The Very Model of a Modern Bishop

A liberal American bishop of the present day airing grievances to a colleague? Not quite. These were the words of the fiercely conservative Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, New York, writing in 1892 to the hardly less conservative Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York. Bishop McQuaid was complaining about Pope Leo XIII and the papal delegate to the United States, Archbishop Francesco Satolli, who had lately angered Bishop McQuaid by siding with the hierarchy’s Americanist wing in support of public schools.

After 2,000 years, there isn’t much that can happen in the Catholic Church, whether for good or bad, that is entirely unprecedented. Rough spots in the relationship between bishops and Rome certainly aren’t. That needs bearing in mind in light of the possibility that a new kind of bishop may soon emerge—may, in fact, be emerging now—whose distinguishing trait is his championing of collegiality.

Hints of what could lie ahead bubbled to the surface at last October’s assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in Rome and the following month at the U.S. bishops’ general meeting in Washington, D.C. Both gatherings provided reminders that the collegiality of bishops cannot be rightly understood apart from other ecclesiological principles shaping relationships in the Church. Before getting into that complex subject, though, a little history is in order.

Despite the recent scandals, Catholics today hope for excellence in their bishops, but their expectations haven’t always been so high. “At least the Archbishop of Paris should believe in God,” Louis XVI remarked. Happily, things soon got better. The French Revolution and Napoleon combined to give unintended assistance to a painful but necessary purging process among the hierarchy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Even so, the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) was a council of the papacy rather than the episcopacy. Vatican I defined the dogma of papal infallibility and reaffirmed and elaborated the dogma of papal primacy. One consequence was a marked tilt toward Rome in the 90 years that followed. Things reached such a point that in 1943 the bishop of Strasbourg, France, saw nothing odd about calling the pope not just “supreme head of the Church” but “first bishop of the diocese of Strasbourg.” Others thought the same way—and some probably still do. In this view, a diocesan bishop is only the pope’s local representative—a kind of ecclesiastical branch manager carrying out orders from the Holy See.

Thus it comes as no surprise that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a council of the bishops in more senses than one. While reaffirming the pope’s supremacy in teaching and governing, Vatican II set out to restore and elevate the episcopal role. Documents like the decree on the pastoral office of bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, and especially the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, were crucial to this program.

According to Lumen Gentium, just as the pope is the “vicar of Christ” in relation to the universal Church, the bishop is a “vicar of Christ” in relation to his particular church or diocese. Especially important in this regard are sections 22 and 23 of the constitution. Bishops, we are told, make up a body or college under the headship of the pope, a body that shares in the responsibility for teaching and governing the Church. “Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, [the bishops] have supreme and full authority over the universal Church,” Lumen Gentium affirms. (Lest anyone get funny ideas, the document immediately adds, “but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.”)

Besides teaching collegiality, the council took practical steps to reinforce this message, launching structural innovations like national conferences of bishops and a world synod of bishops. “Representative of the whole Catholic episcopate,” the synod was to render “auxiliary service” to the pope and testify to “the participation of all the bishops in hierarchical communion in the care of the universal Church.” These steps by Vatican II appeared to presage a much more vigorous episcopal role in teaching and governing—a role that would express collegiality at work.

Something else happened instead. The 15 years that followed witnessed the rise of the “pastoral” bishop as the preferred model of episcopacy. The ascendancy of the new model was linked in a special way in the United States with the tenure of Archbishop Jean Jadot as apostolic delegate. A Belgian who arrived in 1973 bent on reshaping the American hierarchy, Archbishop Jadot continued in this critical post until 1980.

In general, the pastoral model turned out to mean bishops who were good listeners, good at dialogue, and good at sniffing out a consensus. These gifts made them—and still make them—attractive figures in many respects. Too often, though, pastoral bishops proved to be not so good at strong, clear teaching, at confronting and correcting dissent, or at knocking heads together when all else failed.

A well-known example of the pastoral style at the national level was the series of “hearings” conducted in 1975 and 1976 by the bishops’ national conference as the run-up to the Call to Action Conference held in Detroit in October of the latter year. There, activists and Church bureaucrats hijacked the proceedings and forced through resolutions on issues from birth control to women’s ordination.

Although the heyday of the pastoral model has passed, bishops formed along these lines have by no means disappeared. At the synod assembly last October, for instance, a Japanese bishop spoke with pride of a catechetical publication sponsored by his episcopal conference that scrupulously eschews any triumphalistic hint “that the only correct answer and resolution for problems comes from a Catholic point of view.” While hardly anybody would care to argue the contrary, stressing what the Church doesn’t know is typical of the pastoral style.

