My Vision for the Church of the Future
By Cardinal Dr. Franz König
To cope with a rapidly changing world, the Catholic Church has to preserve its unity. But it also has to develop Catholic diversity. What style of leadership will enable it to do this? From the point of view of ecumenical endeavour, the very existence and exercise of Roman primacy are the real difficulty, but within the Catholic Church itself the question has long been: how can or should the present structure of command, which in the past century has become so centralised, be amended or improved?
A gradual decentralisation is needed, so as to strengthen the concern and responsibility of the college of bishops for the whole Church, under and with the Petrine office. That was the direction specified at the Second Vatican Council. At the same time, the competence of individual bishops both locally and regionally needs to be strengthened too, for they are the shepherds of their local Churches, the vicars of Christ in their own dioceses. That is why Vatican II described the Church as a communion of local Churches.
Within the Catholic Church itself, no one has difficulties about the existence of the Petrine office, served by the necessary bureaucracy adjusted in line with the times. What is often felt to be defective is the present style of leadership practised by the authorities in the Roman Curia in dealing with the diverse and multiple dioceses throughout the world.
According to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the bishops are called upon "to be solicitous for the entire Church" (23). The expectation was that they would do this through the regular synods of bishops held in Rome. But it has not happened as Paul VI intended in his encyclical letter Sollicitudo omnium ecclesium ("The care of all the Churches"). In that letter, endeavouring to meet the wishes of the council, Paul VI took pains to remodel the advisory and controlling function of the curial authorities, in order to bring them into line with the council’s intentions. In the post-conciliar period, however, as bishops have not infrequently pointed out, the Vatican authorities have striven to take back autonomy and central leadership for themselves. The intentions of Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum have not been realised.
In pointing out such faults, I am concerned, precisely, with "the well-being of the whole Church". In accordance with the council's wishes, the college of bishops should strive to assist the Bishop of Rome, holder of the Petrine office, in his task of leadership. Each bishop, according to Lumen Gentium 23, "as a member of the episcopal college and a legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ's decree and command to be solicitous for the entire Church". This solicitude, Lumen Gentium goes on, "though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes immensely to the welfare of the universal Church". But the style of leadership of the universal Church which is being practised today is not entirely in keeping with the council's intentions.
A reference in Pope John Paul II's document on bishops' conferences, Apostolos Suos, of 23 July 1998, and a corresponding comment in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano of 24 July 1998, should be noted. It is said there that the authority of the episcopal college over the whole Church does not arise "from the sum of the powers of the individual bishops"; rather, it is "a pre-defined reality, in which the individual bishops participate, so as to take decisions concerning the entire Church only when they act together as a college " (12). This seemingly restrictive statement does in fact call attention to the significance of the episcopal college.
The council did not go into how "the concern for the whole Church" could be put into effect. That is the task of the post-conciliar period, and the need now is to find new ways in which the synod of bishops can participate in governing the universal Church. The procedure for appointing bishops also needs to come under scrutiny, for there have been difficulties when the bishops' conference concerned was not adequately consulted, or was not consulted at all.
On the threshold of the third millenium, bearing in mind both the necessary unity and the potential diversity in the Catholic Church, it becomes apparent what difficulties have to be faced, and what opportunities must be grasped. The context is a Catholic Church which has moved out of its European phase, evolving impressively into a world Church. It is no longer Europe-centred: together with the Petrine office, it has discarded, or is in the process of discarding its European mould. How to govern a Church of such diversity? We must decentralise.
At the same time, however, the Roman Curia remains a powerful force tending in the opposite direction, towards centralism. It too has become international. It is no longer an Italian instrument. But it remains strong and powerful. The Vatican bureaucracy has abundant human and Christian experience, accumulated over centuries and prestige accruing from its role in the battle against rationalism and nationalism and in defence of church unity. From a European viewpoint, and because of the difficulties in Europe, it was always a case of preserving church unity which, almost exclusively, took precedence. Accordingly, the possibility of diversity within this unity – the necessity, indeed for such diversity – was given little consideration.
This is part of the problem. Nowadays the responsibility and concern for the whole Church place increasing demands on Petrine office. Inevitably the Roman Curia bears part of this burden, but this is where the worldwide episcopal college should, as intended by Lumen Gentium 22 and 23, take a hand: "by Christ's decree and command” each individual bishop "is obliged to be solicitous for the entire Church". The Second Vatican Council, by linking its doctrine of collegiality to that of papal primacy as defined at Vatican I, gave us a precise description of the significance of the Episcopal college and of its tasks in conjunction with the Petrine office. One could call it an act of divine providence, in order better to meet the new requirements for the world church.
