Can We Talk?

The Reform of the Papacyby John R. QuinnCrossroad. 189p $19.95

The Reform of the Papacy is an important book, one certain to be controversial within and without the Roman Catholic Church, above all controversial within the episcopacy in the United States and abroad. To recognize its importance and likely impact requires but a brief consideration of the topic and the author. The very title suggests that this book will raise the question of reforming the papacy as a response to a costly call from someone or something for the sake of Christian unity. The question for the reader is really then a set of questions: Who or what calls? How seriously should we take the call? What are the reforms and why are they needed? What are the costs? What sort of unity is at stake?

Raised by anyone, these questions would be of some interest, but here the inquirer is John R. Quinn, Archbishop of San Francisco from 1977 to 1995, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1977 to 1980, a member of numerous ecclesiastical committees including most recently the Bishops Committee for Pro-Life Activities and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine. Starting in 1994, he served as chair of this last committee. Now, at 71, he asks about the reform of the papacy and ties it to a costly call from Pope John Paul II.


Quinn opens his preface by stating that this book is one bishop’s attempt to respond to Pope John Paul II’s request for bishops to engage with him in a patient and fraternal dialogue about the papacy. In Ut Unum Sint, the 1995 encyclical letter on commitment to ecumenism, the pope acknowledges that the papacy in its present functioning can be an obstacle to Christian unity and invites the bishops to engage in a dialogue among themselves and by definition with him about the reform of the papacy required to make it more a service of love recognized by all concerned. Quinn tells the reader that he himself writes at the first level of reflection, not as a theologian, but as a bishop using theology and history and opening his work to correction, modification, augmentation, even confirmation from theologians, scholars and fellow bishops. He gives us a clear, methodical, careful and interesting text based on personal experience, thorough study and genuine concern for the church.

The starting point has to be the essential character of papal primacy. John Paul II summarizes this character as one of keeping watch...with power and authority for the communion of all the churches. But he points out that the pope exercises power and authority within the whole body of bishops, who are also vicars and ambassadors of Christ’ and who have in this encyclical the explicit invitation to help him keep watch and serve unity through criticism as well as collaboration. Quinn sees this invitation as logically extending beyond the episcopacy to clerics and laity in general. They can all help by speaking even the painful truth in love. One key test for Ut Unum Sint must be how well the Roman Catholic Church handles self-criticism now, how well pope, bishops, priests and laity give and receive criticism upwards and downwards. In fact, Quinn believes that Roman Catholics have frequently proven to be impatient in giving criticism and defensive in receiving it. Secrecy and suspicion, censure and timidity undermine the message of the encyclical.

Another test for Ut Unum Sint lies in the successful development of episcopal collegiality within the Roman Catholic Church. Union with other churches, Orthodox and Protestant, depends on the possibility for those churches to maintain much of their legitimate autonomy and difference and still function integrally within one church. Here, as in the matter of criticism and reform, Quinn appeals not just to the Second Vatican Council, but also to the teaching and practice of the earlier church. He cites, for example, Pius IX in his defense of the German episcopacy against Bismarck after Vatican I. The German bishops were right: Vatican I had not made the pope an absolute sovereign, with bishops as mere papal functionaries without personal responsibilities. He has full supreme and universal power in the church, but he has it as bishop of Rome, not bishop of any other city or diocese, not bishop of Cologne or of Breslau. These other bishops have their own roles, and we should expect to see them fulfilling these roles in their dioceses and in their work together at regional episcopal conferences and at synods of bishops with the pope. In both areas, however, Quinn finds a far less than satisfactory situation, one hardly in keeping with Ut Unum Sint.

In Quinn’s account, statements and actions of the last 10 years have systematically undercut the role of episcopal conferences. Pope John Paul II’s document, issued motu proprio in 1998, On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences makes the requirement that only doctrinal decisions passed unanimously or approved by Rome after a two-thirds vote can be published as authoritative teaching of the conference. It is a stricter criterion than that required of either an ecumenical council or an official meeting of a Roman congregation and effectively puts the power in episcopal conferences within the minority.

Quinn also notes how offices of the Roman Curia have rejected major and responsible decisions of regional conferences. As examples he cites the translations of the catechism and the Lectionary in various countries and in the case of the inter-relationship of the church and the Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States. Synods of bishops with the pope have, in turn, taken on such an artificial and programmed character that there is little chance for give and take among the bishops present or of interaction between the bishops and the pope. The bishops and the pope thus lose the opportunity to address real regional or universal problems of the church openly and honestly. Related to the problems of episcopal conferences and synods of bishops are the inadequate consultation with regional bishops, clergy and laity in the appointment of bishops and the transformation of the College of Cardinals into a college within a college, making the College of Bishops one of second rank.

When Quinn has finished, the reader can have no doubt that Pope John Paul II needed to call for help in Ut Unum Sint and that it may be a costly call for him and for his successors as well as for the rest of us. The Reform of the Papacy calls for the significant decentralization of the teaching and governing church and the reconstruction of the Roman Curia. These proposals will be costly because they will be complex and, as Quinn notes, because they will pose risks. One should also remark that such structural changes may not address our deepest problems and worries. For any reform to succeed, for the church and the churches to overcome the great divisions, we (pope, bishops...) will have to criticize and listen with prudence, love, hope, courage and patience. It’s a lot to ask.

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