The council of cardinals created by Pope Francis to advise on curial reform and church governance in general has been active over the summer, exchanging papers in advance of their meeting with the Pope in October, when a three-day meeting is likely to produce concrete changes to personnel and structure. The purpose is to make the Vatican civil service fit for purpose — that is, to serve the universal ministry of the Pope.
But Francis’s reforms are more ambitious than those he proposes to make to his civil service. He wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local Church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger part in the decisions that affect it, while ensuring that Rome (the Vatican, including his own Petrine ministry) better serves the Church worldwide. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the local Church, to ensure that they act better together.
As this becomes clear in the next few months, the media are likely to report the changes in terms familiar to the world of secular governance – ‘democratisation’ or ‘decentralisation’. But while there might be analogies between these concepts and the coming reform, they obscure more than they illuminate. The changes will need to be understood in the Church’s own terms — and that means grasping the key concepts involved.
There are two words, heavily laden with canonical and theological significance, which you can expect to hear often in the coming months: ‘collegiality’ and ‘synodality’. Although they are older than the Second Vatican Council, they are strongly linked to it.
Collegiality refers to the Pope governing the Church in collaboration with the bishops of the local Churches, respecting their proper autonomy. Synodality is the practical expression of the participation of the local Church in the governance of the universal Church, through deliberative bodies.
Both have been arenas of sometimes intense disagreement in the past decades.
Communion in church governance
The Vatican II dogmatic constititution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, sought to overturn the Counter-Reformation model of the Church as a “perfect society” and to move it in the direction of communio, a metaphor derived from theological reflection on the Mystical Body of Christ. Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi set the stage for a re-casting of ecclesiology from biblical, patristic and medieval sources: because every individual member, and each distinct ecclesial community, shares in the same head (Christ), the same Soul (the Holy Spirit), and in the same scriptures, sacraments, doctrine and hierarchical authority, all can be described as single whole, brought into unity by the Holy Spirit.
This led, at the Council, to a renewed emphasis on the local Church. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the local Church – in so far as it is mentioned at all – is seen as gravitating around the universal Church; in the 1983 Code, the emphasis shifts: the universal Church ‘subsists in’, but is not limited to, each particular Church in a way that is analagous to the way in which Christ is entirely present in, but not limited to, each eucharistic celebration. The universal Church exists ‘in and out of’ the particular Churches, as c. 368 of the Code puts it.
The significance of this is clear. Bishops are not agents of the Pope or servants of the Curia; the Curia is at the service of the College of Bishops. And while the Pope is the head of the College, he does not govern apart from the bishops but with them. In the classic formula, the Church is governed by the bishops cum et sub Petro — “with and under Peter”. In this sense, the governance of the Catholic Church holds in fruitful tension the authority of the bishops and the special authority of the Pope. They need each other. “Never Peter without the Eleven, never the Eleven without Peter”, as the expression has it.
Finding the structural expression of this idea has been, however, problematic. A Nota Praevia, a preliminary note, attached to Lumen Gentium by Pope Paul VI, directed that none of the document’s teaching on collegiality or the Synod of Bishops should prejudice the rights and privileges of the pope and the Holy See. On the one hand, according to Lumen Gentium 22, Peter and the other apostles form ‘a unique apostolic college’, yet — according to the Nota Praevia — the term collegium ‘was not to be understood in its strict, juridical sense.’ While the College of Bishops is the ‘bearer of full and supreme power over the universal Church’, as Lumen Gentium states, this is only true, says the Nota, when the college acts with the pope as its head; and indeed cannot act in any way without the pope. Hence c. 336, which says the College of Bishops is the subject of supreme and full power ‘together with its head and never without its head.’
In effect, the universal power of the episcopal college is restricted in practice to an ecumenical council called by the pope and then only when it acts with the consent of the pope, who in c. 333 of the Code determines ‘the manner, whether personal or collegial, of exercising this office’, and has the final say. There are no juridical safeguards in the Code against abuses of papal authority; yet the spirit of the Code reflects communio in its assumption that papal decisions and actions which do not agree with the convictions of the bishops and the ecclesial community are pretty much unthinkable. (Pope Benedict was always careful not to pronounce on doctrinal matters without first consulting widely, and only when he was confident he was speaking with the mind of the Church.)
