The Reform of the Papacy: Costly Call to Christian Unity
by John R. Quinn
Crossroad/Herder & Herder, 189 pages, $19.95

In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint , Pope John Paul II invited suggestions from Christians not in union with Rome regarding ways of exercising the papal office that might facilitate reunion. Interpreting this invitation as addressed to Catholics as well, Archbishop John R. Quinn, in his 1996 Campion Lecture at Oxford University on “The Exercise of the Primacy and the Costly Call to Unity,” proposed a series of reforms that are taken up at greater length in the pres ent volume. The main thrust of all the proposals is to correct what Quinn regards as undue centralization. As remedies he advocates greater collegiality, subsidiarity, and legitimate diversity, all of which, in his opinion, were mandated by Vatican II.

As one area where reform is needed, Archbishop Quinn points to the regional episcopal conferences. He argues”correctly in my opinion”that they have a true theological status as collegial organs, and”more dubiously”that they ought to have doctrinal authority. He objects to the 1998 ruling of the Holy See that particular conferences may not make binding doctrinal declarations unless they speak unanimously or obtain a two-thirds majority together with the approval ( recognitio ) of Rome. This ruling is in Quinn’s opinion a “signal of distrust.”

A second subject of Quinn’s dissatisfaction is the Synod of Bishops. As now constituted, it serves as an organ for expressing the consensus of the member bishops and for advising the Holy See. Quinn would like it to have a deliberative, and not merely consultative, vote, with the result that its decrees would have juridical force throughout the Church.

Quinn also objects to the appointment of bishops by Rome without a major role for the local church and the regional conference of bishops. He urges the adoption of something like the system proposed by the Canon Law Society of America (CLSA) in 1973, which gave a diocesan committee control over the names to be submitted, and allowed Rome to make its selection among the proposed candidates only after the diocesan list had been reviewed by the bishops of the province and by a committee of the national conference. The CLSA proposals were not accepted.

Quinn is further dissatisfied with the College of Cardinals. He has three main criticisms: that the cardinals constitute a college within the College of Bishops, thus turning the latter into a college of second rank; that the College of Cardinals is hard to fit into the structures of Eastern Christianity; and that the election of the Pope by cardinals rather than by presidents of episcopal conferences, together with other bishops, religious, and laity, is ecumenically unacceptable. Quinn would also like to see the diocese of Rome represented in the election process.

Quinn’s severest criticisms are directed against his final target, the Roman Curia. Its dicasteries, he complains, involve themselves in details that could better be handled by local authorities. In this connection, he rejects the Roman supervision of liturgical translations. Some Curia officials, in his view, resist the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and encourage the restoration of the preconciliar Latin liturgy. The presence of so many bishops in curial offices, he adds, is an abuse of the sacrament of Holy Orders.

After examining various proposals for reforming the Curia that were made at Vatican II, Quinn repeats the proposal that he himself made in his Oxford address”namely, that the Pope establish a commission headed by three presidents (the president of an episcopal conference, a lay person, and a representative of the Curia)”to come up within three years with a plan for restructuring that would be voted on by the presidents of episcopal conferences and presented to the Pope for approval.

Although many of the criticisms and proposals in this book have been made previously by other authors, they command special attention as coming from an archbishop who has taken part in several synods of bishops and has served as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It would be hard to imagine that none of the complaints is valid or that all of the proposals are unsound. But in such a delicate and complex area, great caution is required. My own impression is that Rome now plays an indispensable role in safeguarding the apostolic tradition, in maintaining the unity of the universal Church, and in keeping the conferences and the diocesan bishops from assuming inordinate power.

What about episcopal conferences? One might legitimately hesitate to give them and their presidents as much weight as Quinn does. Most Catholics, I believe, would be very unhappy if their particular conference of bishops could, by a majority vote, enact binding doctrinal decisions without any approval from Rome. How could the faithful of one region or nation be bound to believe doctrines that were not taught in the universal Church?

I have similar reservations about Quinn’s proposals for the Synod of Bishops. As presently structured, its assemblies are brief, lasting two weeks or a month, and include only a relatively small number of bishops, elected or appointed on an ad hoc basis. Such meetings have their value as a sounding board for new ideas and as a source of suggestions to the Pope. But I cannot see the advantage in giving such assemblies the power to issue laws and doctrinal determinations for the universal Church. Although the conferral of such powers would undoubtedly make the meetings of the synod more interesting, the net result would be to burden the Catholic people.

As for the College of Cardinals, it has frequently been restructured and could still be radically changed, even abolished. But it does function as a corps of highly trusted senior prelates, whose opinions the Pope can occasionally seek out, as he did in the preparations for the current Great Jubilee. Since it won its freedom from control by civil powers, the College of Cardinals has functioned remarkably well in papal elections. The cardinals”especially if they meet periodically in consistories”know one another’s aptitudes and limitations better than do most non-cardinals.

Concerning the appointment of bishops, improvements are always in order. The present system has not prevented all mistakes. But the Holy See, acting with the advice of apostolic nuncios and with the help of confidential consultations, is able to draw on a much larger pool of candidates than would be known in the local church. If nominations had to come from a diocesan committee, there would be a real danger of diocesan inbreeding. This would be particularly harmful in dioceses that have a one-sided orientation.

Quinn’s critiques of the Roman Curia are not entirely unwarranted. He dwells on weaknesses that are typical of all bureaucracies. But it would be false to imagine that the majority of curial officers are hungry for power and that they intervene without serious cause. In many of the cases to which Quinn refers, Rome has acted in response to the pleas of Catholics who felt that their bishops or episcopal conferences were failing to protect the faith and devotion of the people”for example, by allowing defective translations to pass into official liturgical books.

In general, Quinn seems to present collegiality very much as though the College of Bishops were a kind of parliament, designed to offset the dangers of papal monarchy. According to the true theological conception, there is no conflict between primacy and collegiality. Each needs and serves the other. Nothing re quires that the Pope, in exercising his primacy, be bound by the majority opinion of the bishops. He is obliged to exercise the special charisms of his office. If John XXIII had felt bound by the preponderant views of either his Curia or the world episcopate, Vatican II would probably not have been convened. Since Quinn relies heavily on Vatican II, he is also indebted to the relative autonomy of the Pope.

Several minor errors may be noted. Quinn refers to a commentary on the concluding paragraphs of the 1989 Profession of Faith as a commentary on the 1998 motu proprio , Ad Tuendam Fidem . More importantly, he asserts that one becomes a member of the College of Bishops by episcopal ordination and that bishops, once ordained, belong irrevocably to the college and “can never be placed outside it.” Nowhere in his book does Quinn allude to hierarchical communion, which is an essential condition for membership in the College of Bishops, and which can be lost by any bishop.

In comparison with the Oxford lecture, this book seems less forthright. It makes no mention of many controversial examples that appeared in the lecture, such as the approval of the Catechism of the Catholic Church , contraception, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, the practice of general absolution, and the treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics. One wonders whether the real purpose of the proposed structural reforms is to obtain a reconsideration of such doctrinal and disciplinary issues. Does this book contain an unstated agenda? Even if it does, it can still be useful as a reminder that the structures of the Church need to be kept under constant review. But no reform of the papal office should undermine its capacity to safeguard the unity of the whole flock of Christ in the truth of revelation.

Avery Dulles, S.J. , holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University.

Articles by Avery Cardinal Dulles

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