The opaque incoherence of a church in crisis
VATICAN II +50:TODAY THE BEST experts in the Catholic Church cannot coherently explain its governance structures or its juridic infrastructure. This is largely thanks to Vatican II, which failed to articulate clear guidelines for the future development of conciliar collegiality or church governance at any level.
This is a singularly bad moment historically to be shrouded in such vagueness. The church, and in particular authority in the church, is under probative, forensic, widespread scrutiny as never before, not to mention ground-breaking civil investigations in several jurisdictions.
Indeed, a new generation has grown up against a relentless backdrop of well-grounded scholarly criticism of the church based on thorough-going investigations, particularly in relation to clerical child abuse.
Somewhat late in the day, church protocols on that subject have improved considerably in some jurisdictions, and the pope has insisted that all dioceses throughout the church make child-protection provision a priority.
The ground-breaking Conference on Child Protection hosted by the Gregorian University in Rome in February has helped to draw attention to the problem throughout the universal church and to promote a universal best-practice response. However, these developments have only served to underline that the structures of church governance were not in fact markedly updated in the 21st century, leaving the church one among very few global institutions not to have been updated from within or without.
The hopes that Vatican II would create a pathway to reform of governance have not yet been realised and the road map it left is barely intelligible. There are many varieties of organisational model throughout the world, few of which nowadays match the solitariness of the church’s primatial rule.
There is no forum in the church for determining the views of the People of God on the subject of governance and collegiality, or virtually anything else for that matter. They have never been asked for their views, and there is an abhorrence at the centre of the dangers of being governed by opinion polls.
Often the reaction from the centre has been one of surprise on hearing the views from the circumference. In a collegial church, where information was free-flowing horizontally and vertically, there should be no such surprises The church is in effect, arguably, constitutionally incoherent. It has a governing head, the nature of whose authority, though divinely instituted, is opaque; that authority is linked to the College of the Apostles and to Peter, but precisely how is not clear. The College of Bishops has full and supreme power over the universal church, but how that power relates to papal power remains undifferentiated and untested except in conciliar format. The college has not met or actively expressed its collegial will since 1965.
The pope, the Synod of Bishops and the College of Cardinals are all said to represent the College of Bishops, but in fact only the pope does so canonically. No one knows for sure when he acts in the name of the college or when he acts personally. The Curia acts like a government, but on what authority? Discussion within the church at every level is generally heavily circumscribed and controlled to avoid dissent. Rightly or wrongly it looks as if the centre does not want to hear bad news or to face challenges from the circumference.