But how are those convictions to be expressed in practice? Lumen Gentium encouraged ‘particular councils’, or provincial synods, which the council fathers hoped would ‘flourish with new vigour’ as they did in the early Church; but there have been few of these.
More successful are national bishops’ conferences – which began in the nineteenth century, were encouraged by Pope Leo XIII – which have become standard in the contemporary Church, usually in the form of twice-yearly assemblies. But do they possess teaching authority? This is suggested but not resolved in the Code.
Then there are the supra-national assemblies of bishops such as the European CCEE, the Asian FABC and the largest and oldest of all, CELAM, which first brought together the Latin-American & Caribbean bishops in 1955. Lumen Gentium encourages them; but again, their authority is ambiguous. No one doubts their importance in deepening the collegiality of the bishops; but — to use more buzz-words — is this ‘affective’ or ‘effective’ collegiality? In other words, to what extent do such bodies have legislative teeth?
That same question has hovered over the main expression of post-conciliar collegiality, the Synods of Bishops, which used to be a feature of the early Church. There have been 25 such synods since 1965, roughly one every 2-3 years, when they were re-established by Paul VI. They are of two kinds: “ordinary” assemblies consider matters of importance to the universal Church (the last one was in October last year, on the ‘new evangelisation’ ) while “special” assemblies focus on particular geographical areas (the last one, in 2010, focussed on the Middle East).
Synods, attended by about 300 representatives of the world’s bishops’ conferences, are “consultative” and “advisory”. They are called by the pope, managed by the Vatican, and intended to offer “genuine counsel on various topics related to the Church”. The only teaching document ever issued directly by a Synod was “Justice in the World” in 1971. Ever since then, any decisions taken as result of the gatherings are the Pope’s, issued in the form of a document (a post-synodal apostolic exhortation) by him a year after the gathering.
Although the synods have many positive aspects — not least in bringing the voice of the local Church into the heart of Rome — participants have often complained that it is unwieldy and over-controlled. As far back as 2004, for example, Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna was calling for “a rethinking” of its functions to allow “more plenary discussion, more consultation on issues developing an atmosphere of a real debate, a real exchange, and to be liberated a little bit from that narrow framework that has developed in the last decades.”
Francis’ call for collegiality and synodality
Francis is the first Pope to have been president of a national body of bishops — he was twice elected head of the Argentine bishops’ conference — and the first pope to be involved in a supra-national bishops’ body: he chaired the drafting of the concluding document at CELAM’s last gathering, at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. He is also the first pope to have experience in chairing a synod. In September 2001, the then Cardinal Bergoglio was named relator of the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome, to replace Cardinal Egan of New York who had to hurry back to his city following the attack on the Twin Towers.
It was Cardinal Bergoglio’s outstanding performance in these ‘collegial’ roles that brought him to the attention of the world Church, and helped to persuade his fellow cardinals to elect him in the conclave in March.
In his first public words as Pope, Francis referred to himself as “Bishop of Rome” (“You know the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome”) before adding: “I thank you for this welcome by the diocesan community of Rome to its bishop.”
He went on to speak of the Church of Rome (and himself as its Bishop) as [leading] all the churches in charity, a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us”. To those aware of the debates over collegiality in the modern Church, the words were immediately recognisable; for in the collegial formula, the Church of Rome “presides” over the local Church “in love.”
The message could not have been clearer. The Pope intends to govern in a collegial fashion. On the one hand, this means the Pope exercising his authority in a more circumspect fashion; on the other, it means taking concrete steps to increase the voice of the local Churches in the governance of the universal Church.
Examples so far of Francis’s collegial approach
There are two obvious examples of the first. Pope Francis, in contrast to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has from the very beginning been reluctant to use other languages in his weekly Wednesday addresses. Although some saw this as a sign that he is not at ease in tongues other than Spanish and Italian, it has become clearer that sticking to Italian when in Rome reinforces this idea of himself as Bishop of Rome rather than a universal monarch. And everything else Pope Francis has done to shed the trappings of the Counter-Reformation model of papacy — his much-commented-on preference for simplicity and humility in dress and transport — is designed to make clear this idea of himself as Bishop of Rome presiding in charity over but always with the other bishops, a primus inter pares.
