The Catholic Church around the world is facing numerous crises and challenges: the sexual abuse of minors by clergy (including bishops); the cover-up of abuse by some bishops; the harms perpetrated by a clericalist culture; investigations into homosexuality in seminaries; allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick; the request by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that Pope Francis resign; direct criticism of the pope by some bishops and ideological divisions among bishops themselves.
What is needed now is serenity and clear thinking. The nature of the human mind is to seek answers and solutions as quickly as possible. The nature of conscience is to slow down the mind in order to gather facts before reaching a judgment and then proceeding to a gradual and communal deliberation that precedes solutions and action. Unfortunately, all too often the urgings of conscience are ignored and the deliberation that can also be called discernment is short-circuited.
The spirituality of communion is necessary for bishops, who form a college (a corporate body) with and under the Bishop of Rome.
Bishops should keep this in mind as they are receiving advice from every side. There is a broad consensus, however, that the laity must be increasingly involved in the discernment leading to solutions and action. This would actually be a manifestation of what Pope Francis has called the constitutive synodality of the church. The word “synod” means “journeying together.” The pilgrim People of God is called to constant walking together in order to discern how our history and tradition can be used for its evangelizing mission today. This discernment is best achieved by what a recent document from the International Theological Commission (“Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church”) called circularity: That is, careful, mutual listening among all the members of the church (laity, women and men in consecrated life, clergy) gradually and hopefully leading to a consensus on decisions to be made by those charged with governance (pastors, bishops, pope). Thus, the laity become fully active participants in the journey of the church, the process of discernment and evangelization.
The spirituality of communion, which, as John Paul II taught, enables us to value each person as a “gift for me from God,” is necessary for bishops, who form a college (a corporate body) with and under the Bishop of Rome. “The bishop is never alone because…he is constantly united with his brethren in the episcopate and the one chosen by the Lord to be the Successor of Peter,” according to the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops published by the Congregation for Bishops in 2004. It describes what it calls “affective collegiality.” The Directory goes on to note that the “spirit (affectus) of collegiality, which is more than a mere sense of solidarity, is manifested in different degrees.”
Up until the Second Vatican Council bishops were seen fundamentally as autonomous agents in their respective dioceses, responsible only to the pope. Vatican II’s affirmation of the bishop as a member of the college or communion of bishops with and under the bishop of Rome, while sustaining a certain autonomy in the governance of his diocese, puts him into an inextricable relationship with all bishops. What he does in his own diocese inevitably “affects” the wider church even as he is inevitably “affected” by the wider church. Affective collegiality ranges from the spiritual bond of communion to the various levels of contact among bishops, both informal and formal, and culminating in special events with possible juridical consequences such as synods and ecumenical councils. These latter are known as instances of effective collegiality because of the effects they may have on doctrine and pastoral practice.
What a bishop does in his own diocese inevitably affects the wider church even as he is inevitably affected by the wider church.
Each bishop brings to communion and communication with other bishops not only his own perspectives but also the experience of his own diocese. This is the source of both mutual enrichment and also contrast that can lead to conflict. In general healthy relationships flourish best when they look beyond themselves to a unifying point. In the case of the college of bishops it is their head, the bishop of Rome, who provides that unity. But recent history demonstrates that the rich and vast tradition of the church also fosters unity in conjunction with the unifying role of the pope. I propose two instances from that history: Vatican II and the synods on marriage and family in 2014 and 2015.
Unity in diversity
The 2,500 bishops from all over the world who gathered in Rome in October 1962 for the Second Vatican Council were presented with draft documents that had been prepared substantially by the Roman Curia and represented the neo-scholastic theology of the time. It was the theology that most of the bishops had learned in seminaries. As the bishops embarked on their synodal journey they came to know each other (affective collegiality), the challenges to the church in different parts of the world (e.g., atheism in Europe, poverty in Latin America, the effects of colonialism in Africa, the fragility of Christianity in Asia) and the renewal in scriptural, liturgical and theological studies from fellow bishops and theologians appointed as experts for the council.
The bishops had to discern whether to stay with the neo-scholasticism of the time or to accept the rediscovery of the church’s vast tradition brought about by the renewal in ecclesiastical sciences after World War II. Aware of the signs of the times and with active support from Pope John XXIII and then Pope Paul VI, in the course of their four-year walk together they chose renewal and approved almost unanimously in every case documents that have provided reform and guidance to the church since then.
