31 March 2016

EPISCOPAL CONFERENCES in the climate of the German claim to leadership for the Universal Church.

So might the Holy Father try to cut  the Gordian Knot about Holy Communion for remarried divorcees by kicking the ball into the long grass of Episcopal Conferences? He has already dropped hints about elevating the doctrinal competences of such Conferences.

I find myself entirely out of sympathy with any such agenda. Partly, this is on personal and pragmatic grounds. We, in the Church of England, saw what happened when 'Provincial Autonomy' was allowed to ride rough-shod over Doctrine, Tradition, Bible ... and even the Dominical Imperative of Unity. It is a thoroughly nasty and miserable experience. Any attempt to introduce anything remotely like it, or anything that could act as a first step towards anything remotely like it, into the Catholic Church, should be resisted by any and every means of Resistance that orthodox Catholics have or can devise. As a former Anglican, I warn you: decades of internal warfare within the Church on this subject are exactly what the Church Militant can do without. For most of my priestly ministry in the Church of England, this question hung like a dark shadow over my head. Any attempt by anybody to inflict a similar wound upon the Catholic Church merits, as Cardinal Burke has intimated, Resistance in whatever forms may be necessary, and with as much vigour as God's Grace gives us.

But my main reasons for queasiness are doctrinal rather than merely practical.

As Pope Benedict XVI made clear, the Universal Church has both a temporal and an ontological priority (i.e. it came first in historical time and it comes first in the realm of Being) over the local (i.e. diocesan) Church. Setting up powerful regional bodies would have a disastrously fissiparous effect on the Church Universal. The promoter of the opposite idea, that the local Church has ontological priority, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has made no secret of the fact that he sees his theory as justifying the possibility of different Catholic Regions, as it might be Sophisticated Germany and Primitive Africa, having different disciplines even in matters where discipline and doctrine are indissolubly bound up. This is to revisit the question upon which S Thomas More chose martyrdom: whether a portion of the Church Militant has any more right to go against the the whole Church than the city of London has to go against the whole realm of England.

Secondly, such a proposal is ecclesiologically illiterate. There is one Body of Christ, One Catholic Church. It subsists in two modes. There is the Church Universal spread throughout the world. Then there is the Particular (i.e. Diocesan) Church with its Bishop, priests, deacons, people. This distinction goes back to S Paul, who uses 'Ekklesiai" in the plural to refer to the local churches, but "Ekklesia" in the singular to refer to the Universal Body of Christ which lies behind, as it were, each local church. Yet the two are one. The Catholica is in the local church, and you cannot participate in the Catholica without participating in your local Church. The Body of Christ subsists in the Particular Church.

This theological simplicity calls into question any attempt to muddy its waters, unless it is firmly understood that that any 'groupings' of dioceses are merely functional and ad hoc. Powerful regional "churches" ("the French Church"; "the African Church" ...) introduce a, to me, incomprehensible and intolerable confusion into the simple teaching of Scripture and Tradition. And they are subversive both of the unique role of the local bishop (with his curia of presbyters and deacons) and of the unique role of the Roman Pontiff (with his curia). I was very pleased when Benedict XVI dropped the title of Patriarch of the West. A real contribution to ecclesiological lucidity.

This means that the Curia Episcopalis, and the Curia Romana, are both in no way lacking in theological garments, while the Episcopal Conference with its bureaucracy, however grand, powerful, and well-paid, is an Emperor entirely without theological clothes.

Frankly, I have come to doubt whether the Holy Father quite understands the politics sometimes inherent in theological discourses. Upon coming to power, he lost no time in praising Walter Kasper; and he has repeated his praises since then. But, in the decades before the election of Pope Benedict, there had been some years of argument, in public periodicals, between Ratzinger (the Universal Church has the ontological priority) and Kasper (the Local Church is ontologically prior). Ratzinger argued with his customary gentle but compelling courtesy; Kasper in his characteristic bully-boy style.

I hope that Cardinal Bergoglio was ignorant of this background. If he was aware of it, it would show remarkably bad taste that he should have chosen, so soon after his election, to ladle such extravagant and unnecessary encomia over the head of a Kasper who had been something of a thorn in the side, theologically, of his immediate predecessor ... whom the new Pope Francis claimed to respect.

But doctrine is more important than any light all this throws upon Bergoglio's character. Talk about "Ontological Priority" can very easily sound like some sort of irrelevant academic nonsense. Rather like how many Angels can dance on the Head of a Needle. But the question of the ontological priority of the Universal or the Local Church is in no way some academic and theoretical  irrelevance. Kasper, to be fair to him, would agree with this. It is a very practical question.

It is the theological basis of the question whether Germany, or wherever, can go its own way and "find its own solutions in response to the questions and problems of its own culture".

It raises the ultimate question of whether Christ is King, or whether each nation bows down before the idol of its own national Zeitgeist.

