Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Avery Dulles | Ladislas OrsyNovember 25, 2000

When I discovered that Ladislas Orsy, S.J., had written such a lengthy response (10/21) to my article on the papacy for a global church (7/15), I wondered how I could reply with reasonable brevity. But when I read his piece, I came to realize that I had in effect answered him already, in the very article to which he was responding. Let me explain.

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on ecumenism (Ut Unum Sint, 1995) invited the leaders and theologians of other churches to make suggestions as to how he might use the resources of his office more effectively for the benefit of all Christians. A host of Catholic reformist theologians seized upon this request as though the pope were inviting them to air their grievances against Rome. Father Orsy in his America article offers a polite version of this genre.

In my article last July I did not presume to speak for representatives of other churches, to whom the pope’s request was addressed. I chose rather to respond to some Catholic reform proposals that did not take sufficient account of the new situation of the church in a global age dominated by electronic communications. This situation, I argued, puts new demands on the papal office as well as on regional and diocesan churches within the Catholic communion. The papacy, while it always retains its essential features as the primatial office, has developed dramatically in the past two centuries, especially since the Second Vatican Council.

The council, without in any way cutting back on the power of the papacy, did give new importance to the diocesan and regional churches. I see this move toward a polycentric inculturated church as requiring a stronger office of unity to prevent mutual alienation among Catholics of different regions.

Father Orsy fails to deal with my central thesis. Instead he makes it appear that I am proposing to freeze the development and that I am not open to the new situation. I do indeed call for a strong and energetic papacy, but I also call for lively churches on the local and regional level and for collegial involvement of all the bishops in the concerns of the universal church.

This is hardly the place to take up again all the particular questions discussed in our two articles. But a few words should be said on each of the eight issues that Father Orsy picks up from my article.

On the universal church: Let me repeat that the church as founded was universal. Even though it originated in one place, it included all believers. Particular churches, including a portion of the people of God with their pastors and regional structures, developed as a byproduct of missionary expansion. But the member churches are intelligible only as expressions of the one Catholic Church, which is always presupposed. The universal church is enriched by the particular churches in all their variety, but it does not take its origin from them.

Subsidiarity as a technical notion can only with great difficulty be applied to the church, since the Petrine office was not founded as a subsidiary, as if to supply for the deficiencies of lower governmental offices. Apparently because of the limitations of the term subsidiarity, Father Orsy prefers to speak of a principle of integrity, which is not the same thing. As I said in my article, regional churches and dioceses should have the capability of dealing with local issues, while of course preserving communion with the universal church.

Collegiality in the strict sense of the word exists only when all the bishops of the Catholic Church, with the pope as their head, reach decisions together. When smaller groups of bishops assemble, they do not constitute a college and should not try to act as though they were. But they should strive to collaborate in a collegial spirit.

On the appointment of bishops, I am quite open to new proposals, but I urge caution to prevent partisanship, electioneering and the interference of national governments. The present system ensures confidentiality and protects the reputation of individuals who are not selected. It also allows the consideration of persons who would not be well known in the locality.

Episcopal conferences are excellent consultative organs. They may on occasion have the power to speak with binding authority, but their legislative and doctrinal role should be kept in check lest they encourage the growth of nationalism in the church and override the authority of the diocesan bishops.

The Synod of Bishops has proved very useful, but for reasons given above it does not have the power to act as if it were the college of bishops. In its present form, it is not well suited to function as a legislative or doctrinal authority for the universal church.

On the papal teaching office, Father Orsy renews his plea (made in several other places) that Catholics should be free to dissent from definitive teaching. I have in various articles explained why I hold that Catholics must embrace the definitive (or irreformable) teaching of the church, even in matters that fall short of solemnly proclaimed dogmas.

As for the Roman Curia, it will always be the butt of complaints no matter how often it is reformed. Maybe an occasional word of appreciation for these Roman offices would not be out of place.

In conclusion let me say that I am not against change or reform, but I want to make sure that the change is for the better. The structures of the church have been rapidly evolving since Vatican II, and will continue to evolve as the church responds to the demands of our electronic, global age. Many of the current reform proposals, invoking the authority of ancient and medieval precedents, fail to reckon with the new situation of the church. My article of last July may be read as a critical appraisal of proposals such as those offered by Father Orsy in his October response.

Ladislas Orsy:

I am grateful to Father Dulles for his response. In exchange, may I offer some remarks?

There is the initial question: To whom did John Paul II address his invitation to reflect on the exercise of the Petrine ministry? Father Dulles writes [the pope] in his encyclical on ecumenism invited the leaders and theologians of other churches to make suggestions.... John Paul’s text is: I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the pastors and theologians of our churches, that we may seektogether, of coursethe forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love.... Us, our churches, we, together: could the pope have said more emphatically that all Christians, Catholics included, are invited?

