Strong words from Kevin Dowling, C.Ss.R., the Catholic bishop of Rostenburg, South Africa, to a group of "leading laity" in Cape Town, on June 1. He takes as his jumping-off point the Tridentine Mass celebrated by Bishop Edward James Slattery in Washington, DC, but his point goes beyond that particular Mass, and the bishop discusses the need for "humble, servant leadership" in the church, the unquestionable authority of Vatican II, the diminution of subsidiarity and collegiality and the equation of disagreement with the pope with disloyalty.
The Southern Cross [South Africa's "national Catholic weekly"] about three or four weeks ago published a picture of Bishop Slattery with his “cappa magna” – in colour...! For me, such a display of what amounts to triumphalism in a Church torn apart by the sexual abuse scandal, is most unfortunate. What happened there bore the marks of a medieval royal court, not the humble, servant leadership modelled by Jesus. But it seems to me that this is also a symbol of what has been happening in the Church especially since Pope John Paul II became the Bishop of Rome and up till today - and that is “restorationism”, the carefully planned dismantling of the theology, ecclesiology, pastoral vision, indeed the “opening of the windows” of Vatican II – in order to “restore” a previous, or more controllable model of Church through an increasingly centralised power structure; a structure which now controls everything in the life of the Church through a network of Vatican Congregations led by Cardinals who ensure strict compliance with what is deemed by them to be “orthodox”. Those who do not comply face censure and punishment, e.g. theologians who are forbidden to teach in Catholic faculties.
Lest we do not highlight sufficiently this important fact. Vatican II was an Ecumenical Council, i.e. a solemn exercise of the magisterium of the Church, i.e. the college of bishops gathered together with the Bishop of Rome and exercising a teaching function for the whole Church. In other words, its vision, its principles and the direction it gave are to be followed and implemented by all, from the Pope to the peasant farmer in the fields of Honduras.
Since Vatican II there has been no such similar exercise of teaching authority by the magisterium. Instead, a series of decrees, pronouncements and decisions which have been given various “labels” stating, for example, that they must be firmly held to with “internal assent” by the Catholic faithful, but in reality are simply the theological or pastoral interpretations or opinions of those who have power at the centre of the Church. They have not been solemnly defined as belonging to the “deposit of the faith” to be believed and followed, therefore, by all Catholics, as with other solemnly proclaimed dogmas. For example, the issues of celibacy for the priesthood and the ordination of women, withdrawn even from the realm of discussion. Therefore, such pronouncements are open to scrutiny – to discern whether they are in accord, for example, with the fundamental theological vision of Vatican II, or whether there is indeed a case to be made for a different interpretation or opinion.
I think that today we have a leadership in the Church which actually undermines the very notion of subsidiarity; where the minutiae of Church life and praxis “at the lower level” are subject to examination and authentication being given by the “higher level”, in fact the highest level, e.g. the approval of liturgical language and texts; where one of the key Vatican II principles, collegiality in decision-making, is virtually non-existent. The eminent emeritus Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Franz König, wrote the following in 1999 – almost 35 years after Vatican II: “In fact, however, de facto and not de jure, intentionally or unintentionally, the curial authorities working in conjunction with the Pope have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college. It is they who now carry out almost all of them” (“My Vision of the Church of the Future”, The Tablet, March 27, 1999, p. 434).
What compounds this, for me, is the mystique which has in increasing measure surrounded the person of the Pope in the last 30 years, such that any hint of critique or questioning of his policies, his way of thinking, his exercise of authority etc. is equated with disloyalty. There is more than a perception, because of this mystique, that unquestioning obedience by the faithful to the Pope is required and is a sign of the ethos and fidelity of a true Catholic. When the Pope’s authority is then intentionally extended to the Vatican Curia, there exists a real possibility that unquestioning obedience to very human decisions about a whole range of issues by the Curial Departments and Cardinals also becomes a mark of one’s fidelity as a Catholic, and anything less is interpreted as being disloyal to the Pope who is charged with steering the barque of Peter.
It has become more and more difficult over the past years, therefore, for the College of Bishops as a whole, or in a particular territory, to exercise their theologically-based servant leadership to discern appropriate responses to their particular socio-economic, cultural, liturgical, spiritual and other pastoral realities and needs; much less to disagree with or seek alternatives to policies and decisions taken in Rome. And what appears to be more and more the policy of appointing “safe”, unquestionably orthodox and even very conservative bishops to fill vacant dioceses over the past 30 years, only makes it less and less likely that the College of Bishops – even in powerful Conferences like the United States – will question what comes out of Rome, and certainly not publicly. Instead, there will be every effort to try and find an accommodation with those in power, which means that the Roman position will prevail in the end. And, taking this further, when an individual bishop takes issue with something, especially in public, the impression or judgement will be that he is “breaking ranks” with the other bishops and will only cause confusion to the lay faithful – so it is said - because it will appear that the Bishops are not united in their teaching and leadership role. The pressure, therefore, to conform.
James Martin, SJ