A minority of bishops have taken issue with an act of the ordinary magisterium of the bishops and have failed to give the religious submission of intellect and will demanded by Vatican II to such an act.
The second instance I propose is the Synods of Bishops in 2014 and 2015 on marriage and family. Consultation of the faithful mandated by Pope Francis before the synods revealed a great yearning for pastoral care, especially of couples in “irregular situations.” These included Catholics who had divorced after a sacramental marriage and had remarried civilly. This created much controversy. But toward the end of the Synod of 2015 the German-language group, including Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, unanimously proposed the use of the internal forum for couples who could not obtain a declaration of nullity for a previous marriage in an ecclesiastical tribunal.
The use of the internal forum is nothing new in the tradition of the church. It was taught, for example, in the manuals of moral theology before Vatican II. In 1998 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had proposed its use when it was not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity from a tribunal.
The proposal of the German bishops was accepted by more than a two-thirds majority of the synod and then incorporated by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.” He added that the use of the internal forum could in specific circumstances lead to readmission to the sacraments. This too was based on the tradition regarding the conditions for mortal sin so that if a person because of certain mitigating circumstances did not give full and deliberate consent to an objectively grave act, then that person could not be considered culpable and thus capable of receiving the sacraments.
The pope, head of the college of bishops and with them drawing on tradition, thus resolved a controversy in a way that has been accepted by a majority of bishops. But there is a minority of bishops who have taken issue with this act of the ordinary magisterium of the bishops and have failed to give the religious submission of intellect and will demanded by Vatican II to such an act.
Some of these bishops have aligned themselves with theologians, laity and media who are in public opposition to the pope. This is the politicization of dissent, the creation of a “party” in which there is no balanced exposition of truth but rather simplistic denunciations of a teaching. This diminishes the visible unity of the college of bishops with and under the Successor of Peter. What also diminishes this unity is the defiance by some bishops of general norms approved by the conference of bishops or the Holy See. And the bishops’ failure to exercise affective collegiality by holding those recalcitrant bishops accountable diminishes their credibility.
Teacher and learner
Affective collegiality means the bishops are not only accountable to one another and to the pope but also accountable for one another. How does affective collegiality address the issues noted above? And how can the bishops be more effective in addressing all the challenges I listed at the beginning? What can the bishops do?
Listen. This has been a recurrent theme during the pontificate of Pope Francis, reiterated most recently and forcefully in his apostolic constitution “Episcopal Communion,” in which he establishes new norms for the Synod of Bishops. He insists that the bishop must see himself as both teacher and learner (discepolo). On the local level, through appropriate consultative bodies, the bishop can hear where the Holy Spirit is leading the church in the search for new ways to evangelize. On the universal level the Synod of Bishops “is an instrument appropriate to give voice to the entire People of God through the Bishops themselves, established by God as ‘authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the entire Church.’”
Affective collegiality means the bishops are not only accountable to one another and to the pope but also accountable for one another.
The bishop is never alone. His ministry is a constant listening to his local church, his fellow bishops and the bishop of Rome. His listening must extend to the pope, who as pastor of the universal church is in a unique position to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church. The loyalty of the bishop to the pope includes an obedience that is a respectful listening beyond what is juridically required. It is possible for a bishop to disagree with the pope. Pope Francis has shown himself to be quite welcoming of criticism, for which there are appropriate channels. What is not appropriate is the use of media and partisan cliques.
The bishops must listen to the tradition of the church, which can be unpacked for the needs of our times; to the People of God, whose articulations of their faith and yearnings may be vague or ambiguous; and to the magisterium of popes, which over the past few decades is vast. Theology plays an indispensable role is mediating between bishops and these voices. But theologians themselves are hardly uniform today in their thinking. That is why it is essential that bishops listen collegially to multiple interpretations of the tradition, the voice of the People of God and papal magisterium. Discourse between theologians and bishops can be modeled on the principles of dialogue outlined by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam.” The relationship of affective collegiality is best served when the bishops turn ad extra.
What can the bishops do to address the current crises? There may be some short-term solutions that address the scourge of sexual abuse and the failures of leaders who failed to stop it. But issues such as seminary formation, clericalism and polarization—indeed, the very ordering of the church—demand long-term solutions that are best addressed by gradual discernment leading to broad consensus on the part of the college of bishops. The People of God have the right to be led by the unity of bishops among themselves with and under the Bishop of Rome.
Today more than ever, the bishop must recognize that he is never alone.