What passes for alleged collegiality in College of Bishops is no such thing


RITE & REASON:If a pope is infallible in telling us what to believe, he has absolute power over us

MARY McALEESE (Weekend Review, October 13th) complained about the crippling of collegiality in our church. “Vatican II,” she wrote, “failed to articulate clear guidelines for the future development of conciliar collegiality or church governance at any level;” leaving us with incoherence in “official accounts of our church’s governance and its juridic infrastructure”.

But I would like to propose that the definition of papal infallibility by Vatican I results in a coherent account of church governance, its power and distribution; but with consequences no less dire for any prospect of true collegiality. The relationship between infallibility and absolute power is easily stated: if a pope is infallible in telling us what to believe about our world and our prospects within it, together with how we are to behave ourselves in all matters, he has absolute power over us.

Our God-given moral sense is neutered, and no collegiality is possible such as would release into the human community that congruence of moral insight that derives naturally from the moral status and dignity of everyman.

The relationship was illustrated most dramatically in the Middle Ages when the first party in the church to argue for papal infallibility did so on the grounds that it would make the pope’s power absolute; and the motion was defeated by the party that believed the fellow had too much power already, and the last thing the church needed was to give him more.

Therefore what passes for alleged collegiality in the College of Bishops – the representative Synod of Bishops and the College of Cardinals – is no such thing, for “the Roman pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the church, and he can always exercise that power freely;” whereas it is “together with its head, and never without this head, that the order of bishops is the subject of supreme and full power.”

As for the poor plain people of God, while chapter two of Vatican II’s deliverance “On the Church” paints this idyllic picture of the people of God all together and equal before God, irrespective of differences between “the common priesthood of the laity” and the hierarchical priesthood; chapter three gets down to the nitty-gritty of church governance, and papal infallibility is rolled out again to insist that papal teaching on beliefs and morals needs “no approval of others,” and allows of “no appeal”.

Therein lies as clear an account of governance structures and juridic infrastructure as one could ask for; and collegiality is the consistent loser in all of it.

Jesus of Nazareth, on his own recognisance, was a prophet in Israel; in fact, the prophet Moses promised for the age of fulfilment. As such he was sentenced to death because the Temple authorities took his perfecting of the Law of Moses to be nothing more than its fracturing.

The only constitutional body he ever founded was a prophetic community whose members were known, as with other great prophets of old, as “sons of the prophet” who could carry his mission and message to places and times he would not reach.

The only leadership corps Jesus ever instituted was that of The Twelve, emblematic of the religious renewal of all 12 tribes of Israel. He did appoint Peter leader of The Twelve, but demoted him as soon as he sensed that Peter was more interested in following a successful pretender to a throne than a prophet doomed to die.

The figure of Peter in history did not take on the lineaments he loved, of kingly, nay imperial rulers of the church until the Emperor Constantine extended to Christianity his edict of toleration of a number of religions in his empire. Then the bishops of Rome set about in earnest the task of emulating that emperor-like primacy of the church in the Roman empire that their predecessors had long felt to be the prerogative of a seat of power situated in the capital city of that great empire.

It is the details of the governance structures and juridic infrastructure of this ancient Roman empire that still live on in our church’s constitutional law to this day; not anything that Jesus could ever have contemplated.

James P Mackey is visiting professor at the school of religions and theology at TCD, and Thomas Chalmers professor emeritus of theology at the University of Edinburgh

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