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. Prologue

Lessons of the apostles


An American archbishop proposes changing how authority is exercised in the Church

From a ninth-century manuscript, Latin Gospels, the apostles at the 'Glorification of Jesus Christ.' Stapleton Collection/Corbis

By Archbishop John Quinn

At 11 o'clock on the morning of December 6, 1999, I met in a private audience with Pope John Paul II. I had asked to see him for two reasons: First, I wanted to thank him for Ut Unum Sint: That They May Be One, the encyclical letter on Christian unity he had issued four years earlier; and second, I wanted to present him with a copy of my new book, The Reform of the Papacy.

The encyclical on Christian unity is, without question, unprecedented and revolutionary. I don't know of another instance in history where a pope has called for a discussion by bishops and theologians about the exercise of the primacy of the pope and asked for their advice on how it could be changed.

But this pope explicitly writes, "The pope is a member of the college of bishops, and the bishops are his brothers in the ministry"—a statement that the papacy is not a sovereign, monarchical office whose authority is absolute and indivisible. In fact, he continues, the primacy of the pope must always be exercised in communion. It is not outside and above the episcopate, it is within the episcopate. So true is this that the Code of Canon Law and the rules governing the election of the pope in the conclave mandate that if a priest is elected pope, he does not acquire the powers of the papacy until he is ordained a bishop. (The last pope who was not a bishop when elected was Gregory XVI, in 1831.)

In Ut Unum Sint, John Paul II points to the first millennium of the Church as a guide. And why is this period important? Because the first thousand years saw an undivided Church, and yet saw nothing of the centralization of Church government that we know today. As the Jesuit historian John O'Malley has written, "In the first millennium, popes did not run the Church, nor did they claim to run the Church. They defined no doctrines. They wrote no encyclicals. They did not convoke ecumenical councils and they did not preside at the councils."

In that era, papal intervention in the wider Church was largely confined to causae majores—to responses to appeals in notable, unusual cases where there were unresolvable differences, such as the vigorously contested unseating of St. Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. Popes also intervened when issues of heretical doctrines could not be resolved at the local levels of authority. They did not normally become involved in local or regional affairs, nor did the episcopacy normally refer local issues to their decision. In the words of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, "The early Church did indeed know nothing of the Roman primacy in practice in the way in which the Roman Catholic theology of the second millennium has come to know it."

IN NAMING the first millennium as a guide, John Paul II is saying that in the future there could be true communion with less centralization and intervention by Rome. But he also explicitly focuses on the structures of unity that existed at that time. There were regional synods. There were patriarchates and councils. The structures of unity in the first millennium were collegial structures, involving the participation of the bishops. And though they were not independent, they functioned with a degree of autonomy. Their autonomy existed within the framework of communion—a communion among the bishops and the churches of a region, communion with all the other churches and with the bishop of Rome.

The German historian of the primacy Klaus Schatz, SJ, points out that even though the pope was not involved in the normal life of other churches in the first millennium, Rome increasingly became regarded as the center of their communion. Though communion did not mean centralization as we now know it, there was a developing conviction that crises of faith could not be resolved apart from the judgment of Rome and that ecumenical councils could not be considered definitive without Rome's concurrence. And so even when John Paul II holds up the first millennium, it is with the steady insistence that papal primacy cannot be the primacy of a figurehead.

OF COURSE, the notions of less Church centralization and of a papal primacy embedded in and functioning within the college of bishops inevitably stir objections in certain quarters. Such ideas, it is argued, are contrary to the teaching of the First Vatican Council (1869–70). To give a sense of how plausible this argument is, here are the words of Vatican I: "If anyone says that the Roman Pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance and not the supreme and full power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate, both over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful, let him be anathema."

Well, that would appear to end discussion of a truly collegial exercise of the primacy. But if we are not to be fundamentalists—and, addressing a different topic, in 1993 the Pontifical Biblical Commission called fundamentalism "a kind of intellectual suicide"—then we have to take into account the language, the historical circumstances, and the intention of those who formulated such a teaching. We must go to the Acts of the Council.

