Staying on board the ship


CANON LAW:Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law By Mary McAleese. Columba Press, 168pp. €19.99

OUR FORMER presidents cannot be accused of resting on their laurels, if recent publications are anything to go by. Hot on the heels of Mary Robinson’s memoir, Everything Matters, Mary McAleese, drawing on her doctoral studies in canon law at the Gregorian University in Rome, has produced a most interesting reflection on the way in which “collegiality”, a term associated with the more democratic and open image of the Catholic Church advocated by Vatican II, is presented in its code of canon law.

Conservatives would argue that collegiality is a recipe for disunity and schism within the church, whereas liberals see it as the democratisation of the institution through the increased involvement of priests and laity in the decisionmaking process. Certain commentators maintain, correctly in my view, that the current climate within the Vatican, and particularly the Curia, the civil-service arm of the church, is hostile to any further liberalisation of the church, believing that the novus habitus mentis (new mentality or outlook) engendered by Vatican II has led to slippage in terms of religious observance and the adoption of an a la carte approach to Catholic doctrine among many members of the clergy and laity.

Fifty years on from the opening of Vatican II, it is noticeable that two of the key concepts to emerge from the various sessions, “communio” and “collegiality”, are not exactly hallmarks of today’s Catholicism. Communio advocated that the church be henceforth regarded as the “People of God”, and collegiality was one of the key instruments employed to smooth the way for such a potentially revolutionary initiative to take root. Increased involvement of the laity at parish level, Mass in the vernacular with the priest facing the people, an opening out to other religions: these are concrete signs that some of the aspirations of the council have been realised. But church governance remains monarchical and patriarchal in an era when a better educated and more discerning laity is no longer prepared to blindly accept dictates handed down from Rome.

To those who bemoan how slowly change comes about in the Catholic Church, McAleese points out that Vatican II was a “legacy body rather than a legislature, dealing in broad brushstrokes rather than fine legalistic detail”. Her study is primarily concerned with how the 1983 code of canon law deals with collegiality; and, quite surprisingly, her research reveals that even in what one might consider a precise legal document there are variations in interpretation and a general absence of definition. Apparently, words such as “college”, “collegial” and “collegiality” are used inconsistently in ecclesiastical law, something that is hardly conducive to inspiring confidence or clarity.

The adoption by the Second Vatican Council of the principle of episcopal collegiality (under the guise of the college of bishops) is seen as one of its main achievements, but for this body to have any real say in the governance of the church, it requires the participation of the pope. Imagine, if you can, the following scenario as outlined in Lumen Gentium, the “dogmatic constitution on the church”, explained thus by McAleese: “The Pope has full, supreme and universal power of governance over the whole church which he can exercise personally or collegially at his discretion and without being answerable to anyone or any forum. No attempt is made to reconcile this with the College of Bishops but the Pope, though head of the college, has no required reporting relationship to it.”

How many chief executives of successful multinationals around the world enjoy that much autonomy, I wonder.

McAleese is at her best when evoking the excitement engendered by Pope John XXIII’s decision to call the Second Vatican Council, 10 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an event that made the main offices of state (and church) accountable for the just treatment of all its citizens. At the beginning of the 1960s the winds of change were sweeping through the western world, aided in no small degree by the growing influence of the mass media, developments in science, technology, philosophy and literature and changed perceptions of the role of women, all of which had a huge impact on people’s opinions and beliefs. When he convened the council, Pope John XXIII was mindful that the Catholic Church needed to read the signs of the times or risk becoming irrelevant.

Attempts to open up the church undoubtedly appealed to many of the younger priests and members of religious orders at the time. Now in the twilight of their careers, these same people find themselves disillusioned by the current attempts to claw back the changes that resulted from the council. The lower clergy, in particular, are also resentful of the disconnect between them and the church hierarchy, who rarely consult them on liturgical changes or appointments yet expect them to deal with increasing unease in parishes. In addition, the inept management of the clerical-abuse scandals by church leaders, the lack of accountability and honesty that characterised their responses, have left deep wounds among an increasingly secularised and cynical laity.

In her conclusion, McAleese notes: “Today the best experts of the church cannot coherently explain the church’s governance structures or their juridic infrastructure.” Such a glaring lack is in some way imputable to the failure of Vatican II “to articulate clear guidelines for the future development of conciliar collegiality or church governance at any level”.

At a time when it is being subjected to civil investigations in several jurisdictions in relation to clerical child abuse, and when its official teaching is being ignored by a large number of practising Catholics, it is strange to reflect that the church’s governance has remained fundamentally unchanged. Primatial power is still intact: the pope is bishop of Rome, head of the college of bishops, vicar of Christ, pastor of the universal church on earth, and so on. Sixty-five per cent of nations across the globe are now democracies, which makes it far more difficult to tolerate authority from the top down, as currently prevails within the Catholic Church.

The thought occurred to me when I had finished reading this book that the Catholic Church is fortunate to have a loyal devotee of the calibre of McAleese within its ranks. While acutely aware of the many deficiencies and dysfunctions that characterise the institution, she is nonetheless prepared to stay on board the ship and to ask, quo vadis? (where are we going?). Where indeed?

Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at IT Tallaght. With John Littleton, he is the editor of Catholicism and Me, a book of essays by contributors from a cross-section of Irish life, which will be published next month

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