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Avery DullesMarch 05, 2013
Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

Conscious of his pastoral responsibility for the whole flock of Christ, Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical letter “Ut Unum Sint” (No. 96) invited leaders and theologians of other churches to suggest ways in which the papal office, without prejudice to its essential features, could be exercised in ways more conducive to Christian unity. Some of the early responses seemed to say that the very existence of the primacy as it had been defined at Vatican I and Vatican II was ecumenically unacceptable.… A number of Catholic theologians have taken the pope’s invitation as an occasion for expressing their own views on how the papal office might advantageously be restructured. Not surprisingly, the proposals have come principally from authors who are dissatisfied with current procedures. Essentially, their complaint is that the papacy has become too active and powerful. Before assessing the proposals, it will be helpful to reflect on recent trends.

Globalization of the Papacy

During the past two centuries the popes have become increasingly aware of their planetary responsibilities and have transformed the papacy into a more potent symbol of Catholic unity.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) bishops from Western Europe (France, Belgium, Holland and Germany), together with their theological advisers, spearheaded a program of reform that sought to restore the dignity and rights of individual bishops and give real though limited autonomy to regional churches. Missionary bishops of Asia and Africa, anxious to insert the Catholic faith more deeply into the lives of their people, welcomed the program. Without reversing the teaching of Vatican I on papal primacy, Vatican II promoted inculturation; it rehabilitated local and regional churches; it upgraded the episcopate by redefining the bishop as a priest who enjoys the fullness of the sacrament of order. It formulated the doctrine of collegiality, teaching that all bishops in communion with Rome are fellow members of the supreme directorate of the universal church.

To implement these principles Vatican II initiated several structural changes. It called for the internationalization of the Roman Curia, which up to then had been almost exclusively Italian. It erected a system of episcopal conferences, one for each major nation or territory in the world. In concert with Paul VI, the council also set up a totally new institution: the Synod of Bishops, which meets periodically in Rome to deal with matters of concern to the universal church.

Pope Paul VI, faithfully implementing the council’s program, made the papacy a truly global institution. He internationalized the Roman Curia and supervised the establishment of the episcopal conferences and the Synod of Bishops. …As did Paul VI, John Paul II works collegially with the bishops of the world. He has held regular sessions of the Synod of Bishops approximately every three years. In 1985 he called an extraordinary meeting of the synod to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II. He has convoked special sessions of the synod for national and regional groups of bishops, including the four great assemblies for Africa, America, Asia and Europe, leading up to the Great Jubilee of 2000. …All of these mechanisms help the pope to govern the church in a collegial way, taking account of the wisdom and sensitivities of bishops throughout the world.

Proposed Principles of Reform

Many of the recent reform proposals may be seen as reactions against the global papacy of the post-Vatican II era. Seeking greater autonomy for individual bishops and local churches, Catholic reformers frequently invoke the principle of subsidiarity.

Besides invoking subsidiarity, the present-day reformers often argue from tradition. In the ancient church, they point out, the bishops of the apostolic sees of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria were considered to have special authority in the Eastern portion of the church, as Rome did in the West. But before resurrecting the patriarchal model, one should recall the difficulties to which it led. …The resurgence of Roman authority in the 19th century was a signal benefit. It enabled Catholics of different nations to maintain a lively sense of solidarity even through the two world wars of the 20th century.

In our electronic age, when information travels with the speed of light, global authority is more important than ever. What happens today in Peoria can raise questions in New Delhi and Warsaw tomorrow. Rome cannot wait silently while doctrinal issues are debated on the local level, as it might have done when communications were slow and transportation was difficult. Today Rome is drawn in as soon as a controversy arises.

There should be no question of choosing between centralization and decentralization. Decentralization could be disruptive and centralization oppressive unless the centrifugal and centripetal tendencies were held in balance. The process of growth at the extremities places more burdens than ever on the Roman center. In the words of Vatican II, the chair of Peter “presides over the whole assembly of charity and protects legitimate differences, while at the same time it sees that such differences do not hinder unity but rather contribute to it” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 13).

Specific Proposals For Structural Reform

In the light of the principles already stated, we may turn our attention to some specific proposals for reform frequently found in recent theological literature. Five recurrent suggestions seem to merit special mention.

First of all, there is the issue of the nomination of bishops.… Many reform-minded theologians would like a more open and “democratic” process in which names are submitted by the local church, filtered through the national or regional conference of bishops, and eventually proposed to Rome for approval or disapproval.… [T]he proposals I have seen are not free from weaknesses. By erecting representative committees they would unleash factionalism and political power struggles within local churches. By considering only names surfaced within the diocese, they would also create a risk of excessive inbreeding. A church with an eccentric tradition would perpetuate its own eccentricity rather than correct it.

Confidentiality, moreover, could hardly be maintained if names had to be filtered through a succession of committees. In the end, Rome would be under pressure to choose the names proposed or to explain why it was not doing so. But to divulge the reasons against an appointment might be injurious to the candidate’s reputation. And finally, it may be said, the current process allows consideration of a larger pool of possibilities than would be familiar to any diocesan committee. Although mistakes are occasionally made, the existing procedure, in my opinion, has given us a generally excellent body of bishops who can be trusted to serve as faithful pastors of their flocks. They compare favorably with the elected bishops of other churches.

