The diocesan councils established by Vatican II already face a serious crisis. Many bishops hesitate to use them, and clergy and laity are coming to mistrust and lose interest in them. The crisis has many causes, but we cannot assume that they all come from problems of a technically juridical kind. At its deepest level, the problem is a view of the Church held by many Christians. The problem is, therefore, primarily theological, not functional.
Although its roots are not to be found in conscious manipulation, the problem is detected in symptoms which suggest a power struggle: either the fear on the part of those in authority that they will lose power, or the drive from below to achieve power in order to make the Church “more democratic.”
Democracy, like every constitutional system, is a power structure and essentially involves a division of power. When the dynamics of power is transferred to the ecclesiastical domain, it becomes ambiguous, because the structural relation between the hierarchy and the rest of the people of God can never be understood in terms of a division of power, without falling into theological and juridical empiricism. In the Church, the orderly division of responsibility cannot be equated, as in the state, with the greater or lesser share of the power. The “power” in the Church cannot be divided – at least not the ultimate responsibility and the specific service of the bishops in the life of the Church.
In the Church’s legal system, the distribution of responsibility ought only to serve to regulate by a legitimate standard of efficiency the activity of individual persons and particular organizations in their functions and distinctive spiritual gifts. No one, however, may be excluded in the name of a division of responsibilities from an effective general co-responsibility for the elaboration of the common judgment, from which the decision of the authorities should flow. The question of authority in the people of God cannot ultimately be other than that of the nature of the relation between the bishops and other Christians on the plane of decision and action. Thus the question is how the clergy and the laity can participate in the proclamation of the Christian message in the world, which is ultimately the role of the successors of the apostles.
“The Right to Be Heard”
The purely consultative voice or “the right to be heard,” as it appears in secular power, inevitably and seriously restricts the effective exercise of the principle of collegiality in the Church. Besides psychological factors involved in reaching such a judgment, there is the deeply rooted conception of the Church on the analogy of secular models. A correct development of the synodal structure of the Church, particularly the local church, on the formally juridical plane of collegiality can only be founded on the principle that the bishop, being the basis of the unity of his church, cannot abdicate responsibility for this service to anyone, not even to a majority. The majority principle cannot be made into an absolute in order to solve the problem of unity in the Church.
Even at a general council, where the bishops possess the right to vote, not merely the right to be heard, the ballot must not be regarded as the means by which the majority imposes its standpoint by parliamentary control. The voting is a formal juridical act which primarily serves to ascertain the opinion of the individual bishops who represent the various local churches. It is intended to establish which churches are in communion on a given problem; it is not an act of political authority. The testimony of the Pope is essential because the communion of the bishops with the bishop of Rome is essential and constitutive of their communion with each other. The communio ecclesiarum is not necessarily constituted by the actual majority of the bishops as such, but by the bishops in communion with the Pope. The bishops’ vote retains its full weight and force, but its function lies in bearing witness to the faith of the local churches. The bishops’ vote is decisive in that it represents a conclusive, valid testimony, but not as a decisive vote is understood to derive its binding force solely from human will. Since it represents the faith of the people, the bishops’ vote lies on a plane beyond political manipulation. Faith is not something which can be determined by political criteria.
Roles of Priests and Laity
Priests and laity in the diocesan councils are in a different position from the bishops at a general council; their witness does not possess the same status. The priests function as collaborators with the bishop; the laity, who are without ministerial functions, nonetheless share in the function of service which belongs to the whole people of God. The bishop, as the ultimate foundation of the life of the local church, has the responsibility of passing definitive judgment on whether the collaboration of his presbyterate is what it should be and whether the charismata of individual Christians are genuine. Yet this judgment of the bishop is matured and pronounced in accord with the specific structure of the Church, only if it takes place within the concrete community of the whole people of God. If the authoritative judgment of the bishop were exercised otherwise, it would not only be out of touch with reality, but it would also be a mere exercise of power as determined by secular logic. The bishop should allow the judgment of the Church to mature within the whole people of God, and for this to take place the synodal structure should consist in providing a framework of consultation and communication.
Not Mere Numerical Majority
Although consultation is indispensable and the right to be heard is an integral part of the process, mere calculations of numerical majorities cannot determine what is to count as common consent. Moreover, the common judgment is not constituted until authority has said its last word. This means, of course, that a mistake may be made. Yet the possibility of error signifies that the highest value in the Christian community is not the imposition of anyone’s will, but rather a consciousness by everyone that the community is a reality that already exists, because brought about by Christ.
Hence, the right to be heard as well as the right to a deciding vote, as juridically established in the Church, express a reality which is fundamentally different from that of life in secular society. It is a serious mistake to claim for diocesan councils a decision-making function which would make majority opinion binding on the bishop.
