As we await the election of a new pope, it is significant that so many church people and theologians have returned to the theme of collegiality or the role of bishops in leading guiding and teaching the church.para.   Cardinal Ouellet himself among the papabiles has quoted para 22 of Lumen Gentium and the tensions which still exist as to what the Council Fathers had intended by it.  After the Council Pope Paul v1 made important steps towards giving reality to the idea of collegiality by developing national conferences of bishops and regional synods.


   After the synod of 1971 inRome the bishops were able to publish some important material in the document ‘Justice in the World’.  It is worth reading Donal Dorr’s account of this in his book ‘Option for the Poor’. By 1975 following the synod on evangelization , all the synod papers were given to the pope who subsequently produced an encyclical ‘Evangelii Nuntiandi’.

Thus began the struggle between the power of the Roman Curia and the legitimate role of bishops in synod over the church’s agenda and mission.  Since 1975, no synod of bishops has been permitted to voice its concerns without this papal redaction.  Think of the synod of Africa and the rumpus over the publication of ‘Africae Munus’.

               Bp. Raymond W Lessard who worked at the Vatican during the Council is reported as saying in 2005 that collegiality is at the heart of the  “ongoing question of the relationship between the local and the universal church”.  If I am to accept his implied diagnosis that there is some estrangement between the local church and the universal church, it needs to be addressed and a resurgence of the spirit of collegiality must be part of the remedy.  Yet many have pointed out that collegiality would need to encompass not simply the Pope and the college of bishops but the notion of synodality at every level of church life.

               It would be unrealistic to expect a new pontiff to challenge the power of the Curia as an early move.  In fact there are a number of reasons why some of the bishops themselves might not welcome an increased responsibility for the leadership of the universal church.  Many are already over extended by diocesan duties and they may well subscribe to an ultra montanist strand of thinking about the papacy.  Just as the fact of Benedict’s resignation changes the criteria upon which Cardinals will vote in the conclave,   so also a reaffirmation of effective collegiality would change the basis upon which people might choose a bishop.  There are many issues about who should be electing bishops and for what kind of office. These need to be addressed.

               The emergence of groups such as a Call to Action (ACTA) is making an attempt to promote a level playing field for open dialogue between a bishop and his flock , allowing an approach to the problem from the bottom up.  It is too early in the UK to see much headway being made.  We can, however, illustrate some of the ways in which the perspectives of the hierarchy and the universal church are out of step with the mind and concerns of lay Catholics.

It is clear that a major dynamism in lay faith communities lies in work for CAFOD, Progressio, Pax Christi, and CCND.  The issues covered by these community agencies are human rights, care of the environment, justice for all, and the promotion of peace.  An organization like Cafod can work not only at the local community level ( raising funds and raising awareness) but also at a national and international level by lobbying for government change of policies and with the international power brokers such as the IMF and the World Bank.  When it comes to dialogue with the hierarchy the response is often that these issues are peripheral to the concerns of the bureaucratic church leaders who wish to address a different agenda such as the shortage of priests, lapsation, abortion, and the defence of orthodox belief.  It is clear that the sacred/secular divide is still important to them.

   The ecotheologian  Sean McDonagh has spent a lifetime on the integrity of creation yet still fails to arouse enthusiastic support from the hierarchy.  Whereas  the lay Christian groups who work at the ecological agenda can find ready alliances with other groups of religious and secular activists in society, the Vatican Curia and the hierarchy fails to attract effective collaborators even among the vast Roman Catholic lay faithful. These two agendas are as different as chalk and cheese and offer little prospect of genuine dialogue.

   If something like the McDonagh agenda is to prevail it will require a Damascene conversion for the Roman Curia.and for many of the Church’s bishops who have been chosen specifically for their traditionalist views and their ready acceptance of Papal primacy. Perhaps another route for implementing change  might be  to promote what has been called synodality at every level of the gathered community. This would be welcomed by other Christians and give a boost to ecumenism.  Yet the Vatican stance is exemplified by the removal of the leadership of Caritas Internationalis in order to make the direction of travel ‘more Catholic’.

   It may be that the existing church structures and policies will need to plumb even lower depths before the Spirit can produce impetus for real transformation.

icon Church reform and collegiality