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.

In the early part of the 20th century, fewer than 10 per cent of the nations of the world were democracies. Today that figure is closer to 65 per cent. The pace of change has been as relentless as it has been incredible with much of it impossible to predict. The church has been challenged by both the changes and the speed at which life is being transformed. Those who live in the world’s growing number of democracies have considerable freedom of expression in the civil sphere but highly restricted freedom of expression in the religious sphere.

Reconciling both spheres can be difficult; the same discussion may be perceived in one sphere as acceptable freedom of expression and unacceptable disrespect for the teaching magisterium in the other.

Church teaching on clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, gay marriage and the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments is not necessarily an expression of the views of Catholics generally, as opinion polls in Ireland have shown. Church teaching on birth control is so widely ignored that some canonical commentators question whether it can be said to have been “received” and therefore validated by the faithful.

The heterocentricity of Catholic teaching, and indeed the teaching of other faiths, is now being looked at critically in the light of the deadly consequences of homophobic bullying, with research, mainly in the US, showing a tragic link between male youth suicide and homosexuality. The future impact on Catholic schools is a question already being pondered.

Could church teaching on homosexuality be the new psychological child-abuse issue of the coming decade? The church, which is still in the process of adapting to the Vatican council after 50 years, exists in a world that has shown an amazing capacity to adapt much more rapidly to things infinitely more complex than collegiality.

MUCH OF THEVatican II discussion of governance, collegiality and the People of God occurred as the world was merely on the cusp of these changes. The educated laity was then an elite, not the mass phenomenon it is today. Communications media and technologies lacked the immediacy and huge global reach they currently have. The role of women in society was considerably more circumscribed than it is now.

Today’s world of increasingly democratic and inclusive secular structures makes solitary centralised authorities look like an ebb tide.

For those who hoped for greater cogovernance of the universal church between the pope and the College of Bishops, it has been a journey of disappointment since the council.

As the bishops dispersed throughout the world after the council, the conciliar momentum behind episcopal collegiality also dispersed, never to be regained. By default an excluded and largely trained-to-be and expected-to-be passive laity also contributed little. Those who hoped for a more open engagement, and who now see the local and universal church as more dithering than decisive in the face of very public problems, are faced with a logjam that, constitutionally, only the pope can release.

The forces of ecumenical dialogue, of crisis management and of sustained and often strident debate in the civic, canonical and theological spheres have a momentum that is impinging asymmetrically on both the centre and the circumference of the church from outside and inside.

So are we in a process of ongoing conversion or irreconcilable division, a journey towards greater collegiality or enduring primatialism in an increasingly fragmented church? Some might argue, whither collegiality, whither the church.

Teilhard de Chardin says it elegantly: “Some day after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity [we] shall harness . . . the energies of love. And then for the second time in the history of the world we shall have discovered fire.”

Wind and waves are pounding us. Tides are swollen and angry. Once, a long time ago, a God-man invited us to push out into the deep, where there are no safe bunkers, just the adventure of seeing what faith in God and love can accomplish in a world that needs healing from all the hurts that life, nature and human beings inflict, from the enigma of life and the enigma of death. He placed his trust in frail humanity, in Peter, a far from outstanding man who eventually found his strength in facing his many weaknesses, not on his own but with Christ’s help.

In this moment those who ardently desire a truly collegial church have no option but to look to Peter’s successor to push out into the deep, to open the closed doors and let the future in. “Quo vadis?” Christ is said to have once asked Peter. The answer changed the course of history. The same question is being asked again.

The above is an edited extract from Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law by Mary McAleese. It is published by Columba, €19.99. It will be launched in Dublin next Saturday by retired chief justice Ronan Keane

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