The Acts are the minutes of what took place at Vatican I, and they show that a fair number of bishops got up on the floor and objected to calling the pope's jurisdiction ordinary. They objected, they said, because it would mean that the pope could intervene on a routine basis in the affairs of all the dioceses of the world. The commission responsible for writing the council documents listened, and then, on the floor of the council, as recorded in the Acts, replied: "The word, 'ordinary,' is not meant to be understood in its everyday meaning. It is meant to be understood in the way it is used in canon law." In canon law, 'ordinary' refers to a power that goes with and is attached to an office and is not delegated by someone else. It does not mean that the power is used often or on a daily basis.

According to Vatican Council I, then, the pope has ordinary jurisdiction, but this does not mean that he must exercise a centralized government in all parts of the Church. It means that he has the power to intervene if and when circumstances call for it. That's what we saw in the first millennium.

Here are the explicit words of the council's text: "This power of the supreme Pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction by which bishops tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them." In other words, the jurisdictional power of the pope does not eliminate, or dilute, the jurisdictional power of the bishops, nor does it exclude the bishops' collegiality.

A striking historical clarification of this came about when the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck wrote an instruction to his diplomats after Vatican I, saying that Pius IX had taken over all the powers of the bishops. When Bismarck's missive became public, the German bishops immediately issued a vigorous public statement denying the claim: "We can decisively refute the statement that the bishops have become, because of Vatican I, mere papal functionaries. According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, the pope is bishop of Rome. He is not bishop of any other city, or diocese. The pope is not bishop of Cologne or of Breslau." These bishops had been present at the council. What's more, on two separate occasions Pius IX, in a very emphatic and public way, endorsed the interpretation of the German bishops, thanking them for speaking up, and congratulating them, saying that their statement expressed the true and real meaning of the Vatican Council.

Popes Paul VI and John Paul II developed these ideas further. At a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, in the presence of the patriarch of Constantinople, John Paul II said: "The Second Vatican Council asked that in efforts to reestablish full communion with the eastern churches, particular consideration should be given to the character of the relations which obtained between those churches and Rome before the separation." In other words, particular attention should be given to the first millennium. "These relations," the pope said, "fully respected the power of these churches to govern themselves, according to their own disciplines. I want to assure you that the See of Rome wishes to respect fully this tradition of the Eastern Church." Communion does not mean absorption.

SIDE BY SIDE with the search for unity among all Christians, of course, is the continuing dissatisfaction inside the Catholic Church with the extent of Roman centralization, and a corresponding desire for greater collegiality. The formula that Paul VI and John Paul II put forward for relations with the Eastern Church—communion without absorption—could very well apply inside the Catholic Church, as well.

The idea of collegiality, present over 100 years ago at Vatican Council I, and more fully developed 40 years ago in Vatican Council II, still meets resistance. "The Church is not a democracy," is how opposition is often expressed. The Church, indeed, is not a democracy, but it is a communion.

I was present at the historic meeting of Pope John Paul II with the bishops of Latin America at Puebla, Mexico, in 1979. One of the points the pope made strongly on that occasion was that the Church does not need to turn to communist doctrines for inspiration for her social involvement. The basis of the social teaching of the Church, the pope said, is already found in divine revelation, in the Book of Genesis, where the dignity of man and woman is rooted in the fact of the creation by God. In a similar way, the Church does not need recourse to political democracy to ground ideas and structures of collegiality. As most theologians agree, communion is the underlying idea of the Second Vatican Council. And as Francis A. Sullivan, SJ, pointed out in an article in 2001 in America, the essence of communion is participation. The Church is the body of Christ and, according to scriptural teaching, the head may not say to the feet, I do not need you. Every part of the body contributes in an active and participative way to the whole.

A STRUCTURE for advancing the collegiality of the bishops that is being talked about and written about increasingly is the patriarchate. This was a Church entity that developed gradually in the first millennium. It typically encompassed a large region, and at its head was a bishop from a principle city. He was responsible for gathering the region's bishops together from time to time for debate and discussion, but he also had the authority with his synod to approve their appointment and removal, to create new dioceses, to deal, in sum, with all the normal affairs of Church life. In the idea being put forward now, North and South America would form one patriarchate, Africa perhaps another, and so on.

In this era of rapid and constant change, it is easy to recognize the near or utter impossibility of Rome's understaffed congregations dealing effectively with all Church issues emanating from the world's diverse continents and cultures. To offer just one example: In Finland, which has one bishop and seven or eight priests for 7,000 Catholics, the bishop tried for years to get a Mass book, a sacramentary, approved in the Finnish language. But there was nobody in the Vatican who knew the language. Finally, an approved sacramentary arrived from Rome; the bishop later found out that the work had been given to a German priest, despite the fact that the languages are far apart.

