Europe 2000
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European Synod II

Whatever happened to collegiality?



Pope John Paul II arriving at the synod hall

photo by -- Tom Fox

Four Swiss Guards stand in front of the synod hall and salute each bishop who passes by. They recognize cardinals with an additional click of the heels. When the pope arrives, they stand frozen in salute as long as he is in sight.

Some mornings Pope John Paul II enters the synod chambers by a side door, others by the front. One morning this week , John Allen and I watched from about 30 feet away as the Holy Father’s chauffeur-driven black Mercedes, drove up to the synod building just after nine. Sloping steps lead up to the synod hall entrance. A ramp allows vehicles to drive up the incline.

The arrival of the papal vehicle, adorned with papal coat of arms and yellow and white Vatican flags on the front fenders, stops everyone in their tracks. The driver jumps out and pops open the convertible top. In an instant Pope John Paul stands up. Five men, including two cardinals, standing nearby, rush to assist him step out of the car. He emerges slowly stalled briefly by the cardinals who knell at his feet to kiss his papal ring. Another instant and he disappears inside.

Someone once called Catholicism “the greatest show on earth.” At some point, as a church, we need to figure out if the pageantry will finally save us or do us in.

At the dawn of the 21st century, Roman Catholicism still governs out of an ancient monarchal model, long discarded by the other European nations after which it once patterned itself. Efforts to modernize the governance of church, after strenuous efforts and substantial majority vote by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, have stalled. Indeed, the will of the council to implement effective collegiality, has not taken place in the 35 years since Vatican II ended.

Yet the proclamation of episcopal collegiality was widely hailed as the council’s finest achievement. The principle is that the bishops form a college and govern the church together with the pope their head. Reforms in the Roman curia and the establishment of the Synod of Bishops were to be the instruments of carrying out effective collegiality.

After a brief attempt in the two years that followed the council, synods of bishops were effectively stripped of any legislative influence. They now operate largely in secret, with agendas and processes drawn up and controlled, by the Roman curia, with little or no opportunity for serious discussion or debate, being responsible to virtually none of the People of God who make up the church. When their work is done, their documents are turned over to the pope for his considerations.

This is not what the bishops of the Second Vatican Council had in mind.

By contrast, many church observers say church authority has never been more centralized and church governance never more contrary to the wishes of the council. The impact of modern communications with the power of television, charisma of Pope John Paul II and the pageantry of the papacy have all worked against collegiality. So too has a determination by some, but not all, curial members to fight efforts to share church authority. I heard it said this week from an informed church source that only about six cardinals have decision-making authority in the church today. The source added that these men increasingly do as they wish, acting in the name of the Holy Father who is less inclined and less able to govern the church.

How bad must it get before it gets better?

Few have answers. Reports of discontent circulate the church. Bishops were shocked to learn last year that their national conferences could no longer issue statements on matters of faith or morals unless they were unanimous, or had Vatican approval in advance. That Vatican decision was never discussed with the local bishops before it was announced. The bishops of Asia and Oceana, at synods in the last year, loudly protested Roman interference in local church governance. The Asian bishops found it particularly insulting that carefully studied liturgical documents had to be sent to Rome for final approval - often ending up in the hands of young Asian seminarians whom the bishops had sent to Rome in the first place.

The issue of finding the path to effective collegiality stands before the church as no other issue.

In recent years, archbishops, including John Quinn of San Francisco and the late Basil Hume of Westminster, and others, have decried the centralization of authority found in the church today. The subject is being mentioned at this synod as well and interestingly, church observers note, by men viewed as church conservatives.

No one, meanwhile, expects any serious change while Pope John Paul II focuses his dwindling energies of his pontificate on carrying the message of Christ to far off lands.

Somewhere in the future - maybe within the walls of the next papal conclave - the issue of collegiality will have to be faced. Or so one hears it said in Rome today.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999