By Fr John Challenor
AS long ago as 1947, Car dinal Suhard of Paris wrote a famous pastoral letter—"Rise or Decline of the Church?" It sounded a warning. Faced with the hot blast of criticism from a changing world which had learned about good and evil in the cauldron of the Hitler period, a static and irrelevant and unconvincing Church must either renew itself or watch helplessly while more and more of its members melt away.
The Cardinal put the options clearly before the Church. His anxiety was shared by the Papal Nuncio in Paris, Cardinal Roncalli, who within three months of becoming Pope John in 1958. told the world that he was going to summon a General Council, which he hoped would face this choice, and opt for renewal. It did. items Vatican of the chief tems Vatican II put on the pro gramme for the Church was the return to collegial management—that is. joint decision-making, by Pope and bishops acting as colleagues. (Not Peter alone. but Peter and the rest of the Apostles were invested with responsibility for the Church.) The Synod of Bishops, of which the second meeting opens on October 11, was set up after the Council as one way of putting "collegiality" into practice.
In fact. joint responsibility through consultation at every level in the Church is called for. Feed-back of information to management as a way of learning from past mistakes and improving future performance has been called "the dominant and most fertile intellectual innovation of our age."
'New Pentecost' fiasco And even before the new science of cybernetics set us talking like this, we might have said that no society is in a healthy state if it is run in effect by a small group not closely in touch with the membership. The fiasco of the "New Pentecost" appeal last year could have been avoided if there had been more prior consultation with all concerned.
Vatican 11 stressed the responsibility of every baptised member of the People of God, and the natural right of every man to as much freedom and participation as possible—limited only by as much restriction and constraint as is necessary for the general welfare. (Significantly, the Church of England is currently discussing a report on the reshaping of its organisation -a report entitled "Partners in Ministry"—and is taking a big step soon towards synodical or collegial government.) So far, so good. But the path of Church renewal, like the path of true love, never did run smooth. One day in March this year, speaking to people gathered in St. Peter's Square. Rome, Pope Paul said: "How can the Church, if troubled by internal protests, put into practice more actively the idea of collegial co-responsibility, or a joint effort to carry out her apostolic and religious activity?"
The Pope was feeling the pressure of a rising tide of objections to unilateral decision-making in Rome, and of demands from the Church as a whole for more prior consultation. There were objections to his birth control encyclical, some more strident from individuals and informal groups, others more subdued and diplomatic from several National Conferences of Bishops.
The English bishops, for example, issued a directive on the subject which gave considerably more prominence than does Humanae Vitae itself to the part played by the Catholic's conscientious convictions. Cardinal Heenan's famous interview with David Frost confirmed this.
There were, and there are. from people with the best interests of the Church at heart, other objections — to the present life-style of that clergy, to the slow pace of adaptation and renewal in some communities of monks and nuns, to the manner of presentation of some traditional doctrines. and so on.
The Pope felt that a moment when authority was under attack from Catholic dissenters could not be the moment for a move towards sharing authority. Now on this. it is possible to make two widely different comments.
One person will say. the Pope is quite right; the ship's captain does not choose the height of the storm or the thick of the fog for descending to discuss with them the grievances of his mutinous crew, Management does not negotiate about wage demands with the workers as long as they are demonstrating militantly. In this comment, there is some familiar justice.
But another person will say. no, the Pope is wrong. For one thing. authority in the Church is not like authority in business or the armed forces—it is not power, as Jesus says in Mark 10. For another thing. what would we think of a fire brigade chief. for instance, who arrived with his engines at the scene of a blaze, viewed the flames with distaste, and announced that it was quite out of the question for him to go into action in such a messy and chaotic situation; people should be more careful about starting fires.