Naturally, the creation of patriarchates would have to be understood within the framework of communion, and we must not forget that the mark of communion is communion with Rome. Care would have to be taken to avoid the risk of developing national and schismatic churches—one reason why patriarchates' boundaries should not be identical with single nations, but rather with several, as continents are.

Another proposal for creating a more effective collegiality of the episcopate was made on the floor of the Second Vatican Council by the eastern Catholic patriarch Maximos Saigh. He called for the establishment of a permanent synod made up of bishops from various parts of the world, elected by episcopal conference. The bishops' terms would be limited—three to five years, perhaps.

In addition, Patriarch Maximos proposed periodic synods, which a larger number of bishops favored and which Pope Paul VI did in fact establish. But in the opinion of many bishops around the world these sessions are not greatly effective.

The permanent synod, as Patriarch Maximos conceived it—elected by the bishops with perhaps a certain minority of members appointed by the pope—would always be at the pope's side to deliberate the major issues of Church life. It would be superior to the Roman curia, which would be an administrative, not a governing, body.

In words even more valid today than they were in 1963 when he said them, Patriarch Maximos explained: "The Holy Father, no more than any other person in the world, whatever his talents, can not govern an institution as large as the universal Church just with the assistance of his own staff and bureaucracy. This point is certainly in line with the Gospel because if the Church has been entrusted in a special way to Peter and his successors, it has also been entrusted to the apostles and their successors. But if the government of the universal Church is given to the pope's staff, the common good will surely suffer."

The idea of new patriarchates and the notion of a permanent papal synod are rooted in Church history and Church doctrine. But we live in a global world, with instant communication—isn't centralization necessary now more than it ever was before?

Ironically, a notable 20th-century support for this view was evidenced when Pope John XXIII used his authority to call the Second Vatican Council. If the pope had sent out a letter consulting the bishops of the world about whether to hold a council, they would have said, no, you're the pope, we don't need a council. If he had consulted the priests of the world, they'd have said, well, that's none of our business. If he had consulted the laypeople of the world, they would have said, we don't know what a council is, and it's not for us to get into such questions. But if there had been no council at that late hour in the world's cultural shift, the Church would be in a greater state of disarray than it is today. We would have no map, no way of going through the difficulties that we encounter in our time.

And so neither of the proposals for collegiality that I've described—the patriarchates, the permanent synod—challenge the idea that papal primacy is important and necessary. The issue, as John Paul II himself has identified it, lies in how the primacy of the pope is exercised.

It is evident that there is agreement by the pope, by the world episcopate, by many eastern orthodox, and by other Christians that the doctrine and the historical existence of papal primacy is not an obstacle to unity. So why don't we have visible unity and communion? I think it is because Rome, in practice, intensifies its centralizing policies, out of a great fear of schism, a great fear of the development of national churches and of the disintegration of Church unity.

The search for Christian unity will depend in large part on embracing the authentic teaching of Vatican I and on accepting the legitimate development of that teaching, in terms of collegiality and structures of participation, achieved in Vatican II. But let us face the fact that neither structures nor laws can be effective by themselves.

When we believers confront these issues of the Church, we must do so in faith. And in that faith I call up words written by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, when the Church was suffering terrible disarray and conflict because of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Amidst starvation, social disorder, lack of communication, Gregory wrote: "Dawn changes imperceptibly from darkness to light. And so the Church is called dawn. . . . She opens gradually to the splendor of heavenly brightness in the way that dawn yields to day. . . . And are not all of us who follow the truth in this life daybreak and dawn?"


Archbishop John Quinn was ordained a priest in 1953. He became auxiliary bishop of San Diego in 1967, bishop of Oklahoma City in 1971, and was named an archbishop a year later. From 1977 until his retirement in 1995, Quinn served as archbishop of San Francisco. His article is drawn from a talk delivered at Boston College's Lonergan Institute on December 4, 2003.


Photo: From a ninth-century manuscript, Latin Gospels, the apostles at the "Glorification of Jesus Christ." Stapleton Collection/Corbis


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