Some of this occurred on my blog some time ago; and the question of the title Patriarch of the West interested some readers. I reproduce some input by Professor Tighe upon this question, from an earlier thread.


William Tighe said...

An excerpt from a review which I wrote in 2011 of the following book:

Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, by Adam A. J. DeVille. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2011.
268 + viii pp. $38.00. ISBN: 978-0-268-02607-3.

Chapter Three, “A Renewed Roman Patriarchate,” begins with some reflections on the March 2006 decision to remove the papal title “Patriarch of the West” from the papal yearbook, Annuario Pontificio. DeVille deplores this removal, and finds the reasons subsequently given for it -- the meaningless of the term “of the West” in today’s world; the fact that Rome has long ceased to act as a patriarchate (if it ever did so, I might add); and “ecumenical sensitivity” -- incomprehensible. He then goes on to consider the views of 18 Catholic theologians on Rome as a patriarchate. Here we may notice a divergence between the views of the two Eastern Catholic theologians whose views he presents, and the rest. The Easterners speak of Rome needing to “recover” the distinction between its “patriarchal” functions and its “primatial” functions which they see Rome as losing or discarding after “the first millennium” of Christianity; the Westerners, for the most part, more cautiously and accurately, suggest, more or less strongly or weakly, that Rome should make a distinction between its “patriarchal” ministry and functions vis-à-vis the Western or Latin Church and its “primatial” ministry in the Church as a whole. Rome, in fact, first adopted the title of patriarch for its bishop in 642 AD, under Pope Theodore I (642-649), a Greek, and never made much of it; even its use of the title was inconsistent and sporadic. The Roman attitude towards “patriarchal structures,” even in the first millennium, might light-heartedly be summarized as, “The Easterners like that sort of thing; fine, it doesn’t do any harm, even though we have no interest in it ourselves. But if they want to consider us a patriarchate, too, fine, so long as they understand that we are ‘first bishop.’ But they need to understand that this position of ‘first bishop’ does not come from the secular civil status of the City of Rome, nor from the enactment of some synod or another, not from immemorial church custom, but from being what Our Leo termed the indignus heres Beati Petri, the ‘unworthy’ (as an individual human person) ‘heir of St. Peter,’ the one that holds the same unique primacy among all the bishops that St. Peter held among his fellow apostles.” That said, I agree with DeVille in deploring the loss of the term “patriarch,” simply because if the goal of reuniting the Orthodox and other Eastern churches in the communion of the See of Peter should ever be achieved, in what has been envisaged as a “communion of churches” under the universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome, some term will be required to signify the particular relationship that he has with his own Latin Church, and “patriarch” seems better than any other one.

William Tighe said...


Among the theologians whose views DeVille discusses is Joseph Ratzinger, whom God long preserve as Benedict XVI. Those works which he discusses (with one exception) have as a common thread Ratzinger’s statements that the “confusion” between the pope’s Petrine primacy as Bishop of Rome and as Patriarch of the West was “the staring point for the split between East and West” and that such a “failure to distinguish” between the roles and responsibilities of the two positions led in time to the “extreme centralization of the Catholic Church,” which could perhaps be remedied, so Ratzinger went on to suggest, by the creation of new patriarchates. But in 2002, as DeVille notes, the pope declared in an interview that perhaps in these earlier writings he had overestimated the importance of patriarchates. This seems not so much to be the pope having “second thoughts,” as of him returning to his first thoughts, expressed in 1961, before the Second Vatican Council, when in a book entitled The Episcopate and the Primacy which he and Karl Rahner jointly authored, he wrote also of the “confusion” between the “administrative” patriarchal office and the “apostolic” papal universal primacy, but here as the emergence of the Eastern notion of a “patriarchal constitution” of the Church tending to “obscure” the apostolicity of “the Roman claim” by casting Rome itself more and more into an “administrative” light. “The overshadowing of the old theological notion of the apostolic see … by the theory of the five patriarchs must be understood as the real harm done in the quarrel between East and West,” Ratzinger wrote. As a patriarch, he writes, an office created by the Church, the pope is but first among patriarchal equals, but as “holder of the office of the Rock” he occupies a unique position.

B flat said...