There is some justice in this comment. too, because the "internal protests" and disorder which the Pope sees in the Church arise to a large extent precisely from the Roman way of exercising authority. which for many has become quite unacceptable. So (despite the introduction to the Curia of some renewalminded men like Cardinal Garrone) there is reason to speak of the Roman headquarters. and a sizeable section of the Church. as being on a collision course. Complains that authority is not shared harden the Roman resolve not to share it; and the resolve not to share it generates ever more powerful protests. A vicious circle! Or it would be if there were not (other elements in the situation where the action can flow.
First, there are the people who take the part of the Pope and the Curia. They applaud the staunch Roman resistance to all dissent. protest, and contestation. Rather than have. as it seems to them. disorder. they would prefer to settle for the pre Vatican II Papal style of Pius XII, for instance.
It is not at all easy to assess the size and influence of this section of the Church. There was a Gallup poll in 1967 of Catholics in Britain, which on issues still very live now indicated that two-thirds wanted abortion permitted when a mother's health was in danger: three-fifths thought there could be good reasons for using birth control in marriage; and two fifths thought priests should be allowed to marry.
On authority. 53 per cent. accepted "the authority of the Church" without question, as against 43 per cent. who had some reservations; 57 per cent. thought the authority of the Church over its members "about right." as against 36 per cent. who thought it "too strict"; and 50 per cent. thought lay people should have a greater share in the affairs of the Church, as against 28 per cent. who thought they should not. (Eighty-six per cent. thought Cardinal Heenan was doing a good job as leader of the Church in Britain.) (Sunday Telegraph. 26.3.67.) From these figures, no very clear picture stands out. But, taken together with the continuing existence of strong discontent in the Church. they do at least negatively suggest that those who want the clock put back arc not prevailing. The discontented are not. on the whole. leaving the Church or disengaging from activity.
A second element in the situation is the forthcoming Synod of Bishops. to meet in Rome from October 11. This has been arranged in order to discuss the sharing of authoritythe agenda is "to examine the forms best suited to assure the better cooperation and more useful contacts. between individual national conferences of bishops and the Holy See, and between the conferences themselves."
Here at least is a possi bility that the fire will be constructively tackled. Hopefully. hoses will be trained on the blaze. and obsolete inflammable material lying around in Rome in great quantities will be carted off and dumped in the Tiber. It is unfortunately not more than a possibility.
The signs are not hopeful. The preliminary meeting of West European bishops at Chur in July was admittedly not a success. And the October Synod has been prepared behind a cloak of secrecy. in spite of the fact that the agenda authority — concerns the People of God as a whole.
Authority, in fact, is relationships. Consider a mother's authority in a family. Authority is not just a thing to be possessed; it is also. in part, conferred by the willing membership. On occasion. this part can be withdrawn, leaving mere titular authority, however legitimate it may be. looking rather washed up, and largely by-passed. In extreme cases, there can be a breakdown of authority, as lately in Ulster. Even the Papal authority, which is from Christ, can largely break down on its human side—as it did in the "great schism" of 1378-1415.
Another fallacy easily cherished about authority is that there is a fixed quantity of it, so that if someone has more, someone else has to have less. A century or two ago, when the science of economics was in its infancy, it was thought that wealth was a fixed sum in the world, like a cake to be cut up, so that a larger slice for one nation or class meant a smaller slice for another.
We now know that, partly because of credit, wealth is indefinitely expansible. Authority is likewise expansible. partly through the response a leader can evoke (which is like credit — you can call it credibility). Recall the remarkable response to the leadership of Pope John.
An important choice
The response to merely legitimate. legal. authority which does not commend itself actively and credibly to the membership — and the response to authority which is in practice irresistible — is often apathy and alienation. a quiet withdrawal of support and co-operation, as seems to be developing among the Czechs.
As we go along the road pointed out by Cardinal Suhard in "Rise or Decline of the Church?", we face at this moment an important choice. This coming meeting of the Synod of Bishops is an opportunity for easing tensions within the Church, and so releasing new energies for its mission in the world. These things, the Synod will do. if it is a success, by adapting the Church's management structures in the direction of shared responsibility.