In fact, however, de facto and not de jure, intentionally or unintentionally, the curia authorities working in conjunction with the pope have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college. It is they who now carry out almost all of them.
We already have some practical examples of how the episcopal college can function. The Second European Ecumenical Assembly in Graz in 1997, a major ecumenical event, was prepared and carried out through the co-operation of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, on the Catholic side, and the Conference of European Churches, grouping Orthodox, Anglicans Protestants and Old Catholics. And this would seem to have come about without any official participation on the part of the Vatican authorities.
The pope himself has raised more sharply than anyone else the question of the present style of leadership in the Roman Catholic Church in relation to the Episcopal college. In his 1995 encyclical Ut unum sint (“That they may be one”), John Paul II underlines the Catholic Church’s ‘irrevocable’ obligation to seek ecumenical unity (3). In the concluding section, the pope considers “how much further we must travel until that blessed day when full unity in faith will be attained” (77) .
In order to counter the implicit, sometimes explicit, suspicion among other Christians that popes exercise dictatorial authority over their Church, John Paul II repeatedly emphasises the link between the Petrine office and the episcopal college. His office cannot be separated from that mission “entrusted to the whole body of bishops”, he says. They also are “vicars and ambassadors of Christ”. And, so as not to leave any possibility of misunderstanding, he adds: “The Bishop of Rome is a member of the episcopal college, and the bishops are his brothers in the ministry” (95).
This extensive link between the Petrine office and the episcopal college should he thinks, help to dispel fears of an ‘infallible’ pope exerting exaggerated, centralist leadership. On the strength of this link, he proceeds to make a ‘brotherly’ suggestion to the separated Christians. As Bishop of Rome, he says, holder of the Petrine office he invites his ecumenical partners to enter into “a patient dialogue” with him, to find “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is none the less open to a new situation”(95).
He proposes a discussion which will not fundamentally dispute or question the existence of the Petrine office, but will remove the obstacles which at present are a deterrent to the other Churches. The pope himself admits that “this is an immense task, which I cannot carry out by myself” (96).
In this unusual and remarkable proposal, as I see it, he is alluding to leadership problems in his own Church. These can only be solved by sharing the concern and responsibility for the whole Church with the bishops. It is a case of always linking papal primacy to the episcopal college, and thus allaying suspicion that the Petrine office lays claim to absolute supremacy over the Church.
To set such considerations in a wider context, one must also pay particular attention to subsidiarity as a way of ordering society within the Church. The principle of subsidiarity is fundamental to Catholic social teaching. It is seen as an essential component of human society, as Pius XI described it in its classical form in his encyclical of 1931, Quadragesimo Anno. The relevant passage reads: “just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accommodate by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also is it an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater or higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy or absorb them.” This is the well-known text which has so often been quoted since then, as for example, in Pope John XXIII’s first social encyclical, Mater et Magistra. This same "principle of subsidiarity" was incorporated by the European Union into the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 as a guideline in the section entitled "Common Provisions".
The 1969 Synod of Bishops voted in favour of bringing the principle of subsidiarity to bear on the new edition of the Code of Canon Law. And two years later, in 1971, the Synod of Bishops voted in favour of putting it into practice with regard to bishops’ conferences. The introduction to the new code of 1983 says. "The principle of subsidiarity also belongs to the basic principle of the new canon law."
The Church, however, is not an organisation or community like any other, for it is "one complex reality", as Lumen Gentium 8 puts it, "comprising a human and a divine element". So here on earth it is simultaneously a visible structure and a spiritual community - in the words, again, of Lumen Gentium, a visible structure which is the community of faith, hope and charity. The principle of subsidiarity, a purely human concept, can he applied by analogy to this visible structure. The word "subsidiarity", which is derived from the Latin subsidium, meaning help or service, implies that within the Church, viewed as a visible structure, higher-ranking organisations should not take over what lower-ranking ones can and should do on their own. Higher-ranking organisations should offer subsidiary ones help and support, so that they can accomplish their own specific tasks.
Pius XII later pointed out that the principle of subsidiarity also applied to the government of the Church itself. In an address on 20 December 1946, he repeated his predecessor’s already classic definition of the principle of subsidiarity, and then continued: "Such words are indeed enlightening; they apply not only to society, but also to the life of the Church within its hierarchical structure."
With this statement, Plus XII wanted not least to focus on the freedom and dignity of the individual, which, in the midst of structures and organisations, must not be suppressed. The principle of subsidiarity was designed to assure the independence, initiative and strength of the individual versus the community, and also of small groups vis-a-vis larger ones.