Dear Father,

Your insistence on the temporal priority of the Universal Church is interesting. When the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem in Council (Acts 15) they intended to decide a question definitively as the whole Church(v22). The whole context gives the event a synodal, rather than primatial character, especially as the presiding role is played by James, as leader of the local church in Jerusalem, although Peter is present and speaks.
Yet this example is a historical question, and not material in itself to your strong argument in favour of preserving the unity of the Church.
Already we have seen in these three years something which I never heard mentioned in my lifetime, that the veneration of Catholics for the person of the Pope is an unhealthy development of comparatively recent date, attributable to mass communications of film, radio and television, as well as easy travel.
If the popular veneration of the last 100+ years really was distorted, how could it not have a distorting effect on the universal (and the Roman) view of the proper functions of Petrine Primacy? For example, there is good cause to regret (or should it be doubt?) much of the liturgical legislation produced from Rome in the 20th century.
Just as in the time of the Apostolic Council, it is certainly not exclusively true to say ubi Petrus ibi Ecclesia, for the Church is more than Peter or any successor could be.
So as principle of unity, as the rock of Faith, Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. But as regards the administrative functions of the Church, why do you ignore completely the historical weight the Church gave to Provincial synods under their metropolitan? they worked well for centuries, when the people and the clergy were Catholic and orthodox.
Now you fear they will wreak harm on the Church. Is that because there is good reason to suspect that many people and clergy are only Catholic in name, and far from orthodox in belief or practice? Does looking to Rome solve that problem?
The present successor to Peter's primacy, has allowed it to be said many times that he intends to change the Church irrevocably. His praxis and words, his love for those who preach and practise the deconstruction of ideas, also give grounds to fear his intention to build on that Rock. So the principle of unity himself is not so reassuring with the storm clouds of destruction being summoned onto Europe for the total destruction of Christendom.

mark wauck said...

This raises, in a way, the issue that I (unclearly, I'm afraid) attempted to raise recently: communion. What does it mean to be "in communion with the pope" when that pope, in effect, turns around and tells you to go be in communion with your episcopal conference? (One can hardly any longer, it seems, place the local ordinary ahead of the episcopal conference.) Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but it's getting more and more serious. At what point, then, is the educated layman justified in preferring the local SSPX chapel--if there is one?

I hasten to add, straying from orthodoxy is not something new, and to some extent these issues become questions of degree. But to offer a concrete example, my local ordinary has publicly proposed a model of Catholic morality that utterly trashes all traditional understandings (as Fr Hunwicke has pointed out). What degree of support and communion do I owe him, desire to have, whatever? OTOH, my suspicion is that I'm more in sympathy with Benedict's understanding of "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" than that of many or even most SSPXers. Maybe I'm wrong--I hope so. But none of this is easy.

Athelstane said...

I hope that Cardinal Bergoglio was ignorant of this background.

The difficulty is that almost any churchman or theologian would have had to have been living in Antarctica or the most remote corners of Amazonia, sans wifi or post, during the whole of the 1990's and early 00's to have been ignorant of the Ratzinger-Kasper scrum over the ontological priority of the universal church. That said, given what we know about how isolated Papa Bergoglio is in his reading sources, I suppose the possibility cannot be *completely* excluded. But since he claims to have read so much of Kasper's work, it's a little hard to believe.

It may well be that he really does place so much priority over the pastoral over the doctrinal that he simply shrugs off the argument as not terribly important. And maybe even despite these theological implications, it still looks like the path of least (political) resistance to him.

It raises the ultimate question of whether Christ is King, or whether each nation bows down before the idol of its own national Zeitgeist.

I've never seen such a succinct observation on this question, Father.

mark wauck said...

Thanks for this perspective. I found it clarifying.

Reader said...

Very insightful analysis, but it would be still more helpful, Father, if you could dilate a bit on forms of "Resistance." What do you recommend? What do you think should be avoided?

mark wauck said...

It raises the ultimate question of whether Christ is King, or whether each nation bows down before the idol of its own national Zeitgeist.

This is really a very essential part of the Good News--that Jesus Christ is Lord. Not Caesar, not some descendant of David, not the Persian King of Kings. Jesus of Nazareth, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of Mary, risen, seated at the right hand of his Father.

NTWright has a very interesting article on this subject, Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire. On p. 7 he states:

"... Paul, for neither the first nor the last time, has Judaism and
paganism—particularly, in this case, the Caesar-cult—simultaneously in mind, and is
here using warnings against the former (Judaism) as a code for warnings against the
latter (paganism)."

I highly recommend the whole article, especially the section that begins at p. 6, Paul's Coded Challenge to Empire: Philippians 3. This business about the Church resisting "national Zeitgeist" is definitely a core part of the Good News.

Jason W. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason W. said...

Fracis was not remotely unaware of the discourse, let's not kid ourselves on that. As for the rest, this is an issue that strikes at the very heart of the Faith, and any attempt to muddy that water is a blatant attack that must be thwarted. We will soon see who stands with Christ and His bride and who is a wolf in shepherd's clothing. If our bishops do not rise up as one do denounce this, then the laity must denounce them for the heretics they are.

Remnant Clergy said...

You will be unpleasantly surprised Father.

Jacobi said...

Ecclesial Conferences? That will be a laugh. Rules is rules after all, and no one has to be a Catholic?

Such Conferences will immeasurably increase the rubble which already exists around us and make it all that more difficult to find the Catholic Church in its midst. But it will be there!

And a good part of Germany (but not all ) will go its own way in this reformation, just as in the last.