Collegiality has featured high
on the synod agenda. Fr Michael •
Sharkey looks at the background to this issue.
THERE is a debate underway in the Catholic Church about the amount of authority episcopal conferences have. Since this debate is likely to continue for some time it may be helpful to explain the background and the main features to have emerged so far.
Before Vatican II, it was not unusual for bishops to meet together at regular intervals in regional or national groups to discuss matters of common interest and to help one another. These meetings had no executive authority, and not every country or region had them.
The effects of the setting up of bishops' conferences have been mixed. On the one hand it has led to a better sharing of views and mobilisation of resources, on the other hand the bureaucratising of the conferences has had a stultifying effect in some respects, and many individual bishops have objected to their own conferences imposing policies and practices on them. It was because of this latter experience that the 1983, ('ode of Canon Law effectively limits the power of conferences to impose on their members.
Episcopal conferences are often seen as an expression of "collegiality", and this is precisely where the nub of the problem is to be found. For many people the word "collegial" is synonymous with "fraternal", "co-operative", "collective", and is used to describe actions by small groups of bishops as well as of acts of the whole episcopal college acting together. This is especially the case when an episcopal conference publishes a national "pastoral letter".
However, there are some who would restrict the use of the word "collegial" because of an important theological point.
Vatican U's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) highlighted the concept of the body of bishops forming a "college" with the Pope as its head. It is said that the individual bishop has a divine mandate, and that the whole college has a divine mandate. Smaller groups of bishops such as national episcopal conferences are necessary for effective co-operation, but have no divine mandate. The authority of their actions depends on the support their members invest in them.
National Episcopal Conferences by their very existence have reinforced the notion of national churches. This in turn had led some people to think of the Church as a "federation" of local or national groupings, but the Church is a "communion" not a "federation". So, underlying the debate about the power and authority of episcopal conferences, there is the debate about the very nature of the Church.
On the first full day of the Synod last week, Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban said that collegiality can express itself
in various ways at various times: id the moment it is through episcopal conferences. The next day, Bishop James Malone, President of the USA Bishops, asked explicitly for more powei for episcopal conferences on the ground that they are instruments of evangelisation.
Of course, collective activity by the bishops is essential. Theit voices united together in any one nation can more effectively, for instance, defend the poor, the unborn, races and cultures. As the US bishops were completing their pastoral letter on nuclear war, they consulted with some of the European bishops' conferences to ensure that there would be no collision in essentials between them, illustrating the sort of respect which one group of members of the episcopal college must have for others, and indeed for the whole.
At the moment we have people on one side of the debate who are critical of the theology on which episcopal conferences are based and cautious of their practice, and on the other there are those who would maximise the influence of conferences and who have no great theological or practical difficulties with them. Whether the debate is about power or service, about what is unchangeable in the Church and what is flexible, one thing is clear: it is a debate which is growing in importance.