PopeWatch: The Federated Catholic Church?

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Sandro Magister at Chiesa looks at a part of Evangelii Gaudium that has been largely overlooked in all the sturm und drang over the economic passages:  the Pope’s vision of a much more decentralized Church:


On the role of the pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio credits John Paul II with having paved the way to a new form of the exercise of primacy.  But he laments that “we have made little progress in this regard” and promises that he intends to proceed with greater vigor  toward a form of papacy “more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.”

But more than on the role of the pope – where Francis remains vague and has so far operated by making most decisions himself – it is on the powers of the episcopal conferences that “Evangelii Gaudium” heralds a major transition.

The pope writes in paragraph 32 of the document:

“The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position ‘to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit.’ Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since 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.”

In a footnote, Francis refers to a 1998 motu proprio of John Paul II, concerning precisely “the theological and juridical nature of the episcopal conferences”:

> Apostolos Suos

But if one reads that document, one discovers that it attributes to the national episcopal conferences a function that is exclusively practical, cooperative, of a simple intermediate auxiliary body between the college of all the world’s bishops together with the pope on the one hand – the only “collegiality” declared to have a theological foundation – and the individual bishop with authority over his diocese on the other.

Above all, the motu proprio “Apostolos Suos” strongly limits that “authentic doctrinal authority” which Pope Francis says he wants to grant to the episcopal conferences. It prescribes that if doctrinal declarations really need to be issued, this must be done with unanimous approval and in communion with the pope and the whole Church, or at least “by a substantial majority” after review and authorization by the Holy See.

One danger warned against in the motu proprio “Apostolos Suos” is that the episcopal conferences might release doctrinal declarations in contrast with each other and with the universal magisterium of the Church.

Another risk that it intends to prevent is the creation of separation and antagonism between individual national Churches and Rome, as happened in the past in France with “Gallicanism” and as takes place among the Orthodox with some of the autocephalous national Churches.

That motu proprio bears the signature of John Paul II, but it owes its framework to the one who was his highly trusted prefect of doctrine, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

And Ratzinger – as was known – had long been very critical of the superpowers that some episcopal conferences had attributed to themselves, especially in certain countries, including his native Germany.

Go here to read the rest.  PopeWatch believes that the Church operated in a fairly decentralized mode under Paul VI, where many clergy and laity seemed to pay little attention to what the Pope was commanding and poor tortured Paul seemed to be unable to do much about that state of things, other than to lament that the smoke of Satan had entered the Church.  If the Church were to truly give doctrinal authority to episcopal conferences, PopeWatch fears the result would be a long period of chaos for the Church.

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  1. Donald,

    The true title for this particular piece should not be ‘federated’ but ‘synodal’. What most Catholics do not realize or recognize is that the Church already actually ‘runs’ on this ‘synodal’ model. There are 22 churches in complete communion (key word here) with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. Most people see them as ‘rites’ which indeed they have (such as Byzantine, Melkite,Maronite, etc) but these churches themselves ‘run’ on a synodal model. For example, they select their own bishops, which then in turn must be (and almost always are) ratified by Rome. Any difficulties which arise, whether doctrinal, moral or disciplinary, are first dealt with at this ‘local level’. They do not come to doctrinal or moral positions different than the Catholic Faith professed by all (although they might have a different way of expressing it) Discipline issues are all dealt with at the local level in accordance with the general Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches. These churches are indeed churches, and not simply ‘rites’. Thus, already, the Catholic Church is a communion of churches, with the Bishop of Rome being the sign and instrument of that communion, ecclesial unity.

    While this synodal form of government might initially look no different than the Eastern Churches Orthodox brothers and sisters, it differs in two substantial and distinct ways. While distinct churches, the Eastern Churches are not ‘National Churches” such as “Greek Orthodox”, “Russian Orthodox” “Serbian Orthodox” etc. While these churches are all Orthodox, nothing prevents one from ‘breaking communion’ with another [In fact the tensions between the Russian and Greek Churches is horrendous]. This simply is not known or countenanced in the Eastern Churches. The sign and instrument of ecclesial communion is the pope, the Bishop of Rome.

    The second substantial distinction between this synodal ‘model’ of the Eastern Churches and the Orthodox is the inability of the Orthodox Churches to either really call, gather for a general synod (council) of the Orthodox Church to discuss very important matter, or what authority to validate and uphold the Synod (council). Their ecclesiology had depended on the Byzantine Emperor (or the Russian Czar) to validate and uphold such a synod. The Eastern Churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome, do not have this problem. The pope can call for a Council and it is the Pope who validates an Ecumenical Council of the Church [thus the canonical reason that Vatican II is indeed a Council of the Church].

    This ‘synodal form’ of the Church can and apparently will be renewed within the whole Church. I do not see (in fact I believe this will be avoided at all cost) Bishops Conferences transformed into this synodal form taking on “national” identities [ as we see with the Orthodox] to the detriment of Catholic ecclesial communion. However, if a doctrinal matter comes up, for example some theologian at a Catholic college or university is obviously dissenting from Catholic teaching, it would be dealt with first in the local Church [say the Archbishop of Washington has to deal with a dissenting theologian at Catholic University]. This is the principle of subsidiarity at work in the Church [the one I hear everyone screaming about in terms of the economy]. Then it would be taken to the American Bishops ‘Conference’ who have a commission for matters of doctrine. If that did not work, then and only then, it would go to Rome, the Church which presides in charity, as Saint Ignatius of Antioch described it, founded upon Peter and Paul and led by the Bishop of Rome, the pope. In fact, this is nothing more than Matthew 18’s description of how to deal with an errant ‘brother’.

    In issues of ‘discipline’, for example, the recent difficulties with the LCWR (nuns group), the Bishops’ Conference should have had the ‘power’ to constructively deal with the issue years ago. The Bishops Conference is closer to the difficulty, knows the American culture, can dialogue easier with the nuns. However, because of the present structure, the bishops were all but powerless to really enter that dialogue. They had no other choice but send the issue to Rome, which of course takes time, etc. Rome has to investigate, try to understand women’s religious life in the American context (both the pros and cons) and what happened? They sent it back to America with an American bishop in charge of the ‘dialogue’.

    These ‘changes’ are actually part of the ancient patrimony of the Church. They do not contradict the identity or makeup of the Catholic Church. However, the purpose of the changes is to further ‘the mission of the Church which is evangelization’. And where does evangelization take place?

  2. I often remind myself that contrary to popular belief, our church’s structure is quite flat …. flatter than most every business. In essence each of us are 2 steps away from the Pope — with my pastor and my bishop before us. Now in reality, we all know the many operational entities paving the way to make this work (or not).

  3. Enghish version of Evangelii gaudium is not correct:

    It says: “episcopal conferences (…), including genuine doctrinal authority,”

    Spanish version: “incluyendo también ALGUNA auténtica autoridad doctrinal.”

    Correct English version should say: ” including SOME genuine doctrinal authority,”

    (Fench and Italian versions corresponds correctly to the Spanish one)

    In God.

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