The Synod: Moment of Truth for Collegiality

Among those one might call strategists of progressive Catholicism, the Synod of Bishops taking place in Rome this October and another one next year are being seen as moments of truth. Although the topic for discussion at both is marriage and the family, what’s really at stake, as these strategists see it, is the future of collegiality as a fundamental principle of Church governance.

This is a significant shift from the previous emphasis on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled. It’s still on the agenda, but whatever the synod assemblies say about it and however Pope Francis deals with it in his post-synod document, the central issue for these progressives is now very different: “The real test will be the synod itself.”

Those are the words of Father John W. O’Malley, S.J., theology professor at Georgetown and author of What Happened at Vatican II. Writing in the September 6 issue of The Tablet of London, a progressive organ, he explains: “In this perspective, what the forthcoming synod and the synod of the following year. . .decide is less important than how they proceed. . . .These two synods will be perhaps the last chance to restore collegiality to the Church and for shared leadership with the pope to become a pervasive mode of operation.”

Much the same point is made by former Tablet editor John Wilkins in Commonweal. But Wilkins goes further. He sees the synods as an opening to a greatly expanded role for public opinion – which Wilkins, by a stretch, equates with the sensus fidelium – in setting the course of the Church.

It remains to be seen whether the synods will add up to the decisive turning-point that Father O’Malley, Wilkins, and others who share their views think. But the fact that they think this way suggests the need for another look at collegiality and why progressive Catholics are so interested in it.

In everyday speech, collegiality in the Church signifies generic power sharing, more or less appropriate from the parish level to the highest levels of the hierarchy. Collegiality in its technical sense refers to something more specific. Vatican Council II found the collegial principle at work in the ancient episcopal practice of holding “councils in order to settle conjointly, in a decision rendered balanced and equitable by the advice of many, all questions of major importance” – and suggested its revival now.

But, the Council hastened to add, “the college or body of bishops has. . .no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff,” and the pope retains “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (Lumen Gentium, 22) This was Vatican II’s reaffirmation of Vatican I’s definitive teaching on papal primacy.

Ideally, primacy and collegiality enjoy a healthy working relationship. The challenge now, as always, is to make the ideal a reality. Enter the Synod of Bishops.

As progressives tell the story, Vatican II intended the synod to be the premier institutional embodiment of collegiality, where bishops would work with the pope in making decisions for the universal Church. But Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI thwarted the Council’s will and turned synods into little more than talk fests. This is a gross exaggeration, but with enough truth to lend weight to agitation for change.

But what sort of change? One simple, constructive step would be for popes to assign synods topics on which the popes actually want advice, then take the advice if it’s sound. By contrast, rushing pell-mell into radical structural innovation could have disastrous consequences, as would accepting public opinion as the norm for Church teaching in matters like sexuality and marriage.      

Reviewing several pro-collegiality books as the debate heated up several years ago, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., made an important point: “Before demanding that the Synod of Bishops should have a deliberative vote one should carefully ponder who would be bound by its decrees. Does the whole Church really want to be legally bound by the majority vote of a hasty gathering of selected bishops?”

Also worth pondering is the difference between collegiality and decentralization. Collegiality means bishops participating in the governance of the universal Church. Decentralization refers to the autonomy of the local church. Yet the two things are often inconsistently conflated by people bent on diluting papal authority – and consistency be damned.

It’s true, as Father O’Malley points out, that the Church of the first millennium operated with greater dispersal of decision-making authority than the Church does now. But why?

Did this reflect an insight dating to apostolic times regarding the intrinsically collegial nature of ecclesial governance? Or was it only a necessary response to conditions in a day when messages took weeks to reach their destinations and decision-making had to happen locally for it to happen at all? In either case, the recognition that the Bishop of Rome needed to approve and confirm important local decisions testifies to the indispensable role of primacy even then; whereas technological change and globalization now suggest that too much decentralizing could saddle the Church with modes of decision-making that ignore these new realities.

It’s of a piece with the rest of this conceptual muddle that Pope Francis, while talking up collegiality, often operates in a non-collegial way, as in unilaterally reshaping of the Italian bishops’ conference and bypassing of the local bishop in telling an Argentine woman married to a divorced man that she was free to receive communion.

People with a taste for irony will appreciate the fact that today’s champion of collegiality is a charismatic pope who isn’t shy about wielding the power of primacy. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (Ignatius Press).