It is an understatement to say that Catholicism is in deep trouble. The sexual abuse tragedy and the secrecy and denial surrounding are obvious symptoms. A key element in the broader Church crisis is governance.
Contemporary Catholicism operates out of a monarchical model that may have worked in the seventeenth century, but today is totally inappropriate and toxic. More importantly, contemporary Church government has little to do with Jesus or the New Testament.
First, some history.
Governance is an issue that should have been tackled much more decisively immediately after the Second Vatican Council, in the period between 1965 and 1980.
While the Council sketched out a remarkable New Testament vision of the Church in the first two chapters of the document Lumen gentium (LG), we failed to follow-up and fully incorporate that vision in the Church’s pastoral practice, governance, ecclesiastical structures and revised 1983 Code of Canon Law.
Closely linked to this is the abandonment of Paul VI’s proposal to develop a Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis, a Fundamental Law of the Church.
The Italian pope saw this as a foundational document that would enshrine the vision of Vatican II regarding governance, ministry, roles and rights of Catholics and what today we call accountability, inclusivity and transparency. But the Lex “disappeared” early in the pontificate of John Paul II, probably because it looked too much like a bill of rights.
People of God vs. Divine right hierarchy
Second, it is also clear that contemporary governance problems can be traced back to the Council documents themselves.
For example, the first two chapters of Lumen gentium develop dynamic images of the Church. It is seen as a “mystery,” a profound symbolic reality like an artistic masterpiece, infused by the Spirit of God that can be explored, but never exhausted.
The Church is represented as a community, the People of God on pilgrimage, drawn together by God’s Spirit and gifted to serve and act as representatives of Christ. It is a sign that God is active in the world, symbolized by those who hunger for justice, work for integrity and seek the meaning of human existence.
The focus in both these chapters is on the local church with Lumen gentium envisaging a Church that is built-up from below, from the community. It is this image that most mainstream Catholics today have absorbed and made their own.
But chapter three of this key Vatican II document seemingly ignores all this. It is as though the first two chapters didn’t exist.
This third chapter presents the Church as a clerical hierarchy under the control of the pope whose primary task is to shepherd the sheep, the lay “faithful.”
This is the Church of the First Vatican Council of 1870 in which the pope “owns” the church. He has, as Vatican I said, “the absolute fullness of supreme power.”
All teaching authority (magisterium) passes through him via the definition of papal infallibility and, more importantly, through the so-called “ordinary magisterium,” or day-to-day teaching power.
In fact, Lumen gentium represents a compromise between the large majority of bishops at Vatican II who espoused the dynamic image of the Church and a small minority whose uncompromising emphasis was on the hierarchical model.
Paul VI wanted unanimity, so to please both sides the document reflects that split.
A dichotomy that must be resolved
Since Vatican II Catholics have been caught-up in the disjunction between a hierarchical, divine right model and a vision of the Church as the pilgrim People of God.
It is obvious that these models are mutually exclusive and they have led to endless conflicts in Church life between those who operate out of a hierarchical model and the majority for whom the priority is community. This conflict has become corrosively toxic.
The Church has to resolve this dichotomy. Unequivocally, the People of God image represented by the first two chapters alone reflects the New Testament’s understanding of the Church and it is this model that is normative for us.
Historically, the notion of hierarchy is a later import, first from late-Roman administrative structures that the Church adopted in the fourth century post-Constantine (d.337) era, and later still through the revival of Roman law in the twelfth century and its application to the Church.
The specific hierarchical model that we operate out of today was borrowed directly from the theory of the divine right of kings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It received its definitive form in the theology of Saint Robert Bellarmine (d.1621) in his post-Reformation apologetics.
History also reminds us that a constant temptation for the Church is to borrow models from state and civil administrations and then sacralize them by endowing them with the nomenclature “divine.”
Jesus did not establish a hierarchy in the modern sense, nor did he bestow divine right on those who lead the Church. He came to found the Kingdom of God which, he assured Pontius Pilate, “was not of this world” (John 18:36).
The nearest articulation of what Jesus intended for the Church can be found in those first two chapters of Lumen gentium.
Beware of ‘the dictatorship of functionalism’
There is a danger that today we face precisely the same temptation as previous ecclesiologists, like Bellarmine. And that temptation is to import contemporary corporate and administrative models characterised by efficiency and managerialism.
Pope Francis warned precisely against this recently when, addressing the Diocese of Rome, he talked about the tendency of Church people to “fix things.”
He said this leads to the “dictatorship of functionalism,” which, he said, was another form of clericalism. He referred obliquely to the archdiocese of Milan — although he didn’t name it — which he said had fallen into the trap of functionalism.
“There is a department for this, that and the other thing,” he said, “and each department has four, five or six specialists that study things… That diocese (Milan) has more employees than the Vatican! And each day that diocese strays further away from Jesus Christ because it has begun to worship…functional worldliness,” Francis said.
Lumen gentium doesn’t reflect a corporate vision, but one of a people on a journey toward the kingdom of God. There is a sense in which it is untidy, scattered and in some ways dysfunctional.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t have values that are enshrined in accountable and transparent procedures. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t include women and men in all our structures.
But it does mean that we need to begin the retreat from hierarchy to a more egalitarian, community-based Church. Decision-making has to be more inclusive, not exclusively the right of the monarch-pope — or, more likely, the monarch-bishop — who thinks that he alone is inspired by the Spirit of God.
On the contrary, the Spirit dwells in the whole community.
Paul Collins has written much on the history of Church governance, most recently in Absolute Power (2018).
The article was published in La Croix International, June 19, 2019.