Since August is a holiday month, and I have a 6,000-word paper to prepare for publication, I hope readers will forgive me for being terribly idle and occasionally repeating old posts. This one was originally posted in March 2015. Subsequently, I refined and strengthened it with information supplied by kind readers. I ask readers to remember that, when it refers to 'now' or 'the present' or 'currently', it is referring to March 2015. In my view, the most important parts of this are the two passages from Cardinal Mueller.
Non-Catholics often misunderstand the position of the Archiepiscopal See of Westminster; and this can lead to unfairness towards its occupant. I think the reactions of some people inside the Catholic Church can also be misinformed and hence unfair. I have in my mind, of course, the controversy currently raging as a result of Cardinal Nichols' less than enthusiastic reaction to the Letter of the 500 clergy. But this whole question is of importance because it bears on matters of ecclesiological doctrine which, in fact, are the real basis of the Church's current upheavals. Which is how Cardinal Mueller comes into the question.
The Archbishop of Westminster is not, as journalists and others often appear to assume, a sort of Catholic equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The common notion that 'primate' and 'archbishop' and 'metropolitan' are interchangeable terms is historically false. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a Primate. And he is Primate of All England (totius Angliae), with certain powers (of a legatus natus sanctae Sedis continued to him by statute after the Schism) even within the Province of York. When he visitatorially enters another diocese, the Diocesan Bishop automatically but temporarily loses his diocesan jurisdiction. He is known sometimes colloquially as alterius orbis papa, and his primatial dignity, remarkably, is sustained by the possession of an episcopal Curia comprising a Provincial Dean (the Bishop of London), Chancellor (Bishop of Winchester), Vice-Chancellor (Bishop of Lincoln), Precentor (Bishop of Salisbury), Chaplain (Bishop of Worcester), and Cross-bearer (bishop of Rochester).Whatever you may think about the theological or sacramental status of a modern Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, these structural and legal arrangements are, substantially, in continuity with the very grand position and considerable primatial authority held by medieval Archbishops of Canterbury, as the holders of an office that historically went far back before the time when there was a King or a Kingdom of England.
The See of Westminster has never been constituted or recognised by the Holy See as a Primatial See. An obvious moment to have given it that dignity would have been in 1911, when the Sees of Birmingham and Liverpool were raised to metropolitan status. There was indeed at that time a desire (see the thread) to preserve the national position of Westminster; its Archbishop was made the permanent chairman (Praeses perpetuus) of episcopal meetings and given the right to represent the national Catholic community to the Civil Power (as long as he said only what his fellow-bishops had by a majority vote agreed). But he was given no jurisdiction and the only 'ritual' dignities conferred were those of using pallium and cathedra throughout England and Wales, and having his metropolitical cross carried before him anywhere in the country. This falls far short of the old 'primatial' conception.
I now turn aside to dispose of a couple of minor details. [(1) The Holy See did once grant the See of Westminster a coat of arms almost identical with that of Canterbury, Pallium and Primatial Cross (with a field gules [red] rather than azure [blue]). But, subsequently, as the impropriety of this became better and better understood, Archbishops of Westminster changed that shield by omitting the Primatial Cross, firstly, replacing it with a fleur de lys; and then simply leaving its place blank. (2) At Vatican II Cardinal Heenan rather boldly subscribed the conciliar documents as Primas Angliae.] But neither of these oddities means that the Archbishop of Westminster has acquired jurisdiction such as that enjoyed before and since the Reformation by the Archbishops of Canterbury ... primatial jurisdiction which, in any case, is ruled out by the current Code of Canon Law (vide Canonem 438). The position of the Archbishop of Westminster is thus simply as it is described in the front of my Breviary in a decree signed by Cardinal Griffin: Coetus episcopalis totius Angliae et Cambriae Praeses Perpetuus (in another Breviary I possess, the corresponding part of a parallel decree from the Archbishop of Malines describes him as Primas Belgii). He is, additionally, Metropolitan of his own province [comprising the dioceses of Brentwood, East Anglia, Northampton, and Nottingham], with the distinctly tenuous and limited metropolitical powers described in Canon 436. He has no metropolitical relationship with the totally independant metropolitical provinces of Birmingham, Liverpool, Cardiff and Southwark, or with three extra-provincial entities, the Ukrainian Eparchy of the Holy Family, the Military Ordinariate, and the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (all three of which, incidentally, extend beyond the boundaries of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales).
What this means is that an Archbishop of Westminster has no substantive jurisdiction whatsoever outside his own archdiocese of Westminster ... which is, roughly, London North of the Thames and Hertfordshire. But, even if not a primate, does he perhaps have authority by virtue of his Presidency of the Episcopal Conference? Not in Canon Law and not in dogma. I will illustrate this by quoting some very recent words [h/t Rorate] ... jolly convenient, this! ... expressed by Cardinal Mueller, whose job (committed to him by the authority of our beloved Holy Father himself, the Vicar of S Peter) is to give rulings on precisely such matters.
"An episcopal conference is not a particular council, even less so an ecumenical council. The president of an episcopal conference is nothing more than a technical moderator, and he does not have any particular magisterial authority due to his title ... dioceses are not branches of the secretariate of a bishops conference either, nor of the diocese whose bishop presides over the episcopal conference. This kind of attitude risks in fact the reawakening of a certain polarisation between the local Churches and the Church universal, out of date since the Vatican I and Vatican II councils. The Church is not a sum of national churches .... ".
This continues the strong teaching Cardinal Mueller has given before; in 2013, for example, "the Roman Pontiff and the individual bishops are of divine right, instituted by Jesus Christ. ... But the patriarchates and episcopal conferences, historically and today, belong solely to human ecclesiastical right. The presidents of the episcopal conferences, although important, are coordinators, nothing more, not some vicepopes! Every bishop has a direct and immediate relationship with the Pope. We cannot have a decentralisation in the conferences; there would be the danger of a new centralism, with the presidency that has all the information and the bishops submerged in documents without the time to get ready ..."
Some of us may very much admire the views expressed recently through the Press by His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, and others may as deeply resent them. But, unless he is our diocesan Bishop, they really do not have anything whatsoever to do with us. We should, both clergy and laity, refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the Archdiocese of Westminster ... unless, of course, we happen ourselves to be incardinated into it.
Non-Catholics sometimes ignorantly believe that the Catholic Church is some kind of militaristic tyranny, ruled over at the top by the Biggest Bully, the Pope, and, under him, by a descending hierarchy of Lesser Bullies, including Cardinals, Archbishops, and Bishops, right down to Fr Very Little Bully, the Parish Priest. The Catholic Church is not anything remotely like that. She is the Body and Bride of Christ; and, institutionally, a body with quite extraordinarily precise provisions defining, and limiting, the jurisdiction of whoever has any jurisdiction. Thus every Catholic is protected, by Canon Law, from canonically unsupported assumptions of authority. At least, that's the impression which the much fingered Navarra Edition of the CIC resting here on my desk gives me!
I have enormous respect for Cardinal Nichols and find him distinctly likeable. But he is not my bishop, and I am under no obligation to have any regard whatsoever for the views he expresses, unless what he says carries with it its own moral conviction. It very often does, but, in this current controversy, it does not. I will not say why, because to do that would be to meddle in his relationship qua bishop with his own presbyters! Quite simply, not my business!! Just as whatever I do is not in any way his business.
Long and happily may he continue to occupy Dr Wiseman's august cathedra!
I would be grateful for corrections of fact.