Father Dulles continues: A host of Catholic reformist theologians seized upon this request...to air their grievances against Rome. In fact, among the first to respond to the pope’s request was Cardinal Ratzinger (hardly a reformist theologian), who convened a symposium in Rome to explore the issue. Then followed another meeting in Rome, organized by the Atonement Fathers, at the respected Centro pro Unione; the participants included Bishop Pierre Duprey, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and a host of renowned ecumenists from the Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed and Catholic churches. (The papers of this symposium are available from The Liturgical Press under the title Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church, a book not of grievances but of intelligent reflections; highly recommended.)

Concerning the issue of definitive teaching, Father Dulles is explicit in attributing to me an opinion and intent: Father Orsy renews his plea (made in several other places) that Catholics should be free to dissent from definitive teaching. I have made no such plea anywhere. Here is my position, represented well by an identical text published in various languages (in Stimmen der Zeit, Germany; Razon y Fe, Spain; Ceide, Ireland): At this point [in history] we are invited (we have the obligation) to do further research into the nature and theological authority of the category of definitive teaching.’ It has been presented to the church universal by the Holy See. It must be received with due obsequium, respect.’ Yet, as of now, we do not have a full comprehension of its place in our Tradition. It represents a new development that demands a considered response from the part of the episcopate and the community of the theologians. If I am pleading for anything, it is for faith seeking understanding. Who could object to that? Nor am I alone in this quest. After all, in traditional theology it is not easy to understand how a teaching can be non-infallible (hence fallible) yet irreformable. To study the issue, in December 1999 the Institute of Religious Studies in Bologna (editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II) convened an international meeting of theologians, because it seemed opportune to do extended reflections in depth, reflections that are neither critical confrontations nor simplistic expositions. All the papers of the symposium have been published by the institute; they are the witnesses of impeccably honest scholarship.

Father Dulles’s complaint that I failed to pay attention to his central theme, the church and globalization, is well taken. Let me comment on it. He writes, [the] move toward a polycentric inculturated church [requires] a stronger office of unity to prevent mutual alienation among Catholics of different regions. Thus globalization should lead in the church to a policy of governance that keeps in check (Father Dulles’s words) the episcopal conferences, lest they go astray in legislative and doctrinal matterse.g., by giving in to the growth of nationalism. Here are my observations.

First, globalization is a secular phenomenon driven strongly by the powerful forces of the marketand greed; it tends to destroy what is small and beautiful. In no way must it touch, still less diminish, theological realities, such as the God-given diversity and dignity of the particular churches, the energy of the Spirit in the bishops’ gatherings in synods and conferences, the appreciation for the sense of faith of the people in the provinces. Such realities, and their functions, must be determined exclusively from traditional theological sources.

Further, in setting the church’s policy, we should heed a warning from history. Let me explain. In virtually every age, the church tended to imitate to a degree the patterns of governance in the secular city. In the early centuries the church in its organization copied the structures of the Roman Empire; in the Middle Ages it accepted the ways and means of the feudal order; in modern times it received procedures, customs and symbols from the absolute monarchies. Today the global corporations are on the horizon and shine as tempting images for neatly ordered efficiency. The multinationals are internally unified and disciplined; they are shaped and governed from the center down to the last details. Their way of doing business, however, is utterly unsuitable for any Christian communion that honors God’s gifts in their diversity no less than it respects God’s design in its unity. Wisdom tells us: here is a temptation to be watched and resisted.

To conclude: yes, there are significant differences between Father Dulles’s perception of the demands of a global church and my understanding of the needs of an ecumenical church. Our discordant opinions, however, should not obscure the fact that we have concordant convictions. In the presence of the mystery of God’s saving work in the Christian community, we must confess (I am sure that Father Dulles concurs) that our concepts and propositions are poor representations of the drama of our redemption, in which divine magnanimity meets human fragility. Our common ignorance of the ways of the Spirit exceedsby farour knowledge of it. Often it is best to let the arguments rest, so that the mystery can speak for itself. There are also the telling facts: we belong to the same people, we are pilgrims on the same road and we are hoping to reach the same City. All differences pale in the light of such similarities.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

The troubled Catholic outlet's fate was announced by a law firm representing a priest who had sued Church Militant for defamation.
The new recording of “How Great Thou Art” features a new verse, a different beat and a chance to provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans in the midst of war.
Is our intense focus on the form of liturgical celebration placing a disproportionate emphasis upon the Eucharist as the summit of Christian life?
Michael OlsonMarch 04, 2024
In a speech read by an aide, Pope Francis told a group of grieving parents that the best response to grief is “to imitate the emotion and compassion of Jesus in the face of pain.”