The recent flurry of words and concern over the motu proprio has involved reflection on the curia, bishops’ conferences and collegiality. To no one’s surprise, I have some strong views about them all. So, in order that the wrong impression is not gleaned by the uninitiated reader, a word of clarification is timely.
No bishops, no Church. No Eucharist. No priesthood. No absolution. You get the idea. The Vatican Council reiterated the essential truth that,
[t]he order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.
Lumen Gentium, §22
This is the basic statement of collegiality. The Council gave some further indications of how such collegiality has functioned historically, and by implication should always function:
The supreme power in the universal Church, which this college enjoys, is exercised in a solemn way in an ecumenical council. A council is never ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter; and it is prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them. This same collegiate power can be exercised together with the pope by the bishops living in all parts of the world, provided that the head of the college calls them to collegiate action, or at least approves of or freely accepts the united action of the scattered bishops, so that it is thereby made a collegiate act.
Lumen Gentium, §22
Collegiality is most active and substantial at an ecumenical council, at which the bishops act in concert with and under the guidance of the pope. For this reason alone those who reject Vatican II completely need to be very careful indeed. One must not confuse the Council with the post-council (nor indeed the “council of the media” of which Pope Benedict spoke). We know that many an English bishop found the post-conciliar reforms, which claimed the mandate of the council, utterly confounding. Cardinal Heenan and Archbishop Grimshaw come immediately to mind.
Otherwise collegiality involves a particular invocation of it by the pope in a particular context, or that “at least [he] approves of or freely accepts the united action of the scattered bishops, so that it is thereby made a collegiate act.” All these contexts imply what might be called an active or deliberate, or even extraordinary, collegiality.
There is also what we might call a passive or ordinary collegiality. This is what we should examine more carefully. The Council Fathers continued:
The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church. For this reason the individual bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity.
The individual bishops, who are placed in charge of particular churches, exercise their pastoral government over the portion of the People of God committed to their care, and not over other churches nor over the universal Church.
Lumen Gentium, §23
Within their own dioceses or local churches bishops are thus, again we might say, types and icons of the papal primacy as it relates to the universal Church. The bishop has a sovereignty within his diocese that can only be outweighed by the supreme pontiff as universal pastor of the Body of Christ on earth. This is the ordinary collegiality the council speaks of: the bishop shepherding his particular flock in a way that images and draws light from the pope’s role as Chief Shepherd of the Universal Church. Moreover, the pope is not the world’s bishop, let alone the world’s parish priest. The burden and privilege of immediate shepherding of a particular flock belongs by right to its own bishop.
Of course the bishop shepherds his local flock with an eye to the universal flock. The council teaches that bishops are,
to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church, to instruct the faithful to love for the whole mystical body of Christ, especially for its poor and sorrowing members and for those who are suffering persecution for justice’s sake, and finally to promote every activity that is of interest to the whole Church, especially that the faith may take increase and the light of full truth appear to all men. And this also is important, that by governing well their own church as a portion of the universal Church, they themselves are effectively contributing to the welfare of the whole Mystical Body, which is also the body of the churches.
Lumen Gentium, §23
After the council, the novel phenomenon of bishops’ conferences was established. This must have sounded good at the time. Yet, given the conciliar teaching on collegiality, it is hard to justify their existence.
Historically local episcopal collegiality was exercised through regional councils and synods. These met, decreed, and dissolved. They had no permanent existence. The Council Fathers later decreed that, beyond councils and synods which are convened to deal with specific issues, such regional collegiality should abide in an ongoing way through bishops’ conferences:
Therefore, this sacred synod considers it to be supremely fitting that everywhere bishops belonging to the same nation or region form an association which would meet at fixed times. Thus, when the insights of prudence and experience have been shared and views exchanged, there will emerge a holy union of energies in the service of the common good of the churches.
Christus Dominus, §37
The next section of this conciliar decree on bishops spells out the details of such conferences, which it envisages as making decisions on practical and pastoral matters, not doctrine per se. Nevertheless Pope John Paul II further clarified that the unanimous decisions of such conference evidence an “authentic magisterium”. Without such unanimity their minimum two-thirds-majority decisions, when ratified by the pope, have a binding nature though they fall short of the fullness of what constitutes authentic magisterium. [See Apostolos suos (1998), §22]
My point is that theologically and pastorally, the bishop in his own diocese is of more more importance and has far more authority than a bishops’ conference over its region. Tradition alone enshrines the authority of the bishop in his own diocese, and moreover, as the council recognised, it bids him to centre his attention on his own diocese, not on his neighbours’. Such a specific focus is expanded at councils and synods, at which we might say a bishop answers a call to exercise his pastoral oversight for the benefit of the wider Church, in specific circumstances and to meet particular needs.
In recent years we have heard how bishops’ conferences have been able to limit the authority of a bishop in his own diocese by subtly, or not so subtly, coercing him into to following the majority opinion, even if that opinion is not actually the majority but merely the loudest and strongest. No one likes to break ranks. Such bodies have a way of later exacting their pound of flesh from those of its members who do not toe the line. In some countries such conferences can exacerbate national or tribal sentiment and conflict. God forbid that such conferences ever lead to the ethnic/national churches of the east. For all their liturgical vigour, all too often they have been the slave of political and secular forces in their own nation. We do not need to replicate such an error. Already we are as we see some conferences conforming their teaching to the loudest and most aggressive forces in secular society, usually on moral issues.
So this is the background to my concern over the devolution of power to bishops’ conferences. They are a novel, untraditional construct that too often mitigates, detrimentally, the traditional, doctrinally-mandated authority of a bishop in his own diocese. The conscience-driven bishop, who disagrees with the majority decision, is under immense coercive but covert pressure to conform. Far better a rogue bishop who gets his own ill way in his diocese. There have always been ways of dealing with him.
There are real, practical advantages to the sharing of resources that a bishops’ conference facilitates. But one does not need the conference structure as it now is to achieve this desirable end. Modern communications allow for other means for achieving it.
God save and defend the bishop as the true pastor of his diocese. This must be the bedrock of true collegiality.