Many committed Catholics and not a few other Christians judge that the Catholic Church has become over-centralized, with too much power being exercised by those who run offices for the pope in the Roman Curia. The Second Vatican Council endorsed the principle of episcopal collegiality, or the role of bishops who together form a teaching, priestly, and pastoral college and who in communion with the bishop of Rome bear responsibility for the worldwide Church. Occasionally, when a general council of the Church takes place, the bishops meet to exercise this collegial role in a solemn fashion. But they exercise this role also, albeit in a more limited way, when they assemble in national conferences to plan policies and take decisions for the Catholic Church in their country.
The revolution in world communications and transport has made the Catholic Church also a kind of global village. Contacts with offices in the Roman Curia through letters, faxes, phone calls, and e-mails have been facilitated in unheard-of ways. From Rome it is possible to have instant access to and information from almost every Catholic diocese and even community. That new development in Catholicism has also its shadow side: central officials can be tempted to engage in micro-management of what belongs to particular communities. They can lack trust in the bishops and other leaders 'on the spot'. But this is to question Vatican II's understanding of the mission of the diocesan bishop: he has the primary responsibility for leading his people.
Early in the twentieth century many Catholics welcomed the new era encouraged by Pope Pius XI, when in so-called mission countries local priests, instead of foreign missionaries, became the bishops. 'Rome rule means home rule,' they announced proudly. Today the bishops around the world are generally natives of their own country. Yet home rule is at times spoiled by Rome rule. Instead of being the last court of appeal, some officials of the Roman Curia claim to be the 'judges' in the first instance. They seem to fear that the bishops and other leaders on the spot are almost sure to get things wrong when faced with major issues, and that they somehow lack guidance from the Holy Spirit to lead the local churches in the right direction. These officials want to maintain good order and Catholic unity (or is it sometimes a false uniformity?) by exercising centralized power over the particular churches.
Relationships between the centralized Roman Congregations (or papal ministries) and the national episcopal conferences do not always run smoothly. While local synods of bishops flourished in the first millennium of Christianity, since the sixteenth century Roman Congregations have been entrusted with the Pope's delegated authority. The whole Church would be blessed if the interaction were better co-ordinated between the curial officials in Rome, on the one hand, and the episcopal conferences and local bishops, on the other. Blessed John XXIII decided that the executive secretaries of the Roman Congregations should be bishops, so that they could deal as equals with diocesan bishops. Has this change continued to be fully helpful in the life of the worldwide Church?
In expounding the limits in the duty and rights of public authority to intervene in social and economic affairs, Pius XI introduced the principle of subsidiarity Quadragesimo Anno, 79), a principle later approved and further applied by Pius XII and John XXIII (e.g. the latter's Mater et Magistra, 53, 80). In essence the principle teaches that decisions and activities which naturally belong to a lower level should not be taken to a higher level. This means, for instance, that central organs of a state should not intervene unnecessarily with local authorities. The Second Vatican Council appealed to the principle of subsidiarity in dealing with international co-operation in economic matters (Gaudium etSpes, 85—6) and when indicating the limits of the state's responsibility in education (Gravissimum Educationis, 3, 6). Although introduced into Catholic teaching on social and economic affairs, the principle has been extended to the life of the Church. On 2 February 1946 when addressing the cardinals in a consistory at which he created thirty-two new cardinals, Pius XII stated that subsidiarity could be applied to the internal life of the Church. He set the principle over against the centralization of totalitarian dictatorships that had crucified Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Two international synods of bishops (1967 and 1969) voted in favour of applying the principle of subsidiarity to canon law and to the functioning of national conferences of bishops. Hence subsidiarity became one of the principles for the reform of the Code of Canon Law (promulgated in 1983).253 Subsidiarity, or not taking to a higher level matters that can and should be dealt with at a lower, local level, clearly
253 See J. A. Coriden et al . (eds.), The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 6, 21, 312.
constitutes a healthy principle for our lives together, both in human society at large and in the Catholic Church in particular. But some officials in the Roman Curia do not always honour the principle in practice and occasionally question it in theory.254
Some OT passages suggest an early implementation of the principle of subsidiarity when describing the co-ordination of Israelite life under the leadership of Moses. Prompted by his father-in-law, Moses reorganized the way disputes among the people were to be handled. Ordinary cases were to be heard by lay leaders and judges. Moses was to adjudicate only in those cases that lacked legal precedent and required a special divine oracle (Exod. 18: 13-27; see Deut. 1: 9-18). A similar practice of subsidiarity shows up when the Book of Deuteronomy legislates for ordinary cases to come before local, subordinate judges. Only difficult cases were to be taken to the priests or the presiding judge (Deut. 17: 8-13). The first books of the OT seem to support the value of the principle of subsidiarity for the people of God. Could we see Moses as an early role-model for the practice of healthy subsidiarity?
Our reflections on collegiality and subsidiarity go beyond administrative practicalities in a desire to promote the life of the Church as communion (see the last section of Ch. 8 above). The pope exercises a specific ministry of unity for and within the whole Church; he does so by fostering a global communion that reflects the exchange of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Bishops, through the collegial mission that they have received by their episcopal ordination, will further solidarity among their own faithful more effectively when they can live out more fully the episcopal brotherhood to which they have been called.
Was this article helpful?