One consistent theme marking Francis’s pontificate has been his desire to decentralize authority in the Church. His 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium spoke of establishing a juridical status for “episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority.” In October 2015, Francis referenced episcopal conferences as one way to realize “intermediary instances of collegiality.” More recently, the pope told Polish bishops that one way forward with vexed pastoral issues might be to allow episcopal conferences decide how to proceed.
Any reconfiguring of authority in the Catholic Church has natural limits. Some reflect the nature of Catholic teaching. There’s no specifically German conception of the Trinity or a uniquely Argentine understanding of sin. For, amidst legitimate pluralism, there is also universality that is grounded in the truth about the content of what Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium called “the faith which is to be believed and applied to conduct” (LG 23). With regard to conduct, for instance, the Church has always affirmed that there are exceptionless moral norms: choices which may never be made in any circumstances. Hence, no national episcopal conference—and no pope, council, or bishop for that matter—can declare an act whose object is the intentional killing of innocent human beings to be acceptable in certain cases.
It’s also worth recalling that each Catholic bishop who heads a diocese exercises immediate authority within his diocese as a direct successor of the Apostles. A bishop doesn’t need the permission of Rome—or an episcopal conference—to identify a theologian’s writings as contrary to Catholic faith. According to one prominent twentieth century theologian, Henri de Lubac SJ, the real problem was that some bishops had the bad habit of “fleeing their responsibilities by hiding behind a Roman congregation.”
Concerning authority in the Church, there are few better guides than de Lubac. But his clear and distinct ideas on this topic especially matter because the French Jesuit matters for Francis. Speaking to the College of Cardinals in 2013, for instance, Cardinal Bergoglio referenced de Lubac’s warnings against “spiritual worldliness” as one of the Church’s great temptations. De Lubac, however, also had much to say about episcopal conferences, including their authority.
What collegiality does—and doesn’t—mean
De Lubac’s most extensive reflections on episcopal conferences are found in his 1971 book Les églises particulières dans l’Église universelle. This describes episcopal conferences as entities which render a service in the universal church “analogous” to that of synods in the past. They may, de Lubac affirmed, be rightfully called a variant of collegiality: one which helps realize collegiality as a whole. For this reason, and because they helped bishops to collaborate on practical matters, de Lubac considered episcopal conferences “an excellent thing.”
That said, de Lubac placed firm markers around episcopal conferences. Referring to the bureaucracies that develop around conferences, de Lubac specified that “the activity of the commissions and the various bureaus or secretariats they assign to themselves” don’t constitute an exercise in collegiality. Remember that the next time you read, for example, a Catholic social justice commission’s statement about the economy.
De Lubac also insisted that collegiality in its fullest sense involves all the Church’s bishops. It can’t therefore be properly realized in an episcopal conference or delegated to a conference. He even argued that “the idea of episcopal collegiality has been too tied . . . to that of episcopal conferences.” Lumen Gentium, de Lubac noted, “recognizes no intermediary of a doctrinal order between the particular church and the universal church.” To this, he added that the main reason for Vatican II’s affirmation of episcopal conferences was their usefulness: not least because, de Lubac claimed, there is “obviously no basis” for the formulation of “a dogmatic definition” for episcopal conferences. Collegiality is ultimately about the pope and all bishops in full communion with him. National origin is, in the end, irrelevant.
Moving beyond theology and ecclesiology, de Lubac underlined practical temptations associated with episcopal conferences. “Elaborately-organized” episcopal conferences, he believed, risked doing “harm” to the “individual initiative” of bishops. De Lubac worried that “an impersonal, anonymous leadership developing into a bureaucracy” would encourage individual bishops to “take refuge behind some national commission or other.”
In private correspondence, de Lubac was less diplomatic about some conferences’ suffocating-effects on Catholic life. Reflecting on France’s episcopal conference in a letter written in the 1970s to Bishop Carlo Colombo, de Lubac lamented that, under the guise of collegiality, he had witnessed:
1) a conscious distancing from Rome, especially on doctrinal issues;
2) a hyper-bureaucratization of church life as the conference created numerous commissions which exercised “une pression tyrannique” on bishops and asphyxiated any initiative that such bureaucracies didn’t control;
3) some bishops’ practical abdication of their diocesan responsibilities to “représentants officiels” of the same bureaucracies; and
4) the widespread confusion of collegiality with the idea of “gouvernement collectif” and its degeneration into one-party rule.
