Through the Vatican white smoke

Austen Ivereigh
3 April 2005

Pope John Paul II has fallen silent. An historic papacy – at almost twenty-seven years, the second longest since St Peter’s – has drawn to a close. The election of John Paul II’s successor is the most solemn task facing the 117 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave, as both the election chamber and process is known. Following the funeral in Rome, and the nine days of official mourning, the cardinals will file into the Sistine Chapel and begin balloting. Only when a candidate has a two-thirds majority will he be elected: white smoke – the fumata bianca – will curl up from the chimney above St Peter’s Square and the announcement will ring out: habemus papam!

Also in openDemocracy’s debate on how the Catholic church is governed, Neal Ascherson’s profound assessment of “Pope John Paul II and democracy”

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It is a process dictated by tradition, a less static one than most believe (there have been drastic changes to the election process over the centuries) but one that belongs to a pre-democratic age. The only electoral college is the College of Cardinals; they are appointed by the pope, and they elect his successor. There is no involvement by local churches in the process, although most cardinals are also bishops of major dioceses around the world, and certainly no suffrage: not even bishops have a say in the succession.

The media, both secular and Catholic, are already discussing likely candidates and producing lists of “top ten” papabili, as the potential popes are known; and these lists are more or less hilarious to those familiar with the names. But the cardinals themselves stay silent. (My own boss, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, will happily discuss the priorities facing the church, but will never discuss, even privately, his preference for particular papabile).

Which way to collegiality?

The Catholic church is not a democracy, for there is no popular suffrage; it is not a monarchy, for monarchs succeed each other by right of birth; and it does not have the deliberative organs of church governance, known as synods, that characterise the Anglican and Orthodox models.

The Catholic church’s form of election has much in common with the aristocratic polis of ancient Greece and Rome (the cardinals are known as “princes of the church”); but not even that is an adequate analogy. Catholic ecclesiology (a theological term which refers to the forms and structures of the church) derives, simply, from the image of Jesus surrounded by his apostles. That model was transferred to the apostles under Peter, whom Jesus named as the first head of the church. Ever since then popes are said to occupy the “See of Peter”.

Some reformist Catholic groups would like to see greater participation of ordinary Catholics in the selection of bishops, and even in the election of the pope. The Austria-based We Are Church is one of the oldest; Voice of the Faithful, which grew rapidly after the sex abuse crisis in the United States, is one of the biggest. They are articulate, and can sometimes draw on the sympathies of bishops; but they count for very little in a church of more than a billion members spread over virtually every nation on the globe. Popes will continue to be elected by the traditional method.

A lively discussion is taking place, however, about the need for greater “collegiality” in the church. Collegiality is the closest word that Catholics have to democracy. It does not refer to the question of sovereignty, suffrages and franchises: the legitimacy of the pope and the bishops derives from the assurance of the Holy Spirit transmitted through the offices handed down by the apostles, and not from any kind of general will. But collegiality is a model of church governance which stresses the importance of collaboration between the pope and his bishops, and respect for the local church as the primary locus of decision-making.

Collegial governance is counterposed to the autocratic, centralist model which reached its apex in the mid-19th century. It is, in many ways, the more traditional model, one that prevailed in the first centuries of the church and which was represented by the “conciliarists” of the middle ages. The reforming Second Vatican Council (1962-65) rescued the concept of collegiality, but its implementation has been, at best, patchy, and many cardinals believe it has been reversed under Pope John Paul II.

The key to collegiality, as defined by the council, is that the bishops govern the Church cum et sub Petro (with and under the Pope). This should mean that the Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy) is the servant of the College of Bishops, not the other way round. The bishop is the vicar of Christ in his diocese; he governs his own diocese, and participates in the governance of the church worldwide, which is seen as a communion of local churches, with the pope at their head. It is a model which reverses the idea of a centralist government (the Vatican) exercising authority in the name of absolute papal sovereignty, with bishops seen as little more than delegates.

The main expression of collegiality should be the bishops’ synods, which meet about every three or four years in Rome. The synods are made up of representatives of the bishops’ conferences worldwide and a good number of curial officials. The fact that few people (even well-informed Catholics) know much about them, or what comes out of them, is an indication of how little impact they have made. They are certainly a pale reflection of Pope Paul VI’s vision for them.

The whole process is controlled by the Curia, which decides on the topics to be discussed; the meetings are closed, and the summaries of the deliberations are compiled – and often heavily edited – by the Curia. The synods are consultative, not deliberative; and the results of the discussions are published in the form of a papal exhortation some years after they take place. The synods have given rise to a humorous cynicism on the part of journalists (the vaticanisti), assigned to cover them. When the pope was shown poring over some papers at the beginning of the 2002 synod, one vaticanista joked to me that he was “reading the synod’s conclusions”.

But the emasculated synods are just one aspect of the frustration of collegiality. Bishops complain that under John Paul II they were treated like altar boys in Rome, and that it was all but impossible to have a dialogue with the pope about matters facing the church. When the Curia ignores the views of local bishops, and overrides them, it creates frustrations. These frustrations are shared by the cardinals, most of whom are also diocesan bishops; restoring the bishops to their proper place in relation to the Curia will be one of their priorities in the conclave.

The pope’s divisions

A further demand for reform is for greater participation in the selection of bishops by the local churches. Technically, Rome “consults” with a diocese before selecting its bishop; the apostolic nuncio, who represents the Holy See in each country, carries out the consultation. But very few people are ever asked their views, and in practice the choices often obey Roman priorities, rather than local ones.

In the age of global communication, this has led to a greater Roman centralism: as late as 1829, under Pope Leo XII, of the 646 diocesan bishops in the Latin church, only twenty-four were directly appointed by Rome, and these only because the churches in Greece and Albania were unable to do so. Under Pope John Paul II there were 4,000 bishops, all appointed by the Vatican. Some mechanism for giving local churches a say in the appointment of their bishops is seen as key to the implementation of more effective collegiality.

The past twenty-seven years have seen the frustration of collegiality in large part because of the style of Pope John Paul II. He was a philosopher-evangelist for whom teaching and mission were far higher priorities than curial reform. This reflected his background: in Poland, the church needed to maintain a united front against totalitarianism; the idea of debates and deliberative synods smacks too much of division and dissent.

John Paul II did an immense amount to restore the moral authority of the church in a global age, and to give it direction and purpose after the “runaway” years of the 1970s. There will be some cardinals in the conclave who will want to stick to the autocratic-centralist model, the church as a beacon on the hill in an uncertain world. But many cardinals who are gathering to elect the next pope believe that the pendulum has swung too far, and needs now to be reversed. They believe that the church needs more flexible structures, and effective collegiality, to be able to continue to function effectively in an ever more global church.

There is no desire to loosen the hierarchical nature. Papal authority is important in the way that Jesus’s authority is important; and if any warning were needed, the recent crisis in the Anglican communion, which is little more than a federation of autonomous churches often at odds with each other, serves as a reminder of the alternatives. But many believe the Catholic church can become more collegial in its governance while still remaining a “hierarchical communion”; and they argue that it would be more “truly hierarchical” if the different levels of authority found their proper sphere.

The conclave to elect the next pope will, in fact, see a clash over precisely this question. The other priorities facing the church – how to evangelise the European city, how to forestall the coming clash between the Christian west and the Islamic world, how to breach the gap between rich and poor – are matters on which the cardinals will agree, even if they differ on how to proceed. But the battle over collegiality will go to the heart of the very idea of the church itself: how it relates to itself, and to the world. It will be a battle hidden from the gaze of onlookers; only those taking part will know of the fireworks that precede the white smoke.

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