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

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of Nothing to Hide and also To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity, and his most recent book is American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (2013).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Students of Church History will recall that popes sedulously avoided attending councils. Even in the caseof General Councils, they were invariably represented by legates. This meant that they could review the acts of these councils at their leisure.

  • Chris in Maryland

    I am concerned that Bishops, priests, vowed religious persons and lay persons who are concerned with having more power do not seem very trustworthy.

    Some “collegiality” Bishops, for instance, Cardinal Mahoney, expect people to believe that, having betrayed victims and the faithful in their appalling failed leadership and governance of criminal predators who were under their command, it is now time that such men start running everything else, like mini-popes in their own dioceses.

    A self-styled “progressive man” is a threatening man, because he believes that, by virtue of his progressive laundry list, whatever he wants is progress, whatever he doesn’t want is “out-moded,” and whoever opposes what he wants is to be silenced and marginalized.

    When it is in the interest of a progressive man to get a share of power to get what he wants, he will cast his vote in favor of power sharing. When it is in the interest of a progressive man to sieze power to get what he wants, he will reject power sharing and sieze power.

    It’s all about power. An alien aim in a Church that worships the crucified God.

  • pgepps

    Isn’t this issue simply a matter of maintaining a proper distinction between “collegiality” properly so called and the already-rejected and manifestly failed “conciliarist” ecclesiology? There is no inconsistency, as Vatican II affirms, between recognizing that the ordinary power to teach and rule is vested in the Apostolic College, hence in the College of Bishops their successors, and recognizing that the primacy within that college is vested in Peter and his successor. And there is no inconsistency in enunciating a vigorous faith in the final reality and present urgency of that College’s unified and integral role, and vigorous use of the primacy to ensure that unity and integrity.

    Disagree with the prudence of this or that decision, as you must, but do not conjure contradictions for the sake of jibes at the Holy Father.

  • Myshkin

    Great photo of Pope Bergoglio! Photography as an art form has the possibility to reveal much about reality.

    Well, there’s many different ways collegiality can be made to happen at a synod. Permit me to give a sketch of two of these ways:

    1) The “Mensheviks” are blamed, shamed and defeated by the “Bolsheviks,” even though they really are the majority. How is this accomplished? By the control of the synodal horario and agendas careful control over *who* is allowed to speak *when*. When the Bien pensant bishops (Bolshies) are to speak, the Pope will be in the room to confirm and ratify what is said. When those outside the Pale (Menshies) are to speak, curiously the Pope will have a pressing engagement, the mics won’t work, the hours will be late or very early, or their will be double-scheduling (accidental of course) so that it all becomes confused. That’s how you control a group via its horario (incidentally, something like this was tried by Cdl. Ottaviana for Vatican II, but the Council rejected it by majority vote). The changes desired by a mere handful of the world’s bishops will be ratified by the present Pontiff and the die will have been cast.

    2) After some debate, the synodal schema is rejected by the majority. The Bolshies refuse to take part after that and depart Rome. The Pope attends only the closing where he castigates the Menshie bishops for their clericalism and uncollegial spirit. Everyone is frustrated by the synod. But at that point, the present Pontiff declares that, after the “collapse” of the synod, he *has* to take matters into his own hands. Then the die will be cast.

    Of course other possibilities exist, but I suspect something along one of the above will take place. This Pope has an agenda and he will not be stopped by mere synods …

  • Otto

    Some of our bishops here in the U.S. are crying for more power. For what? They are supposed to serve the Church and represent her locally. I am leery of the attempts for more power. I can imagine what they want to use it for if they would attain it. Pray for our Church.

  • Elizabeth Sheehy

    Has it occurred to anyone else that this is an opportunity to FINALLY obey Our Lady and consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart? FWIW, this is where the real power lies, and always has, to Jesus through Mary. We’d be well-advised to keep this in mind.

  • Walter

    Francis’ approach seems straightforward and I would think be supported by traditional Catholics: greater collegiality with bishops while retaining Petrine primacy.

    Ironically, many of the contributors and commenters at this website are more in sync with Commonweal: they want (their) public input to influence the governance of the Church.

  • GG


    The tradionalists are not asking for input. They are asking for orthodoxy.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Seconding GG’s comment.