One of the advisers to Pius XI and Pius XII was Professor G. Gundlach, who taught at the Gregorian, the Jesuit university in Rome. He was of the opinion that in church administration, as in civil administration, there was a danger of centralism, and that anyone investigating the subject could not fail to find examples of it. Gundlach thought this was connected with the influence of industrial society on the Church.
He was no doubt implying that the principle of subsidiarity could be given more importance in Catholic associations. And the same applied to dioceses, religious orders and other church communities. Averting centralism within the Church, as Gundlach saw it, implied thinking about giving more scope to lay persons. Long before the Second Vatican Council and its Lumen Gentium text, Gundlach was of the opinion that laity should be entrusted with tasks that they could carry out as well as, or better than, priests, and that, with a view to the Church's general well-being they should be “free to act and take on responsibility”.
In order to avoid being misunderstood, let me emphasise here that the human concept of subsidiarity does not prove that there has to be collegiality of bishops and pope, for that is a theological concept. But just as the human aspect of the Church can never be totally separated from the divine aspect, so collegiality is both human and divine. In that case subsidiarity helps us to get a clearer idea of what collegiality entails, showing us that each bishop has unrestricted responsibility for his own field of competence.
Lumen Gentium 27 makes it quite clear that, the bishops are not the Pope's emissaries, nor are they here, as some maintain, to carry out the Pope's instructions. They are not to be regarded, the conciliar document states, as vicars of the Roman pontiff (meaning the incumbent Bishop of Rome), "for they exercise a power which they possess in their own right and are most truly said to be at the head of the people whom they govern. Consequently, their authority, far from being damaged by the supreme and universal power, is in fact defended, upheld and strengthened by it."
They are witnesses and teachers of the faith in conjunction with the Pope, in the name of Christ. According to Vatican II, the episcopal college should share the Pope's burden and responsibilities, and not merely in word but also in deed. Putting such doctrine into practice would meet with a positive response both ecumenically and within the Church itself. The attitude of the media would also be positive.
The episcopal college could share concern and responsibility for the whole Church to greater advantage if it were not only consulted in an advisory capacity, but also asked to take part in decision-making. Such collegial co-operation between the bishops and the pope would at the same time give a powerful impulse to ecumenism.
I should stress that what I am arguing does not imply a doubtful loyalty. On the contrary, such awareness needs to be created together with the Pope, not against him, exactly as he himself has requested in Ut unum sint.
Nor do such proposals spring from any philosophy or ideology. They originate in the communion of the faith, which is not prescribed from above, but is shared jointly by all.
The more the episcopal college participates in the responsibility of church government, the more diversity becomes visible in the unity, and the more the cause of ecumenism will be served. Various examples of pluralism have long existed within the one united Catholic Church. For a start, the Pope himself is elected, and so are abbots of monasteries and religious foundations, Eastern and Western liturgies are allowed to differ. Religious orders and communities are given considerable autonomy so that they can decide their way of life and their inner structure themselves. For more than a thousand years bishops were elected by the faithful and then confirmed by the Pope. The Vatican II decree concerning the Eastern Churches shows how highly the Catholic Church values their particular structures and liturgies, their traditions and way of life: they have their own canon law and married priests.
Today, however, we have an inflated centralism. The issue is twofold, as I have demonstrated. On the one hand, we have to strengthen the bishops’ collegial concern and responsibility for the whole Church in accordance with Vatican II. On the other, we have to cease restricting the competence of local and regional bishops as church leaders. That means amongst other things that bishops must have a say in episcopal appointments, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity – that nothing should be done at a higher level which can be done at a lower level. It also means giving the bishops’ conferences a more precise role and function.
I repeat that it is not a case of seeking to eliminate the Roman pope as the guarantee and symbol of unity, as the Roman Curia fears. Without a pope, we should all be in trouble. Who else could have convoked a Second Vatican Council other than Pope John XXIII? Who else could have spoken out so effectively at the international level on human rights, human freedom and dignity with regard to Christ's message, other than Pope John Paul II? What we have we to do, rather, is to discover a new form of government - that is to say, rediscover the old form - which is particularly favourable to ecumenical concerns. Unless the episcopal college is made responsible in conjunction the Pope, neither the Orthodox nor the Anglicans nor the Protestants will consider any practical steps towards unity.
It was the Second Vatican Council’s intention that the task of the Bishop of Rome should be seen in conjunction with the concern and responsibility of the bishops for the whole Church. Now, on the threshold of the third millennium, we have to accept the necessary results if theory is to be put to practice.
We have to return to the decentralised form of the Church's command structure as practised in earlier centuries. That, for the world Church, is the dictate of today.