The second indication is his refusal to wade in on issues such as same-sex marriage following the legalisation of these in the UK and France. It is wrong to assume, as some have, that his silence on these indicates he cares less about them than his predecessors; instead, it reflects his ecclesiological belief that such statements should be made firstly and primarily by the local bishops. Rather than Rome issuing documents which then need to be interpreted and implemented by the local Church, Pope Francis would rather bishops make their own statements on such matters. Where guidance is needed for the whole Church, this should come from gatherings of bishops and cardinals in Rome — examples, in other words, of synodality.
All the indications are that Francis intends to develop the concept of synodality, meaning that various deliberative bodies might have an increased role in church governance. So far he has taken a number of concrete steps in that direction, such as appointing a council of cardinals from each of the continents to advise him on church governance and curial reform and naming a group of lay people to advise on the Vatican Bank. The council of cardinals, he has indicated, may well be replaced in future years by a council elected by the Synod.
Strengthening the Synod
In mid-June, when he met with bishops planning the next meeting of the Synod of Bishops, he spoke of strengthening the Synod’s role.
The Synod of Bishops “has been one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council,” he said. “Thanks to God that, in these almost fifty years, we have been able to feel the benefits of this institution that, in a permanent way, is at the service of the Church’s mission and communion as an expression of collegiality.”
He said the Synod “has to take a new path that expresses its uniqueness when united with the Petrine ministry,” adding: “This is a big challenge.” He said there needs to be greater reflection on “the church, the mother church, with all its nuances, including that of synodality.” And he said that one of the challenges of the cardinals’ council will be to “find a path for coordination between synodality and the bishop of Rome.”
Other statements by Pope Francis
Among other important statements made by Pope Francis:
- On the Feast of St Peter and Paul (30 June), when Pope Francis imposed the pallium on 34 new archbishops, he said: “We need to develop the Synod of Bishops in harmony with the primacy and grow in synodality, in harmony with the primacy.” The ceremony was attended by Orthodox bishops; speaking to them, Francis referred to “episcopal collegiality, and the tradition of synodality, so typical of the Orthodox churches.” (The comment is striking because the monarchical papacy has been a major sticking-point with the Orthodox Churches, where Synods play a key role in governance.)
- In his address to CELAM delegates in Rio de Janeiro, Francis said: “There is need, then, for a greater appreciation of local and regional elements. Central bureaucracy is not sufficient; there is also a need for increased collegiality and solidarity.” What is needed is “not unanimity, but true unity in the richness of diversity.”
- In his interview aboard the papal plane, Francis referred to “the maturing of the relationship between synodality and primacy”, noting that his council of cardinals “will favour synodality, they will help the various episcopates of the world to express themselves in the very government of the Church.” He also suggested that there had been many proposals for future reforms, such as “the reform of the Secretariat of the Synod and its methodology” and “the Post-Synodal commission, which would have a permanent consultative character” and “the consistories of Cardinals with less formal agendas — canonisation, for example, but also other items”. This last idea refers to the regular gatherings of cardinals in Rome. Consistories, held every three or four years, are usually called only for the purpose of appointing cardinals. Francis is suggesting they could become a part of the governance of the universal Church — agreeing on who, for example, is to be made a saint.
What this points to
There is no doubt that what is coming down the pipeline will have a tremendous impact on the Church. Greater synodality and collegiality will increase the participation of the local Church in the decisions of the universal Church, but it won’t subject those decisions to votes (as, for example, in the Anglican model of synodal government). And while the reforms aim to overcome the distance between Rome and the bishops’ conferences — the latter have often complained that the Vatican is often out of touch with the reality on the ground — that doesn’t automatically mean more teaching will be done locally rather than from Rome. In fact, it might increase what comes out of Rome — while ensuring that what does is the result of deliberation by representatives of the local Church. That is why the terms ‘democratisation’ or ‘decentralisation’ fail to capture the meaning of these shifts.
What is at stake here is a rebalancing act — an attempt to recover something of what has been lost: the balancing-act between Peter and the other apostles in the governance of the Church. It is reform, certainly; and some of it will be radical. But it is not designed to modernise the Church or make it more like the modern world, but to bring it closer to what Jesus intended it to be. And that is the only reason for needing to carry it out.