De Lubac elaborated on this last point in a letter written in 1978 to the Archbishop of Rennes, Cardinal Paul Gouyon. He praised an article in which Gouyon stated that some bishops had conflated Vatican II’s teaching on episcopal conferences with “a collectivist schema, taken not from the Church’s tradition recalled by the Council, but from twentieth-century political ideologies.” The question which de Lubac posed to Gouyon was whether France’s bishops could extract themselves from what amounted to a prison created in collegiality’s name.
There was, however, another temptation which de Lubac associated with efforts to decentralize authority in the Church. He called this “ecclesial nationalism.” By this, de Lubac meant those circumstances in which Vatican II’s emphasis on local churches’ rightful freedom degenerated into “nationalist excesses.” In some cases, this concerned bishops in a given country claiming that they should be given autonomy to “creatively” address specific theological and disciplinary problems created by “local realities.”
But, quoting Bishop André-Marie Charue of Namur, de Lubac insisted that “sociology cannot be determinate in theology.” Polygamy might, for instance, prevail in a given country. That fact, however, cannot mean that bishops in that nation somehow theologically accept polygamy as a “real world” factor to which the Church must adapt. Theological and moral truth is supposed to transform culture: not the other way round. The earliest Christians didn’t accommodate themselves to particular moral evils which proliferated in the Roman Empire. Instead, they sought to, and eventually did, change that “real world.”
Even worse, de Lubac wrote, is when a local church tries
to align the universal Church with its own particularities. The somewhat arrogant conviction of having attained a degree of culture superior to those of other human groups, more particularly to that which reigns at the center of the Church, thus provokes a kind of fever of religious imperialism.
Those seeking contemporary examples of such behavior might consider the Catholic Church in Germany. German Catholicism is hemorrhaging adherents—a trend that hasn’t abated in the current pontificate. Ordinations to the priesthood in Germany hit a record-low in 2015. About the only things growing in the German Church are its church-tax income and number of employees.
In a 2015 address to German bishops, Francis underscored “an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.” This, he said, was apparent in the near-collapse of sacramental life among German Catholics, the Church’s “growing institutionalization,” and the widespread tendency to “put faith in administrative structures.” Many of German Catholic church-tax funded charities, for instance, now effectively function as vaguely-religious extensions of Germany’s welfare state.
Instead, however, of changing course, many German Catholic bishops and episcopal conference officials have sought over the past two years to impose their (disastrous by any objective measure) “sociological realities” upon the universal church’s theology. In some cases, this has been accompanied by prideful disdain for Catholics in developing nations where the faith is growing. Consider the now-infamous 2015 statement about African Catholics posted on the German episcopal conference’s website:
So also in Africa. Of course the Church is growing there. It grows because the people are socially dependent and often have nothing else but their faith. It grows because the educational situation there is on average at a rather low level and the people accept simple answers to difficult questions (of faith) [sic]. Answers like those that Cardinal Sarah of Guinea provides. And even the growing number of priests is a result not only of missionary power but also a result of the fact that the priesthood is one of the few possibilities for social security on the dark continent.
I wonder what Francis would think of these comments, described by one commentator as “soft racism”? They reek, to use de Lubac’s precise words, of “ecclesial nationalism” and the “arrogant conviction of having attained a degree of culture superior to those of other human groups.”
Some things don’t change
This isn’t to suggest it’s impossible to rethink authority in the Church. If, however, decentralization discussions gather apace, de Lubac’s thoughts about episcopal conferences will come to the fore. De Lubac was no papal maximalist. Nevertheless, he understood that if the pendulum swings too far the other way the result would be chaos in areas in which there cannot be discord within a truly universal Church.
Episcopal conferences are here to stay. On balance, de Lubac considered this a good thing. But as the college of bishops assembled with and under Peter at Vatican II reminded Catholics in Gaudium et Spes, “The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (GS 10).
These are the clear and distinct parameters within which any reconfiguration of authority must occur if it is to be authentically Catholic—not pressures to give particular European episcopal conferences leeway to rationalize major collapses in Catholic faith occurring on their watch. Seeking to better actualize collegiality is one thing. Finding ways to vindicate colossal pastoral failures is quite another.
Related CWR articles:
• “Pope Francis and Henri de Lubac, SJ” (Mar. 28, 2013) by Carl E. Olson
• “The Jesuit, the Monk, and the Malaise of the West” (Feb. 24, 2016) by Dr. Samuel Gregg