Starting around 1980, a new model began to emerge in the United States and other countries. This was—and is— the “John Paul II bishop.” Prelates of this kind were named by a new pope, John Paul II, acting (in the United States) on the advice of a series of papal representatives beginning with Archbishop (now Cardinal) Pio Laghi and extending through Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan (who is also a cardinal now) and the current representative, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.

For Catholic progressives, John Paul II bishops are a heavy cross. In a nasty new Penguin Life of Pope John XXIII, Thomas Cahill rages at them as “duplicitous sycophants and intellectual incompetents” (see “Penguin Tricks” in the April 2002 issue). As orthodox Catholics see it, abuse like this from progressives is itself a good sign that the new model has been a success. The real problem is that there aren’t enough John Paul II bishops—especially since, for reasons that remain unclear, many episcopal appointments even during the last 20 years have not conformed to this mold.

The difference between John Paul II bishops and pastoral bishops is easily illustrated. Start with the pastoral model.

Twenty-five years ago, I was present for a cozy chat between a powerful figure in the American hierarchy and a nationally known Jesuit theologian. “Really,” the theologian insisted, “the Church’s teaching on sexual morality will have to change.”

The eminent personage didn’t blink. “Give it time,” he replied.

Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, a John Paul II bishop named to the hierarchy in 1990, struck a different— and, in light of recent events, prophetic—note at last fall’s synod assembly:

Sexual promiscuity and widespread pornography destroy the freedom to love and make conversion seem impossible. The now-longstanding dissent of the past generation from truths about the gift of human sexuality renders the bishops and the Church powerless to teach and to heal…. When bishops and priests and those consecrated by vow to God fail in chastity, hope for others withers as well. This sin, as much as any today, destroys the Church’s credibility and diminishes every bishop’s effectiveness as pastor.

Enough to make a pastoral bishop wince.

The New Paradigm

What comes next? John Paul II won’t always be around to name bishops. Even now the wheel is turning, and a new model of episcopacy is coming into view. While it is too soon to speak with certainty, this could turn out to mean a corps of bishops for whom collegiality is central to their self-understanding and their mode of doing business. That could mark a return to the Vatican II ideal—or something a great deal more worrisome.

The issues here at stake could come to a head in the conclave to elect the next pope and in the pontificate that follows. Already, the project of decentralization, which some regard as implicit in the collegiality model, has received support from Pope John Paul II. In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, he invited the Church to consider new ways of exercising papal primacy for the sake of Christian unity. In that context, he often points to the ecclesiological system of the first millennium—a system organized around powerful patriarchates—as a pattern for the future. (A highly orthodox priest whom I know calls this the “new paradigm.”)

Still, there is no guarantee that the collegiality model will turn out to be good for the Church. Much depends on how ideas like communion and subsidiarity—and, of course, collegiality itself—are understood, the institutional expression given to them, and how bishops choose to understand their role. The challenge will be to preserve the supremacy of the pope in ecclesial affairs while substantially strengthening the bishops’ hand. And that may not be easy.

No one, least of all Catholic bishops, wants to have a quasi-schismatic hierarchy whose members operate apart from, or even in defiance of, the pope—whether individually or in groups (national episcopal conferences or a newly empowered synod). As Vatican II was careful to point out, the college of bishops has “no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head”; even an ecumenical council has no authority to teach—and does not, technically, even exist—unless “confirmed or at least recognized” by the bishop of Rome, according to Lumen Gentium.

Nevertheless, within this framework there is considerable room—and, some would say, a real need—for structural change. Among bishops, a great deal of the present interest in this subject stems from the belief that the Roman curia has sometimes overstepped its authority and infringed on theirs. Two widely noted cases in the United States last year raised this issue.

One involved the controversy that erupted over plans by Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., to renovate St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee. When some local Catholics protested and carried their complaints to Rome, they got support from the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Jorge Cardinal Medina. The cardinal sent Archbishop Weakland a letter taking the protestors’ side. The letter was politely received and then ignored. There is room for argument about the merits of the renovation plan and about its timing (Archbishop Weakland is expected to retire this year), but as for the question of the canonical authority of a diocesan bishop, the archbishop was in the right.

Tensions flared again over Liturgiam Authenticam, an instruction on translating the liturgy issued by Cardinal Medina’s congregation. Departing from rules that had been in place for 30 years, the document stressed close adherence to the Latin and the use of language that preserves the aura of the sacred. While intended for the universal Church, Liturgiam Authenticam was understood to be aimed especially at the bishops of the United States and a few other countries. The American bishops discussed the document heatedly when they met in June 2001 in Atlanta, and they returned to it in November in Washington, D.C. Questions of liturgical translation aside, here was another case where at least some members of the hierarchy were miffed about what they took to be Roman interference.

