The Council of Cardinal Advisers — the so-called “C8” — concluded its three-day meeting last Wednesday, the fourth time it has met since being created by Pope Francis in October 2013. The C8 — which is really a C9, since it now includes the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin — issued a statement afterwards saying it had completed a “first review of the pontifical councils”.
The Council is expected to reduce the current 12 councils by amalgamating some, while creating a new congregation — that is, a Vatican department with legislative authority – for the laity, possibly known as the Congregation for the People of God. It would sit alongside the Congregation for Bishops, Clergy and Religious, and include within it what is now the Council for the Family. The review is part of the Council’s ongoing review of structures of the Vatican curia and the governance of the Church more broadly. The changes are not expected until next year.
Sitting on the Council is the Australian cardinal George Pell, who heads the newly created Secretariat for the Economy in charge of Vatican finances. Both that Secretariat and the Commission for the Protection of Minors, which met for the first time over two days last week, are the result of recommendations made to the Pope by the Council. The Commission is headed by Boston cardinal Séan O’Malley, who also sits on the Council.
What this adds up to is that the Pope is increasingly governing through and with the participation of cardinals drawn from across the world’s Church, as well as with the active collaboration of lay people: half of the abuse commission are women, for example, while seven (almost half) of the members of the Council for the Economy, which oversees Pell’s Secretariat, are “lay experts of different nationalities with strong professional financial experience” (see CNS).
Whether or not the future laity congregation is called the Congregation of the People of God, it is an apt name: Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, repeatedly spoke of the Church as the ‘people of God’, stressing that the universal Church “subsists in” the local Church, without which it is a mere abstraction.
By speaking of the Church in this way, Lumen Gentium sought to overturn the Counter-Reformation tendency to see the Church as a ‘perfect society’ in favour of an older understanding of the Church as communio, recognising that since each member of the Church is united within it as a single whole, drawn together by the Holy Spirit.
In stressing how the universal Church subsists in the local Church, the Council made it clear that bishops should not be seen as agents of the Pope, let alone servants of the Curia, but that the Curia should be at the service of the College of Bishops. And although the Curia exists to give expression to the will of the Bishop of Rome, the Petrine ministry should not be a solitary one; as a classic formulation of the relationship between pope and bishops has it, harking back to the first chapters of Acts: “Never Peter without the Eleven, never the Eleven without Peter”.
This Second Vatican Council understanding of the governance of the Church is known as “collegiality”. It is a key element of the Francis pontificate, and a mandate of the cardinals who elected him. Collegiality is in many ways the unfinished business of the Council.
Paul VI had a note added to Lumen Gentium to explain that while the college of bishops is the “bearer of full and supreme power over the universal Church”, the college only has such power when it acts with the pope as its head, and cannot act in any way without him. The so-called Nota Praevia made clear, in effect, that the implementation of the principle of collegiality was up to the Pope.
During the years of the Council, the future John Paul II had explained to his fellow Poles that Vatican II’s call to collegiality was about deepening church unity in order to evangelize more effectively. Contrary to how the Council was being portrayed in the press, this wasn’t a political debate; attempts to compare the relationship between pope and bishops to that of an executive with a legislature, a prime minister with a parliament, or a CEO with junior executives are all analogies that to a greater or lesser extent miss the point, not least because the ‘separation of powers’ that’s so central to Western politics is not an ecclesial model of governance.
John Paul II had already had experienced collegiality as a bishop in Poland; while Cardinal Wyszyński’s authority had been absolute, the Polish bishops had a conference that met annually, a committee that could make decisions between episcopal meetings, and a staff secretariat. It was an arrangement in which delegation was a reality, different experiences were shared and valued, and vigorous debates in private would lead to decisions that all Poland’s bishops could support.
John Paul saw this as a collegiality that built unity, and on becoming Pope, taking his lead from Jesus’ instruction to Peter that he strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32), he saw it as his duty to encourage a similar kind of collegiality within other national episcopates, and between the world’s bishops and Rome. In his first Urbi et Orbi address he described collegiality as the ‘special bond’ that ‘binds together the sacred pastors’. But while he maintained the bishops’s synods instituted under Paul VI, he tended to centralize authority in himself and in Rome, concerned above all to unify the Church after more than a decade of division.
His own extraordinary charisma and compelling leadership exacerbated those tendencies. His focus was on evangelization, taking the Church out to the world, and he had little interest in the day-to-day administration of the curia, which he delegated to others. The effect was to bolster the power and insularity of the Curia, which had always been uneasy with the notion of collegiality, preferring to stress “affective collegiality” over “effective collegiality.”
The Synod of Bishops, set up by Paul VI as the Council closed as a major instrument of collegiality, increasingly came to be criticized under John Paul II as too curia-controlled. Synods were affirmed in John Paul’s first encyclical 1979, Redemptor Hominis, but some felt he undermined them in his 1998 letter Apostolos Suos, which limited their autonomy and authority.
The then Cardinal Ratzinger, who in the 1960s had been a powerful advocate for episcopal conferences, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was concerned that they were taking on teaching functions. In his 1985 book-length interview, The Ratzinger Report, he argued that, unlike the episcopate in general, bishops’ conferences did not belong to the structure of the Church as willed by Christ. “No episcopal conference, as such,” he said, “has a teaching mission; its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.”
In 1992 another German theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper, took issue with a CDF statement that the universal Church is not a result of the communion of churches but of its nature precedes them; Kasper argued that the local Church was not a department of a world Church, but the Church in that place. Equally, he said, the bishop was not a delegate of the pope, but commissioned by Christ to govern his diocese. In 2000, he wrote that in spite of Lumen Gentium, in recent years “centralist tendencies have regained their strength”, leading to “an imbalance in the relationship between the universal Church and the local Church.”
Given the importance that Kasper as a theologian is coming to occupy in Francis’s collegial pontificate, it would be possible to see Francis as putting flesh on that view. Pope Francis has direct experience of collegial structures, twice having been elected head of the Argentine bishops’ conference, and in 2007 chairing the drafting of the concluding document at the last gathering of CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference. In 2001 he was relator of the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome, making him the first pope with experience of chairing a synod. That synod took place against a background of mounting criticism of curial centralism.
Ironically Pope Benedict XVI was regarded as a far more collegial pope than John Paul II. As head of the CDF he was unfailingly attentive to bishops and their concerns, and as Pope was mostly very respectful of the local Church. But in terms of structural reform, he maintained what he had inherited from John Paul II – a centralized structure often perceived to be distant from the local Church.
The theological concerns expressed by Benedict XVI remain. The current head of the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, has warned against excessive decentralisation, arguing that the Church should not be seen as a confederation of local churches and reiterating that bishops’ conferences should never come between a pope and bishops. The risk of ecclesiastical nationalism — the exaltation of the local, at the expense of unity — is real.
Yet that does not mean that collegiality cannot be implemented, and Francis sees it as one of his primary tasks. As he explains in his November 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, citing both John Paul II and part of Lumen Gentium drafted by the future Benedict XVI,
… a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.
Giving concrete expression to the principle of collegiality enunciated at Vatican II remains a work in progress. The Council of Cardinal Advisers is an important step in that direction, by giving concrete authority — even if it remains advisory — to the leaders of the local Church in making decisions that affect the whole Church.
The decisions will continue to be made cum et sub Petro: the Pope is the great unifier, Rome the agent of communion. But the Vatican will increasingly become a servant of the bishops, not their master; bishops’ conferences will be given greater freedom to discern the application of church teaching to local situations; and the Synod, beginning this October, will be given real responsibility in developing pastoral strategies. The age of collegiality is upon us.