Pope John Paul II has surprised everyone by announcing an extraordinary consistory for May 21-24. This will be the sixth extraordinary consistory since John Paul resurrected this governmental structure in 1979. In an extraordinary consistory, the pope invites all of the cardinals (even those over 80 years of age) to Rome for a consultation. For an ordinary consistory, the pope can invite all the cardinals or only those residing in Rome. Ordinary consistories are used for the creation of cardinals, the conferral of the pallium on archbishops and canonizations.
The topic this time will be issues raised in the pope’s post-jubilee year document, Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium’’), which outlined the church’s path in the 21st century. This is a wide-ranging topic that could lead to discussions on almost anything.
The first three consistories (1979, 1982 and 1985) focused mostly on internal Vatican issues: reform of the Roman Curia (1979, 1982, 1985), Vatican finances (1979) and the Vatican bank (1982). While Vatican finances were improved, changes in the Curia were minuscule. Consistories have also taken on some bigger topics: the church and culture (1979), the revision of the Code of Canon Law (1982), threats to human life and religious sects (1991).
Cardinals John O’Connor and Bernard Law played leading roles at the 1991 consistory by orchestrating passage of two short resolutionsthe first resolutions ever passed by a modern consistory. O’Connor’s, condemning abortion and artificial birth control programs sponsored by governments and international organizations, was aimed at the U.N. conference on population in Cairo. Law’s called on the warring factions in Rwanda to lay down their arms.
The most recent consistory (1994) dealt primarily with preparations for the jubilee year, although the cardinals also discussed ecumenical relations, the International Year of the Family and the better use of retired bishops. At this consistory, John Paul heard opposition to his planned admission of past failings by the church, including the Galileo case, wars of religion and the Inquisition. He went ahead anyway and made history.
While a conclave is a meeting of cardinals to elect a new pope, a consistory is a meeting of cardinals to advise the pope. In the early centuries, when faced with a difficult issue, the pope would often call a provincial council made up of the bishops from Italy. In 1141, instead of calling a council, Pope Innocent II consulted a consistory of cardinals to get their advice. The practice caught on, and provincial councils became rare. Remember, at this time most of the cardinals were Roman priests and deacons, not bishops.
At first the college met monthly, but by the beginning of the 13th century, it was meeting with the pope three days a week. The consistories dealt with a wide range of issues: the crusades, heresies, the appointment of bishops, excommunications and the Papal States. The consistories began to decline when issues became more complex and more numerous, and they were replaced by pontifical congregations, which were originally simply committees of cardinals formed to study an issue.
The consistory as a governance structure gradually disappeared (and ultimately was suppressed in 1588) as popes imitated absolute monarchs, who downgraded the role of nobles in the royal court. After the Second Vatican Council, everyone thought consistories were extinct, since the synod of bishops had become the preferred way for the pope to get advice. As a result, John Paul’s call for a consistory in 1979 led to still unanswered questions about the relationship between these two consultative bodies. Which is more important? Which should be consulted on what topics? Are both representative of the college of bishops? Is this the beginning of a bicameral system in the church? These questions are especially important today, when practically all the cardinals are also bishops and therefore members of the college of bishops.