Page 7, 16th July 1999

16th July 1999
Page 7
Page 7, 16th July 1999 — Papal Primacy and Collegiality: the challenge

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Papal Primacy and Collegiality: the challenge

BEFORE WE consider what Cardinal Hume was saying to the American bishops in his final address to them (of which we publish an edited version on pages 4 and 5), it is important to be quite clear what he was not saying. In a sensationalised and wholly irresponsible news "report" published two weeks ago under the headline "Hume attacks Vatican from beyond grave", The Sunday Telegraph claimed that before he died, the Cardinal "launched an astonishing critique of the Vatican".

Apart from the unpleasant innuendo that the Cardinal decided to lob a timebomb in Rome's general direction, knowing that he would not be around to take the consequences (in fact he wrote it before he knew how ill he was), it has to be said that this is all simple nonsense. The implication is that the Cardinal left behind him an attack on the authority of Rome itself: an attack on "the Vatican" can only be interpreted as an attack on Papal authority. The Sunday Telegraph article, indeed, quoted a well-known critic of the present Pope as saying that the Cardinal "clearly felt able to express his true views" and that "his legacy was a call for more democracy in Rome".

To see what nonsense this is, one has only to recall the Cardinal's clear insistence (first in the context of the Catholic Common Ground initiative and then in his address to the American Bishops itself) that we must not attenuate the role of the Pope by seeing him as simply another bishop, a first among equals, and that we must "hold fast" to "the primacy of the successor of Peter and fidelity to Catholic tradition and scripture".

The Cardinal did not attack "the Vatican": what he criticised, in no unhelpful or uncharitable spirit, was the operation of the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy of the see of Peter. That is a very different matter. How the Church functions at a human level is a matter open to scrutiny and to constructive criticism. One does not have to be a disloyal Catholic, for instance, to sympathise with the Cardinal's irritation at being called to a Plenary Session of one of the Roman Congregations: "Didn't they realise that they had given me only a month's notice, that my diary was already full, and that I had a diocese to run?"

One may also disagree with specific criticisms by the Cardinal (as one may, equally, without disloyalty to his memory), though few of us have the inside knowledge to disagree with all of them. But what one cannot claim, if we read the entire document within which they are made, is that this document is intended to be a plea for democracy in the Church. It is a plea, on the contrary, for the Church's structures of authority to function in an authentic and apostolic manner. The Second Vatican Council, says the Cardinal, "stressed papal primacy and collegiality. The challenge for today is for these two to live side by side". The document is, above all, an attempt to understand two sources of authority within the Church — which are sometimes understood as being in some way opposed to each other without in any way derogating from either.

The Cardinal's argument relies particularly on two key documents: the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the Pope's recent Apostolic Letter, Apostolos Suos. A key passage from this last document is quoted by the Cardinal at the heart of his argument: "Collegially, the order of bishops is, `together with its head the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head, the subject of supreme and full power over the Universal Church' (Lumen Gentium, 22). As it is well known, in teaching this doctrine, the Second Vatican Council likewise noted that the successor of Peter fully retains 'his power of primacy over all pastors as well as the general faithful. For in virtue of his office, that is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church".

The Cardinal, as we learned last week, saw this authority as crucial to the re-establishment of unity within the Church, particularly over such controverted questions as women's ordination: he did not, for instance, see this as being a matter for democratic decision. Rather, it was a question of discovering the mind of Christ. And in the Cardinal's words, "I have no way of doing this safely unless I can listen to the authority of the successor of Saint Peter, in his role of guiding the Church".

But the Pope's role of guiding the Church is not the end of what might be called his unitive function. Essential to that is his own membership of the College of Bishops: "What is at the heart of this relationship between the Pope and the College of Bishops," says the Cardinal, "is the unity of the Church". The Pope's office, in his own words, cannot be separated from that mission "entrusted to the whole body of bishops".

The relationship between collegiality and papal primacy, therefore, is not to be understood by deploying words like "authority" and "democracy" in the crudely secular way beloved of radical controversialists: it has to be seen as part of that great mystery, the Church, within which many things the world sees as being opposed are essential parts of the same reality. It was a mystery the Cardinal understood and taught.

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