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Posted April 18, 2005 at 5:30 a.m. CDT

New pope should put collegiality at top of list

By Mary Ann Hinsdale

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the folklore surrounding papal conclaves that says a thin pope is followed by a fat pope, and the like, but I actually am hoping for a “weaker” pope.  John Paul II was a strong pope.  He will be remembered for having a strong moral compass and a firm, even mystical, sense of his own, divinely ordained mission to lead the church.  However, the last twenty-seven years have seen  a growing centralization within the Roman Catholic church that has practically reversed the great gains made at the Second Vatican Council.

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It may be, as John Cornwell has judged in The Pontiff in Winter, that this policy was due to John Paul’s own “character, his temperament, and his personal history,” but whereas Vatican II restored a sense of “the local church” and corrected the idea of a papacy as the world headquarters of a multi-national organization with bishops as “branch managers,” the Wojtyla papacy effectively took us back to the way the church was envisioned at Vatican I.  So, while I would not like to see a weak pope, I would be happy with a weaker pope and a stronger sense of the local church.

For me, the number one issue for the next papacy is the restoration of collegiality and the number two issue is the recovery of the insight that one can have “unity in diversity” in the church.  Both of these were two extremely important realizations that pervaded Vatican II, but they were eroded during John Paul II’s tenure and need to be recovered if the church is to thrive — perhaps even survive — in the third millennium.  The Wojtyla papacy, aided by the many interventions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, kept stressing the rather slippery word, “communio” (communion), to describe the relationship between the pope and bishops as well as  the relationship between the bishops and theologians.  However, the way Ratzinger and John Paul II understood this communion was always a hierarchical communion, a one-way street model that effectively returned the church to being imaged as a pyramid, as it was at Vatican I .  What the church needs now is a papacy that relates more dialogically and reciprocally with the various local churches.

As Karl Rahner remarked many years ago, the Roman Catholic church is now truly a world church.  But being a world church means more than just shifting the demographic balance among the cardinals who make up a conclave.  It is about recognizing the legitimate authority of the local churches of Asia, Africa, South America, Europe and North America — something which has not been done, as shown in numerous instances of papal and  curial resistance to local church synods and the statements and decisions of episcopal conferences.  It is at this level that the issues such as “married priests,” “artificial contraception” and what I would like to call “institutional accountability to the lay ministers in the church,” rather than simply “ordination of women,” should first be addressed.

In the undergraduate class I teach, “Exploring Catholicism,” we have just finished reading about the image Cardinal John Henry Newman in the 19th century used to describe the relationship between the whole people of God who encounter God’s revelation in their daily lives and the bishops who are entrusted with safeguarding that revelation.  Newman spoke of a conspiratio fidelium et pastorum, literally, a “breathing together” of the faithful and the pastors. This is what I think needs to be restored in the church:  a true consultation of the faithful, from the point of view of their experience of the Holy Spirit working in the church; and a true consultation of the bishops of the church, not just those in the Roman Curia or the hand-picked. If this were done, then I think that bishops could more freely bring up the critical issues that affect people. 

The press always wants theologians to predict if, in the next papacy, there will be a lifting of the ban on artificial birth control, if priests will be allowed to marry, if women will be allowed to be ordained.  These are not unimportant issues, and they remain ones which, despite papal prohibition, just simply won’t go away — something I regard as the work of the Holy Spirit.  But far more important, in my opinion, is the fundamental way the church operates.  Will the papacy return to recognizing — and affirming — the local church, something that is in complete harmony with the tradition of the church?  Unless we find a way of learning to “breathe together,” I am afraid the Roman Catholic church is going to die of  “spiritual emphysema.”   I also am concerned that another “strong pope,” given the potential of division and polarization in the church, would present a strong possibility of schism. This is something that I hope the cardinals gathering in conclave will take very seriously.

It is important to remember two things regarding the possibility of erecting structures of consultation and decision-making in the church that could encourage more of a “breathing together.”  First, canon law already provides for parish councils and pastoral councils.  Second, the international synods of bishops and the International Theological Commission were set up by Paul VI — so a pope can do this sort of consultative structure.  Under John Paul II, however, these potentially consultative and collegial bodies were tightly controlled and scripted.  Another papacy, more trusting of the Holy Spirit, might loosen the reins on such vehicles and perhaps create new ones as well.

Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is associate professor of theology at Boston College.

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