The Federalist Option of the Bishop of Rome
More autonomy for the national episcopal conferences. And more room for different cultures. The two points on which “Evangelii Gaudium” most distinguishes itself from the magisterium of the previous popes
by Sandro Magister
ROME, December 3, 2013 – In the voluminous apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” made public one week ago, Pope Francis has made it known that he wants to distinguish himself on at least two points from the popes who preceded him.
The first of these points is also the one that has had the greatest impact in the media. And it concerns both the exercise of the primacy of the pope and the powers of the episcopal conferences.
The second point concerns the relationship between Christianity and cultures.
1. ON THE PAPACY AND THE NATIONAL CHURCHES
On the role of the pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio credits John Paul II with having paved the way to a new form of the exercise of primacy. But he laments that “we have made little progress in this regard” and promises that he intends to proceed with greater vigor toward a form of papacy “more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.”
But more than on the role of the pope – where Francis remains vague and has so far operated by making most decisions himself – it is on the powers of the episcopal conferences that “Evangelii Gaudium” heralds a major transition.
The pope writes in paragraph 32 of the document:
“The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position ‘to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit.’ Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”
In a footnote, Francis refers to a 1998 motu proprio of John Paul II, concerning precisely “the theological and juridical nature of the episcopal conferences”:
But if one reads that document, one discovers that it attributes to the national episcopal conferences a function that is exclusively practical, cooperative, of a simple intermediate auxiliary body between the college of all the world’s bishops together with the pope on the one hand – the only “collegiality” declared to have a theological foundation – and the individual bishop with authority over his diocese on the other.
Above all, the motu proprio “Apostolos Suos” strongly limits that “authentic doctrinal authority” which Pope Francis says he wants to grant to the episcopal conferences. It prescribes that if doctrinal declarations really need to be issued, this must be done with unanimous approval and in communion with the pope and the whole Church, or at least “by a substantial majority” after review and authorization by the Holy See.
One danger warned against in the motu proprio “Apostolos Suos” is that the episcopal conferences might release doctrinal declarations in contrast with each other and with the universal magisterium of the Church.
Another risk that it intends to prevent is the creation of separation and antagonism between individual national Churches and Rome, as happened in the past in France with “Gallicanism” and as takes place among the Orthodox with some of the autocephalous national Churches.
That motu proprio bears the signature of John Paul II, but it owes its framework to the one who was his highly trusted prefect of doctrine, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
And Ratzinger – as was known – had long been very critical of the superpowers that some episcopal conferences had attributed to themselves, especially in certain countries, including his native Germany.
In his bombshell interview of 1985, published with the title “The Ratzinger Report,” he had resolutely opposed the idea that the Catholic Church should become “a kind of federation of national Churches.”
Instead of a “decisive new emphasis on the role of the bishops” as desired by Vatican Council II, the national episcopal conferences – he accused – have “smothered” the bishops with their weighty bureaucratic structures.
“It seems wonderful always to decide together,” but “the truth cannot be created through ballots,” both because “the group spirit and perhaps even the wish for a quiet, peaceful life or conformism lead the majority to accept the positions of active minorities bent upon pursuing clear goals” and because “the search for agreement between the different tendencies and the effort at mediation often yield flattened documents in which decisive positions (where they might be necessary) are weakened.”
John Paul II and Benedict XVI after him judged the average quality of the world’s bishops and of most episcopal conferences to be modest. And they acted accordingly. Making themselves the leader and model and in some cases – as in Italy – resolutely intervening to change the leadership and marching orders.
With Francis, the episcopal conferences could instead see a recognition of greater autonomy. With the foreseeable repercussions exemplified recently by Germany, where prominent bishops and cardinals have been clashing publicly over the most varied questions, from the criteria of diocesan administration to communion for the divorced and remarried, in this latter case anticipating and forcing solutions on which the double synod of bishops of 2014 and 2015 has been called to debate and decide.
2. ON CHRISTIANITY AND CULTURES
As for the encounter between Christianity and cultures, Pope Francis has insisted a great deal, in paragraphs 115-118 of “Evangelii Gaudium,” on the idea that “Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression,” but ever since its origin “is incarnate in the peoples of the earth, each of which has its own culture.”
In other words:
“Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it.”
With this corollary:
“While it is true that some cultures have been closely associated with the preaching of the Gospel and the development of Christian thought, the revealed message is not identified with any of them; its content is transcultural.”
In maintaining this, pope Bergoglio seems to be reaching out to those who hold that the proclamation of the Gospel has an original purity of its own apart from any cultural contamination. A purity that should be restored to it, freeing it mainly from its “Western” trappings of yesterday and today, allowing it to “inculturate” itself each time in new syntheses with other cultures.
But put in these terms, this relationship between Christianity and cultures overlooks the indivisible connection between faith and reason, between biblical revelation and Greek culture, between Jerusalem and Athens, to which John Paul II dedicated the encyclical “Fides et Ratio” and on which Benedict XVI focused his memorable talk in Regensburg of September 12, 2006:
For pope Ratzinger, the bond between biblical faith and Greek philosophy is “an intrinsic necessity” that is manifested not only in the dazzling prologue of the Gospel of John, “in the beginning was the Logos,” but already in the Old Testament, in the mysterious “I am” of God in the burning bush: “a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy.”
This encounter “between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” – Benedict XVI maintained – took place “in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.”
And it is a synthesis – Pope Benedict furthermore argued – that must be defended from all the attacks that over the course of the centuries, until our own time, have aimed at breaking it, in the name of the “dehellenization of Christianity.”
In our time – Ratzinger noted in Regensburg – this attack is produced “in the light of our experience with cultural pluralism”:
“It is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was an initial inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. […] True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.”
On this capital theme, “Evangelii Gaudium” does not necessarily contradict the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But it is certainly distant from it.
Here as well with an evident sympathy for a plurality of forms of Church, modeled on the respective local cultures.
The complete text of the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.