Power of the Synod of Bishops

A second issue has to do with the powers of the Synod of Bishops.


There are voices in the church that would like to see the synod transformed into a body that could enact laws and issue binding doctrinal pronouncements. Given the ad hoc make-up of the assemblies and the relatively brief time of the meetings, I am inclined to disagree. I doubt that the Catholic faithful would wish to be bound by the decrees of such an assembly. The pope can, of course, give the synod power to decide some issue by majority vote, but he has thus far preferred to seek recommendations from the synod and let the Roman congregations follow up with the necessary action.

A third issue under discussion is the role of the episcopal conferences, such as, in the United States, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. As constituted by Vatican II, they are primarily consultative in nature. They permit the bishops of a nation or region to benefit from one another’s wisdom and coordinate their policies as they govern their own dioceses. The conferences do not normally make binding legislation, but they can do so on occasion either by unanimous vote or by a two-thirds majority together with a formal approval (recognitio) from Rome.

In the summer of 1998, the pope published a letter in which he clarified the nature and doctrinal authority of episcopal conferences, as the Synod of Bishops of 1985 had requested. He ruled that the conferences could not teach obligatory doctrine without a two-thirds majority followed by Roman recognition. Some critics contend that this ruling showed excessive distrust of the conferences. But Vatican II did not establish the conferences as doctrinal organs. How could the Catholic people in the United States be bound by a vote of their bishops to profess some belief that was not taught throughout the church? Do the diocesan bishops and the Catholic people really want to be bound in matters of doctrine by the majority vote of their bishops’ conference—especially if it be a small conference that might have less than a dozen members?

A fourth point under discussion is the power of the Roman Curia.... Diocesan bishops often complain that Rome is interfering too much in the affairs of the local churches. But Rome rarely intervenes on its own initiative. It is usually responding to complaints from the local church against some questionable proceeding.

In doctrinal matters, Rome’s policy has generally been to encourage the diocesan bishops and the bishops’ conferences to take greater responsibility for overseeing the orthodoxy of what is preached and taught in their respective areas. But the bishops usually rely upon Rome to assure them that they are teaching in communion with the universal church, since doctrines are by their very nature universal. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cannot avoid being drawn into discussions where questions of orthodoxy are raised.

A fifth and final question has to do with papal teaching authority. The present pope, like Paul VI, has thus far refrained from issuing ex cathedra dogmatic definitions, but he has several times made conclusive doctrinal determinations without any formal vote by the college of bishops. In these cases he has used his own authority as universal primate to “confirm the brethren” (Lk. 22:32), authoritatively gathering up the general consensus of bishops, past and present. Some theologians apparently hold that the pope ought to conduct a poll or call for a vote before issuing such pronouncements. But it may be answered that even if a few bishops disagree, the voice of the pope together with a solid majority of bishops over a long period of time obviates the need for a head count. Such cumbersome processes could easily prevent a timely and effective response to critical situations.

A Papacy in Dialogue

Since Vatican II the principal drama within the Catholic Church has been the dialectical tension between centralizing and decentralizing tendencies. The decentralizers tend to see themselves as progressives and to depict their adversaries as restorationists, but the opposite case can equally well be made. Those who want to reinstate the conditions of patristic Christianity tend to be nostalgic and anachronistic.

In the end, the question should not be posed as an either/or. Precisely because of the increased activity of particular churches and conferences, Rome is required to exercise greater vigilance than ever, lest the unity of the church be jeopardized. The global character of the Catholic Church today, together with the rapidity of modern communications, makes ineluctable new demands on the papal office. It will be for members of other churches to judge whether a strong and energetic papacy is ecumenically acceptable. More than a few, I suspect, are looking toward Rome to provide effective leadership for the entire oikoumene (the whole inhabited world). The contemporary world situation, as I understand it, demands a successor of Peter who, with the divine assistance, can teach and direct the entire people of God. The Petrine office, as it has developed since Vatican II, has a unique capacity to hold all local and regional churches in dialogue while reaching out in loving service to all. Paul VI and John Paul II are to be praised for having discharged this mission with loyalty, strength and openness to the Spirit of God.

Read the full text of this article and a response from Ladislas Orsy, S.J.

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10 years 10 months ago
I was present at Cardinal Dulles' lecture in 2000. I had some misgivings about it then and in retrospect 13 years later I would like to focus on just one aspect of the lecture--the selection of bishops. While at the time as well as today some were calling for a more participatory process on the local level, Cardinal Dulles warned of a parochial inbreeding. To counter that argument I would warn of a universal inbreeding that could be as equally problematic when under John Paul II the litmus test for new bishops was absolute conformity to his way regarding priestly celibacy, birth control and women priests. Some opine that today the spirit filled openness and willingness for creative renewal released by Vatican II would not be possible given the conformist mentality of present day leadership.

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