These observations and principles indicate that the mystery and structure of the Church must be grasped in other concepts than those of civil law and Canon Law. It cannot be reduced to a problem of division of powers. The roots of the crisis in our diocesan councils lie deep in an attitude shared by many in the people of God, bishops and laity alike.
Diocesan councils are not functioning at all, or not as expected, mainly because they are not being used from above and lived from below in an ecclesial spirit. There is a prejudice that regards them as concerned with the possession of power, that is, as miniature parliaments, instead of asdiaconia within a community.
When Christians attempt to understand the purpose of the organs by which the Christian community comes to decision and action, they almost always suffer under the misapprehension of “parliamentarianism.” They tend to think of synodal organizations on the same plane as the institutions created by the democratic system: parliament and similar structures.
Although secular reality has always offered pointers to the Church in its work of self-renewal, before these could be adopted they had to be subjected to a radical recasting. At present, in the case of diocesan councils, the parliamentary model, as well as the democratic mode of thought in terms of free association, is being adopted uncritically. Thus the human person is thought of individualistically, with a resultant dualism between person and society. The person is viewed as a fundamentally autonomous entity. The pressures of the individual and of society create the problem of the tension between the two. Voluntary association is the domain where the individual and society meet; it is the legal instrument establishing a nexus between two antecedently independent, dualistically separate realities. Some forms of this type of association are the modern state or – on the plane of the more restricted interests – economic, philanthropic, and sport organizations.
The Church tends to be viewed in terms of such secular categories. The Christian is viewed not as a person but as a mere individual; at the same time the sociological reality is assumed as a primary datum, constituted by the plurality of Christians, that is, by the Church as a society with all that implies in regard to structure and organization. To creature the badly needed nexus between the individual and the association, institutions imposed or made available by the state are then uncritically adopted, and, above all, recourse is had to ready-made functional categories of modern associationism. What is called for, rather, is an effort to determine and apply the specific categories entailed by the communio ecclesiastica. Even in diocesan councils, there is a tendency to isolate the immediate, specific purposes which bring Christians together (consultative, charitable, social, and so forth).
This approach tends to underscore the sense of individualism already imprinted on the Christian by modern, rationalistic society; social life in the Church to a large extent becomes the scene of a diminished type of Christian experience, limited and partial, in which the Christian does not feel called upon to engage his personal life and faith in their entirety.
To correct this, the specifically Christian element must be posited as a radically new possibility of human life, based on a new concept of the person understood as “communion” and consequently as a reality which structurally involves and extends to all other persons and things. The foundation of this “communion” structure of the “new man” is sacrament. Only if the Christian adopts the logic of community proper to the sacrament can he express himself personally and socially without breach of continuity. The Church cannot be regarded as an association or as a collection of associations; it has to be thought of as an organic whole formed of communities based on the communion of God with man and men with one another in the Holy Spirit.
In the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the Christian has become a “new man”; he has been transformed ontologically as well as morally. The Christian receives unity within his own person and with all other persons in an inchoate form at baptism; he belongs to Christ, and belongs to Him together with all others, so that these others are a constitutive part of himself because they too belong to Christ as Christ belongs to the Father.
Christian Common Judgment
The Christian, therefore, possesses a new way of living; his vital impulse is toward involvement with others. He lives in and through community. A prominent aspect of this new way of living is the common judgment that grows out of this communion. If Christian life is lived in community, the judgment that rules and accompanies it will also be of that kind. This common judgment must not be understood as the deductive application of an abstract criterion to concrete reality, nor, in associationist terms, as an endeavour to arrive at a common opinion somehow or other. It demands, rather, a constant effort to interpret the reality shared by all in the light of the principle of that faith produced by the one Spirit of God who made the first Christians to be of “one heart and soul.”
Only the concept “new man” inaugurated by Christ resolves the antimony between person and society and also makes it possible to form a new idea of pluralism within the Church. Since Christian personality itself is constituted only within a community, pluralism in the Church cannot be conceived in terms of individuals either. From the start it must be thought of as a pluralism of local churches or communities.
Communion of Churches
The universal Church is not the sum total of all the Christians united in one great diocese, but primarily consists in the communion of the local churches. Since pluralism in the Church primarily consists of a plurality of communities, each growing from the celebration of the Eucharist, the technique of universal suffrage obviously can never provide a complete criterion for expressing the views of the Church.
Community dominates the whole Christian personality. This is decisively important for a correct understanding of the point of synodal structures and the way work is done in them. What specifies the ecclesial element, that is, working by a practical common judgment within the Christian community, can never be reduced to a sort of activism typical of individualist associations. Christians never assemble merely in order to do or to decide something together, or to achieve some particular common aim. They come together to transpose into actual living, by common action and decision, the community that already unites them.