Unhappiness with the curia also was visible at the synod. “We need to sort out problems with persons from problems with structures. Changing structures to deal with personal problems is bad management,” Cardinal George cautioned in an interview, laying down a sound principle that nonetheless leaves the door open to structural change.

Two Versions of Collegiality

There is nothing to fear—quite the contrary—in collegiality correctly understood: It has the effect of helping bishops shoulder their share of the responsibility for teaching and governing the Church. But where and how bishops ought to do that is a different matter, with two conflicting answers that reflect diverse ecclesiologies.

For Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the primary locus for the ministry of diocesan bishops is the particular church—the diocese. “Individual bishops share in the government of the universal Church not by being represented in some central organ but by leading as shepherds their particular churches,” he once wrote. And at the synod assembly he declared, “If bishops have the courage to judge and decide with authority in [the] battle for the gospel, the so-desired decentralization happens automatically.”

That is all very well, others would say, but the principle of collegiality should be understood as extending not merely to individual bishops nominally in union with the pope and one another yet, practically speaking, isolated in their dioceses; collegiality also needs to be put to work by bishops deliberating and acting together in collegial bodies like ecumenical councils, synods, and national and regional conferences.

Conferences of bishops have particularly strong defenders. At the synod, William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, a former president of the U.S. conference, called these structures “indispensable as servants of communion between the bishops of the particular churches and the universal Church.” Offering glowing testimony to the U.S. conference on matters from the implementation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to ecumenical dialogue, he called for a “more profound study of the role of episcopal conferences” that would go beyond Apostolos Suos, the pope’s 1998 document on bishops’ conferences.

Other bishops are considerably less enthusiastic. They point out that whereas a diocese is a particular church with a bishop as its head, a conference isn’t a church but only a kind of committee. Episcopal conferences have no right to dictate to diocesan bishops. The relationship that matters is between a bishop and the pope, not between a bishop and a conference. Some also complain that episcopal conferences are manipulated by staff and consultants at the expense of the bishops themselves. (In the United States, this is probably less of a problem now than it used to be.)

There is a similar difference of opinion about the synod. Complaints have been heard for years about its allegedly unwieldy structure, excessive secrecy, and manipulation by the curia. But Jan Cardinal Scotte, the Vatican official who organizes and runs these assemblies, thinks they’re just fine as they are, while the pope regularly speaks well of the synod. A suggestion to consider changes in the synod was one of the 67 recommendations transmitted by last fall’s assembly to the pope. (It is a symptom of the weaknesses of the present system that the recommendations, called “propositions,” are supposed to be kept secret but regularly get leaked to the press, as these were.)

Subsidiarity is another part of this puzzle. According to this principle of Catholic social doctrine, decisions should be made at the lowest level competent to make them and as close as possible to where they will be carried out. Subsidiarity applies to civil society. Does it also apply to the Church? The claim that it does is part of the current campaign to decentralize the Church. Perhaps the question can best be answered in light of a distinction: Subsidiarity is a sociological principle but not a theological one, relevant to some issues in the life of the Church but not all, and certainly not applicable to fundamental matters of doctrine and discipline. And always it must operate within the framework of communion.

“Communion” is another term of central importance in this whole debate. An ecclesiological concept associated with Vatican Council II, communion signifies unity—but unity of a special sort. Documents of the magisterium like to remind us that Church communion arises from—and somehow mirrors—the communion of the Trinity itself. Communion in reference to the Church is the unity that comes from the sharing of spiritual goods entrusted to it by Christ—the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the message of the gospel, doctrine, hierarchical structure, and governance by a ministry of apostolic origin. Rules and structures are required to express and safeguard communion, but they are neither its source nor its essence, and placing too much emphasis on them could be communion’s ruin.

No responsible Catholic wants that to happen—any more than he or she wants to see the Church collapse into a state of amorphousness, with a pope who reigns but does not rule while the bishops go their own way. As the day of the collegial bishop dawns, Pope John Paul II’s reminder to the bishops at the close of the synod assembly seems especially pertinent: “Only if a deep and convinced unity of the pastors with the successor of Peter is clearly discernible…can we give a credible reply to the challenges that come from the present social and cultural world.”

The practice of collegiality could be a big help to that. Separatism plainly would not. If bishops in favor of greater collegiality turned out to be vigorous expounders of Catholic doctrine and discipline in their dioceses and wholehearted, self-confident collaborators with the pope and curia, they would be a blessing for the Church. If they allowed heterodoxy to flourish in their dioceses and nations while sniping at Rome and ignoring the pope, they would be a disaster.

We’ll see soon enough.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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