Wrong way up: Church upside down

Rev. Jean-Michel Gleize

Rev. Fr. Gleize is professor of ecclesiology at the Seminary of St. Pius X, Ecône. This article is an extract of a talk given at the Courrier de Rome Conference in Paris on 19 January 2019. The article is abridged and the diagrams are a creation of the editor.

I would like to speak to you about the Church as it stands in the mind of Pope Francis by examining the recent Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio, published on 15 September 2018, which contains a synthesis of Pope Francis’ new ecclesiology. And to introduce this, and to encourage your benevolence and interest, I will begin by drawing your attention to a simple clue which appears in paragraph 8 of the Constitution. Pope Francis uses a new vocabulary. He refers to the foreign observers of the Council—members of non-Catholic communities (Protestants and Orthodox)—as fraternal delegates. The observers are no longer considered as outside and observing, they are inside and acting. The difference in vocabulary tells us the extent of the road travelled since the Second Vatican Council. It is not a break with his immediate predecessors Benedict XVI, John Paul II and Paul VI, but in continuity with them. Pope Francis is different only in that he is throwing off the mask that concealed the neo-modernism within the Church.

The Pope's idea of the Church is that of a Synodal Church, that is, a collegialist and democratic church which is fundamentally ecumenical.

Eternal Truths

The nature of the Church has been revealed to us by God by means of an image. This revelation is to be found in Mt 16:14: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church." Here is a simple metaphor, a pictorial comparison, but the scope is considerable. And all that the Magisterium has been able to do for centuries, from the Fourth Council of Constantinople to that of Vatican I, has only been to deepen its meaning. The Church is like a building that Christ builds, resting entirely on a unique basis, and this unique foundation is the one person of St. Peter, who continues in the unique person of each of his successors, the bishops of Rome. The Pope, bishop of Rome, is the base—or the rock—on which rests the whole edifice of the Church which Christ wanted to build.

Now, just as a building is not to be considered as a juxtaposition of bricks or wood but an order of walls, pillars and ceilings, the Church is not directly composed of the baptised faithful, taken as isolated individuals; it is the order of baptised faithful who are united and grouped under the authority of the bishops, successors of the apostles. Pius XII affirms this in Mystici corporis which echoes the Constitution Pastor aeternus of the First Vatican Council: the material cause [the elements that make up the Church] are the particular communities, called dioceses or particular churches, that each bishop nourishes and governs in the name of Christ, as a true pastor governs and nourishes the flock entrusted to him. The Pope is indeed, says the First Vatican Council, the Pastor and the Doctor of all the Christians, but it is necessarily—that is to say of divine right—by the medium of these other pastors and doctors who are the bishops, according to the hierarchical order desired by Christ. This is, to use Leo XIII's expression in Satis cognitum, "the divine plan according to which the Church was constituted". [See Figure 1]

Deviation at the Council

This divine plan has two important consequences, highlighted by Bishop Carli, who was, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, one of the main architects of the reactionary Coetus internationalis patrum alongside Archbishop Lefebvre.

The first consequence was emphasised by Bishop Carli in an address he made during the eighty-third General Assembly of the Second Vatican Council on 13 November 1963. The schema of the future constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, he notes, presupposes that bishops must define themselves first and foremost in relation to the universal Church and, only after this, in relation to their particular churches. The bishops would be first and foremost the members—or the parties—of a College, which would also define itself, with the pope as its head, as the supreme and universal principle of the unity of the Church. The bishops would secondarily be pastors governing a portion of the Church, in order to exercise in practice their universal power. [See Figure 2]. Bishop Carli believed that this perspective is false and that the opposite is true. The primordial and characteristic function of the bishops is that each one is the principle of unity of his particular church and thus contributes to the good of the whole Church. Leo XIII affirms it in Satis cognitum, when he states that "the very power of bishops—and not only the exercise of this power—is not universal" and that it is "circumscribed in determined limits".

The second consequence was indicated by Bishop Carli in another speech he made during the seventy-second general meeting of the Council on 21 November 1963. The Bishop recalls that what first and foremost defines the Pope as such is his immediate relationship to the whole Church. The definition of the First Vatican Council, in the constitution Pastor aeternus, declares indeed that Christ chose Saint Peter, and through him each of his successors, so that he was the chief and the base of all the Church: no not the head of a hypothetical "college", but the head of the whole Church. The Pope is therefore not defined according to his relationship with the bishops. The fact that the Pope is the head of the whole Church is precisely the cause and reason for which the Pope is the head of all bishops. This is not the consequence, but the cause. There is therefore a logical precedence for the Pope's power over the Church over the Pope's power over bishops. It is precisely this anteriority that the Council wanted to deny, establishing both the chronological and logical primacy of the Apostolic College to St. Peter, the latter being presented by paragraph 19 of Lumen Gentium as chosen by Christ within the College, previously instituted as a stable group, and placed at its head.

The bishops would thus be the leaders of the whole Church before being the heads of a part of the Church and, conversely, the Pope would be the head of a part of the Church, constituted by all the bishops, before being the head of the whole Church. Such is the postulate of collegiality, introduced by the council. It remains to be seen now how far the present Pope remains faithful to this postulate and prolongs this inversion.

Vision of Pope Francis

It is again in the change of a word that a new perspective is announced. In the constitution Episcopalis communio, Pope Francis does not speak of an "episcopal collegiality", (he uses this term only twice, despite it being a classic term since Vatican II). Rather, he uses a new expression and speaks of an "episcopal communion".

The privileged organ of this communion must be the Synod. Paul VI instituted it on 15 September 1965, even before the closure of the council, in order to put into effect the new ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium. Despite it being specified that the function of this organism must be exercised in a temporary and occasional way, it remains that the synod is defined as a perpetual institution. Even if it does not always act, it is still there and is now [enshrined in canon law as] part of the constitution of the Church. Pope Francis intends to give this permanent body a raison d'être: "The Synod of Bishops", he says in paragraph 6, "must increasingly become a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God... it is a suitable instrument to give voice to the entire People of God, specifically via the Bishops, established by God as 'authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church'".

As such, it is neither more nor less than a religious democracy; the People of God being the privileged and primordial channel through which the voice of Christ is heard. This idea is not new. It figures prominently in Chapter 2 of the Constitution Lumen Gentium, paragraph 12, in the decree Apostolicam actuositatem of the same Council; in The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 2005, also in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelli Gaudium, paragraph 119.

The central passage of Episcopalis communio seems to be paragraph 10, a passage which indicates to us the deep meaning of "communion", in the Synod.

Another fruit of the Synod of Bishops is that it highlights more and more the profound communion that exists in Christ’s Church both between the Pastors and the faithful (every ordained minister being a baptised person among other baptised persons, established by God to feed his flock), and also between the Bishops and the Roman Pontiff, the Pope being a “Bishop among Bishops, called at the same time—as Successor of Peter—to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.

If such were true, what becomes of so-called "hierarchical ministry”, if not to be reduced to the role of spokesman of a charismatic community? Where, then, is the difference between the Church of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church, and the separate communities, which have precisely the common and distinctive attribute of being separated from the base of the Church, from the cornerstone and rock which Christ appointed to assure the cohesion of His flock. Synodality is fundamentally ecumenical [because St. Peter is no longer the foundation].

In effect, what Pope Francis is working towards is “a salutary decentralisation” of the Church which was the ultimate desire of the Second Vatican Council. The problem is that this so-called "decentralisation" is turning the whole Church upside down. [See Figure 3].

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