The recognition that Christians meet because they know they are called into community by Christ makes it possible for them to make judgments and decisions for the Church. This method or recognition of the Christian fact and communion must characterize the work of synodal structures on all levels, in the local and the universal Church, if these structures are to be expected to fulfill their proper function of producing the judgments necessary to the solution of the concrete problems of the Church’s life. The authentic meaning of this tradition must be recovered and revitalized in accord with its original content, without formalism, in a perspective which does not separate a particular meeting and its work from the experience of recourse to faith which every member of the Church is called upon to perform day by day, even in the specific context of the synodal structures of the Church, such as the diocesan councils. These councils are centers of living community. They give rise to a common judgment on the life of the whole community as a contribution to the pastoral action for which the bishop is ultimately responsible. It is a service in and for the Church’s community, which might be called by the biblical term, diaconia.
Building up the Church
The Christian’s primary task is to build up the Church so that through the Church the announcement of salvation may be made to the world. The Christian message cannot be announced in an individualistic way; it is essentially a message that has to come from a community. The Church community is the Christian model and stimulus for a radical and comprehensive liberation of man. The building up of the Church is the task which claims and constitutes the whole personality of the Christian. It is an active concern absorbing his whole existence, sinner though he be, and setting up a prayerful tension. The layman is not a layman because of his secular position, but because of the way he shares suo modo et pro sua parte in the sacerdotal, prophetic, and royal office of Christ.
Also Building the World
By building up the Church the Christian builds up the world, because Christ is immanent in the world. By realizing in a new way in his own life all the various human, social, cultural, emotional, economic, and political concerns, he builds up a reality in the world without falling into some sort of dualism. For just as the Christian is called upon to respect the inner logic of the word of God and the sacraments, so too he must respect the value and intrinsic logic of earthly realities. The task of the Christian consists in using the categories proper to faith, to relate earthly realities to man. There is no such thing as lay autonomy in regard to the hierarchy, because there is no domain in which the layman, solely and as such, builds up the world without building up the Church. But he can only build up the Church in union with the whole people of God and, therefore, also with the hierarchy.
Once the erroneous notion is eliminated that there is any such thing as “autonomous commitment” for the Christian, specialist abilities and competence within the setting of the Christian community become gifts (charisms), and their function is to assist the community in establishing a common outlook and judgment. This also removes the danger of clericalism: that is attempting to incorporate oneself into the Church while holding aloof from a total involvement in the Christian “communion,” especially in the case of someone called to function within the synodal structures.
The effectiveness of a consultative body cannot be measured in terms of efficiency, although it must certainly aim at efficiency. Efficiency is a human value and cannot simply be transferred to the ecclesial domain. The efficiency criterion stems from a secular logic of power, which will never be completely rectified by any social or political ethics; only the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ can radically eliminate every power-category, however balanced and normal from a human point of view.
The crisis of the diocesan councils can be more readily understood as resulting from the more or less conscious application of criteria of efficiency and self-interest. The criterion which alone can preserve the work and ecclesial effectiveness of these advisory organizations must be disinterestedness – diaconia, with no pretension to any immediately tangible results, whether personal or social.
The Christian concept of representation is different from that of parliamentarianism, for two reasons. First, the leaders of the people of God, even if they are elected, do not receive their authority from below, but from above, by sacrament and mission. Secondly, faith cannot be represented by anyone, because salvation is something eminently personal, and cannot be attained by proxy.
The bishop does represent the faith of the members of his local Church, for example, at an ecumenical council. But the concept of representation here has a different, specifically ecclesiastical meaning. The bishop represents the faith of the individuals only to the extent that his faith is orthodox and their faith corresponds to his. He does not represent it in virtue of a mandate from the members of his diocese.
Witnesses to Faith
The concept of representation in the Church may be best described as witness. The members of the diocesan councils are not parliamentary representatives, but simply persons selected to advise and help the bishop in the government of his diocese. Their primary diaconia is to give effect to the experience of faith which is common to the whole people of God within the special sphere of their own task.
The dialectic between conservative and progressive elements in the Church is good. It permits the many points of view that may lead to a more comprehensive grasp of the complexity of the problems. What is wrong is to attribute to the dialectic so absolute a character that it is declared necessary for progress in the Church.
Experience of Communion
The relationship between the bishop and the faithful cannot be seen in terms of control of power, but only in terms of an experience of communion. Applied to the bishops, the idea of communion not only involves a transformation of the feudal mentality which still frequently affects them, but also calls for a new definition of their powers, which canon law still describes in terms which are too individualistic.
The bishop should give to the diocesan councils all the responsibilities and competence necessary to prepare and work out the common judgment needed to guide the life of the diocese by the Christian criterion of service. Thus he fulfills his diaconia which exists and has a symbolic value, because it derives from one who is the foundation of the unity of the people of God and primarily responsible for the life of the Christian community.
*First published in English in: Theology Digest 22 (1974) 136-142.