A diversity of authority: Church governance throughout history

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri (left), secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis and Cardinal Kevin Farrell (right), prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, with youth delegates in Rome on March 19, 2018 during a pre-synodal gathering for the Synod of Bishops on Young People. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a symposium at the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago, Ill., on November 4, 2019. It is a response to John W. O'Malley's "Who Governs the Catholic Church?"

I should begin by first thanking John W. O’Malley, S.J., for his trilogy of books on the modern ecumenical councils (Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II), and second for his remarkable addition to that trilogy, When Bishops Meet. His work helps us to see that the conciliar tradition enabled the church to face three crises, each of which had to do with the question of reform.

The first, of course, was the 16th-century Reformation, which fragmented the unity of the pre-modern church. Speaking in general terms, the Protestant Reformation in France and Germany was instigated by the corruption of the church, especially on issues of morals and the longstanding arrogance and sloth of ecclesiastical leadership. The Protestant solution was to radically simplify church polity with the aim of preserving the essential core of the Gospel. The reform of Trent, however, resisted the idea that the evangelical core could be preserved by radical simplification of the ecclesial structure. In some ways, Trent made the ecclesial structure more complex.

Three centuries later, the church faced another crisis. Once again, the issue was reform by radical simplification—much more radical than the Protestant reformation. Let us call it the laicist program. The French Revolution quickly overflowed into almost every Catholic country in Europe and the New World. The revolutionary proposition was this: The multitude of offices and orders of the church must be regarded (at least for public purposes) simply as civil offices and orders. Because the guiding principles of society were liberty, equality and fraternity, the church was to be seen as a civil fraternity. Pius VII, when he was Cardinal Archbishop of Imola, was prompted to put on his stationery: “Liberty, Equality, and Peace in Our Lord Jesus Christ.” The First Vatican Council thus made it clear that the relationship between the pope and the bishops is not a civil fraternity.

While Vatican I rather successfully preserved one important aspect of church polity—the hierarchical and collegial relationship of apostolic authority—it did not address reform of the even more complex offices and orders and charisms of the church as a social body.

A century later at the Second Vatican Council, the bishops acknowledged that the reform of the previous council was incomplete. While it rather successfully preserved one important aspect of church polity—the hierarchical and collegial relationship of apostolic authority—it did not address reform of the even more complex offices and orders and charisms of the church as a social body. One lesson that needs to be learned over and over again is that church reform cannot consist solely in clarifying and enhancing the efficiency of the chain of command. This was a signal and enduring insight of the council—albeit one that is often ignored when passion for reform is at full tilt.

For a social entity organized around hierarchical complementarity, the social parts are not homogeneous. They are qualitatively different and in need of one another. Think of matrimony and family. The distinct social parts are not substitutable or replaceable, or out-sourceable. Collaboration for the purpose of external results that are mutually agreeable suffices for the organization and maintenance of a social utility, but it does not suffice for a social order in which the mutuality and reciprocity of the members is an intrinsically valuable common good.

When considering a social order oriented chiefly to social utility, subsidiarity invariably means devolution, transparency and efficiency—to reach the lowest effective level that makes possible the agreed-upon results. The original meaning of subsidiarity, however, depended on hierarchical complementarity. What do the social parts owe to one another? Subsidium—that is, aid and assistance. But not aid that cancels out or replaces what is proper to their munus, or social role. Pius XII noted that “every social activity is [of] its nature subsidiary; it must serve as a support to members of the social body and never destroy or absorb them.”

Every social body requires collective action. Social order is not spontaneously achieved, but instead requires the members (at least most of them) to be able to imagine the social “whole.” I think here of Charles Taylor’s term, a “social imaginary” (a repertoire of experiences, actions, symbols, laws, customs) that allows the social parts to know the social whole. If that should recede or become defunct, the chain of command would be ineffective. The legislative and authority structure of the church is not just commonality under commands. It is socially multiformed.

In this regard, modern social institutions have two advantages. First, they are “constructed.” Corporations, states, armies and even Facebook friends are designed. We know how they are arrayed and arranged because we made it so. Second, the order is homogeneous: quantitatively complex, but not qualitatively. In a democratic republic such as ours, the parts (citizens) are equal in dignity and rights.

Every social body requires collective action. Social order is not spontaneously achieved, but instead requires the members (at least most of them) to be able to imagine the social “whole.”

A constructed and relatively homogenous social entity makes it easy, or at least easier, to know the “whole.” Think, for example, of the Westphalian system of state sovereignty: command over persons inhabiting a geographically unified territory. (Compare that to its predecessor, the Holy Roman Empire.) Or think of quantitatively huge and complex enterprises like Amazon. It is amenable to managerial direction and, just as importantly, to almost continuous reform based on institutional principles of efficiency and transparency and motivational slogans provided by the human resources department.

But there are other kinds of social communions, including those based on the principle of hierarchical complementarity. This includes various orders and a diversity of offices, gifts and charisms. Our unity requires a mutuality of orders and persons who contribute unique parts to the church’s whole. Those parts have to retain their mutuality and distinct roles for the church to succeed in reform.

For a constructed and relatively homogeneous body, the practices of decentralization, transparency and efficiency are usually reliable. But such a model is of limited efficacy in a social order that is multiform and enjoys a common life, a communion. After all, the role of baptized parents to educate their children in the faith is not necessarily the most efficient—but who would deny parents that solemn obligation?

As Father O’Malley has noted, the path of synodality has emerged slowly, in inverse proportion to the urgency with which it is needed. Perhaps that pace is good news, so we can be slowly reformed rather than deformed by the piecemeal application of corporate best-practices to every problem. We must wait to see whether regional synods are a good venue for addressing reform issues that affect the whole ecclesial body. Some of the issues—clerical corruption, irresponsible leadership, the corporate identity of the laity—now have a life of their own across the global church. They might be the harbinger of another ecumenical council. Father O’Malley’s trilogy teaches us that this would not be our worst fate.

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