Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Reflections in the Light of Vatican II
Collegiality Re-emerges?

Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (Evangelii Gaudium; 24 Nov. 2013) focuses on the scope of the Church's evangelization task in today's world. The focus is firmly on the Gospel, rather than on governance, but near the beginning of this 228-sections-long document the Pope writes "The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion" and "Excessive centralization'¦ complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach." (Section 32).  More recently, the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn, might have spoken for many bishops' conferences when he said that in the past the Austrian bishops had lacked the courage to speak openly on controversial issues: they had been "too hesitant" on the necessity of decentralization and allowing local Churches greater independence. He said "I beat my own breast here. We certainly didn't have enough courage to speak out openly." (The Tablet 1 Feb. 2014)

A predecessor of Cardinal Schönborn as Archbishop of Vienna between 1956 and 1985, Cardinal König (1905 - 2004) was one of the great men of the twentieth century Church and an important Father of Vatican II. He expounded on the Council almost to the end of his long life and was not hesitant in writing about the essence of Episcopal collegiality. This involves a high degree of authority passing to the bishops, and a consequent revision of the role of the Curia; thus this is far more than a simple decentralization. In his posthumously published book Open to God, Open to the World, König wrote: "How the college of bishops could function as a body is not only a theoretical but also a practical question."

Theoretical Collegiality: Council Documents

In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, (Lumen Gentium Chap. III) the Council taught that the college of bishops, together with its head the Pope, governs the universal Church. In Lumen Gentium, perhaps the nearest short statement which most closely represents collegiality as a whole is the following:

The order of bishops which succeeds to the college of the apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman pontiff. (Lumen Gentium No. 22 promulgated Nov. 1964)

Many Vatican II documents are interwoven with other Council teachings; in this case Lumen Gentium connects with "The Pastoral Office of Bishops" ( Christus Dominus). The Council went on "to determine more exactly the pastoral functions of bishops." ... and referring to Lumen Gentium, the Fathers underlined collegiality with:

The bishops by virtue of their sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head of the college and its other members are constituted as members of the Episcopal body. The order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles. (Christus Dominus No. 4 promulgated Oct. 1965)

Practical Collegiality

As Cardinal König pointed out, collegiality is largely about the effective governance of the Church. Mindful of problems inherent in choosing representatives, there are perhaps two practical models for the effective exercise of the Council's teaching on Collegiality:

  1. One governance solution mooted during and after the Council was a Permanent Senate of bishops. Such a group might comprise 100–200 bishops geographically representative in some way. They would work directly with the Pope. Senate members would be replaced by election at appropriate intervals. If the Senate were located permanently in Rome and met on a regular schedule this would facilitate the essential personal interaction with the Pope.
  2. Equally practicable for the 21st century are Synods of bishops. Held in frequent session, they could be formed from current heads of Bishops' conferences, or by some other local election process. But as Cardinal Koenig wrote in his last book:
    The Pope would not, as has been the case under John Paul II, ask the bishops to let him have their opinions and then word the final document himself, but would involve the bishops in the decision making and allow them to participate in finding a final solution. They would thus share in the governance of the Church as the Council intended. [ Emphasis added.]

Pope Francis' Council of Eight Cardinals

There can be little doubt that the unprecedented growth in centralization, Curial disarray, unresolved sex scandals and in particular the neglect of collegiality added to the overload from which Pope Benedict suffered and which contributed to his resignation. Underlining the need for urgency, Pope Francis set up his advisory commission only weeks after his election.

"Following a suggestion made during the General Congregations that preceded the Conclave, Pope Francis has established a group of cardinals to advise him in the governance of the universal Church and to study a project for the revision of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus on the Roman Curia." [L'Osservatore Romano , English edition dated 17 April 2013]

The news so far indicates that the practical measure chosen to implement collegiality will be the Synod. "The Pope wants to transform it [the Synod of Bishops] into an organ of permanent consultation", said Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga after the October 2013 meeting of the Commission. He indicated that a "profound change" was in mind and that an aim is to "redistribute authority". [The Tablet 12 October 2013 p.24.]

Does "redistribute authority" mean Episcopal collegiality? It was one key aim of the Council, but it did not happen. For an authoritative explanation of why, see Professor Nicholas Lash on 'The Failures' in his Vatican II: Of Happy Memory - and Hope?

The obstacles Lash outlines remain and are mostly centered in the Roman Curia. If the "profound change" now spoken of heralds the re-emergence of genuine collegiality, then change to the central administration is also vital.  But that is a separate study. Much has happened in Pope Francis' first year in Rome: developments are keenly awaited.          

Arthur Wells
March 2014