them. They are not called to inquire about the general well-being of the church. They are not allowed to make any decisions. They are entitled only to offer recommendations to the pope.
Such synods are of great benefit to the universal church, not so much for what they are doing but for the potential they are hiding. Always presided over by the pope, they could be guided to a higher status; they could become organs of effective collegiality and be part of decision making processes at the highest level. The power of Peter’s vicar would not be diminished since without him the synod could not exist; rather, he would be helped by the collective wisdom of the representatives. This would be a development especially welcome by the Orthodox Churches: they would recognize in it an affinity with their tradition of synodal government.
Concerning papal teaching, I wish to focus on the one issue that Father Dulles mentions, that of definitive declarations. My aim is not to argue but to report briefly their history and to signal the problems (mostly unresolved) that they have created.
Ever since the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, the Holy See has been searching for ways and means to enforce acceptance of some of its doctrinal declarations that did not amount to papal definitions but were seen as definitive, that is, irreformable. Ways and means to do it were found, and they were introduced one by one.
In 1989 the Holy See published an extended profession of faith, required from all candidates for ordination or for an ecclesiastical office. They must be willing to embrace firmly and to hold all and each [point of doctrine] definitively proposed by the church.
Also in 1989 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith imposed a new Oath of Fidelity to be taken by the same persons, an oath that regards the present and the future: I shall follow with Christian obedience what the sacred pastors, as authentic doctors and teachers of faith, declare. Obedience to definitive declarations is clearly included.
Finally, in 1998 a new canonical penalty at the discretion of the ecclesiastical superior was inserted into the Code of Canon Law applicable to dissenters from definitive doctrine.
These provisions coalesce into a tightly knit pattern that excludes anyone who is not willing to embrace a definitive teaching from functioning in the name of the church.
In the wake of such provisions, problems abound. Probably for the first time in history an official Profession of Faith includes articles that are not of faith. The Oath of Fidelity seemingly suspends conscience; it includes commitment to unknown future declarations and decisions by an ecclesiastical superior, an imposition with no known precedent. The newly introduced penalties remind us that the spirit of the times have changed greatly since John XXIII, who asked the council not to impose sanctions but to let the evangelical message attract people by its beauty.
Catholic scholars are asking, What is definitive doctrine? Responsible persons are caught in a conflict between the duty to take the oath and the obligation to keep their conscience free. And theologians sense a distrust that can bring to a halt their creativity.
The negative impact of these new regulations on the ecumenical movement is far reachingknown to those Catholics who are out in the field quietly working for the union of the churches. Their partners in the dialogues do not fail to communicate discretely but firmly their concern.
The Roman Curia
During Vatican II the complaints against the Roman Curia reached a high level. On Nov. 8, 1963, Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne voiced the frustration of many Fathers. Focusing in particular on the (then) Holy Office, he remarked: Its procedures are out of harmony with modern times, are a source of harm to the faithful and of scandal to those outside the church.
In our own days complaints abound again. Are the reported grievances unjust allegations? Or, is the sensus fidelium at work alerting the community that something is not well in the body of Christ?
To handle this problem, two principles should be invoked. One is that the pope must have a staff composed of intelligent and prudent persons who can expedite the business of the Holy See. Another is that such a staff must never encroach on the legitimate freedom of the local episcopate and the people. Can such a delicate balance ever be achieved?
Cardinal Frings thought yes. Here are some of his suggestions:
There should be a clear distinction between administrative and judicial procedures.
No Roman congregation should have the authority to accuse, judge and condemn an individual who has had no opportunity to defend himself.
No one should be consecrated a bishop just in order to honor him or the office he holds.
Efforts should be made to use fewer bishops, fewer priests and more laymen (cf. Council Daybook, NCWC, 1965, p. 247).
Nearly four decades later, here are some additional thoughts:
We learned that diverse citizenships at the Curia do not necessarily result in an international outlook. A person from the provinces can bring his own narrow horizons into the center and impose it on the worldwide church. But how could the horizons of persons working in the center be broadenedespecially when such persons think that they are already broad enough? Perhaps those in charge of higher offices should from time to time visit far away churches and just listenyes, just listento women and men, priests and bishops, Catholics and non-Catholics. Is this suggestion an impossible dream?
The following is certainly possible: The term of years for major offices should be strictly enforced. It is not to the benefit of the church that a person in an administrative-executive position should impose his personality on the whole church for a long time.
Over the decades after the council we learned that good suggestions are not enoughCardinal Frings made very good ones. Implementation is the real problem.
In the practical order, a permanent mechanism is needed that could watch over the delicate balance described above. Could a papal committee be created, in imitation of the institution of the ombudsman? Complaints could be brought before it, and it would have the power to bring to the attention of the pope undesirable attitudes and administrative excesses. The very existence of such an institution would improve the Curia’s performance.
What is the Genre’ of Father Dulles’s Article?
We have covered the major points raised by Father Dulles; now we are in position to make an overall assessment of his article. What is its literary form?
It is not a scholastic disputation in the style of Aquinas, in which arguments for and against an affirmation are posed, pondered and judged. It is not a theological investigation, in the manner of Karl Rahner, who left no nuance unexamined before reaching a cautious conclusion. It is not an inquiry according to the transcendental precepts of Bernard Lonerganfrom research to understanding to judgment. It is not an aesthetic contemplation of the mystery of the church in the spirit of. Hans Urs von Balthasar. It is none of these. What is it then? It is advocacy. It is driven by the art and craft of rhetoric. It uses or omits information to support a thesis, which is that the development of the exercise of the papal office has reached a point where no significant changes are needed. There is an irony in what Father Dulles is doing: he wants to support the pope but he does not enter into the dynamics of John Paul’s request.
Should our Catholic community accept Father Dulles’s position in practice, the church would freeze in its current state. Of course, it cannot happen. The achievements of the pontificate of John Paul II were possible precisely because he inherited a living church, not one frozen in time.
In Place of a Conclusion
Let me propose a thought experiment to the theologians. (We should use thought experiments much more than we do.) Let us assume that Someone with the power of healing the wounds of the church of Christ raises a wand of peace and restores our lost unity.
The result is that Christian communities from the one end of the earth to the other are one in all necessary beliefs, free in all matters doubtful, bound to one another in charity. They have unity and they display immense diversities.
Let us assume further that the One who healed the church installs the successor of Peter as the bishop of this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Here is the question: could he govern that church in the same manner as he governs the Roman Catholic community today?
If not, what changes would be needed?
This is a different methodology. The search for new ways is not limited by the horizons of the Roman Catholic communion. It looks even beyond the divided and dispersed Christian communities. It contemplates the wholesome image of the church of Christ intact. There cannot be a better source of inspiration.
We heard the pope’s request; we have his mandate. Our task is spelled out for some time to come. Will Father Dulles join us in this holy enterprise?