LACEGATE WAS ABOUT MORE than the lace you’ve heard me insist. Looking back to my more extensive blog post as well as the more restrained and focused submission to the Catholic Herald, some might feel that I ended both with a questioning finger pointed solely at the bishops. While the shepherds of the Church are above all its bishops, their pastoral burden is shared with the lower clergy—we priests, that is—and we exercise it more at the muddy end of the sheepfold. That does not excuse priests from asking of themselves, as we contemplate the haemorrhaging of the flock, what we were doing the while. Among priests as among bishops there will be some, even many, who can justifiably claim that they have tried their best. Thanks be to God.
Still, things remain grim. But it is back to bishops that I would turn our attention. Bishops were the avowed “winners” of Vatican II. Collegiality was the order of the day; synods of bishops were to meet regularly to assist the pope in the governance of the Church; bishops’ conferences were to be erected to support bishops in their ministry and give it a national weightiness, to offer individual bishops a sort of pastoral economy of scale.
Did bishops actually “win?” The synod of bishops convenes, on average, about as often as the Olympic Games are held. It is a formalised event with speeches made and a papal summary document issued in its wake. That is not quite what the advocates of this instrument had hoped for. When the synod first met in 1967 it was exposed to a trial run of the Consilium’s swanky new Missa normativa. The bishops’ reaction was underwhelming. Cardinal Heenan maintained that if this was the reformed Mass the Church was to be given, the only ones going to it would be women and children. Yet three years later it is a tweaked Missa normativa that we got as the new Mass. So much for the epscopacy’s collegial reservations.
Diocesan bishops were seen traditionally as being married to their sees, and mirroring marriage the bishop and his diocese were usually only put asunder at the former’s death. Thus the feisty Archbishop Daniel Mannix was married to Melbourne, Australia from 1917 till his death in 1963, aged 99. Emerging at the council was the desire that bishops should be able to retire more readily especially if illness or the infirmity of age impair their pastorate. In 1983 the new Code of Canon Law made it law that all bishops must submit their resignation at the age of 75 (except the Bishop of Rome). While from a secular model of leadership this makes sense, it totally fails to accommodate the sacred ethos the Church seeks to infuse into its ordained ministry. Limits on tenure set limits on zeal and narrowed the horizons of bishops increasingly to the short term. Why bother doing this or that if he must retire soon?
Under Pope Francis we have the spectacle of bishops being peremptorily sacked by a pope. The most recent example is the young(ish) Bishop of Arecibo in Puerto Rico, who was removed for not being collegial enough with the other local bishops. It seems he refused to sign a joint bishops’ document which maintained that Covid vaccination was a Christian duty. There was no process, no charge, no possibility of defence. What is more, the pope steadfastly refuses to grant the now-deposed bishop an audience.
At Vatican II the bishops developed the stance that they were not vicars of the pope but full successors in their own right of the college of apostles. The pope might appoint them but thereafter they held their own apostolic rights, always respecting the primacy of the pope. One can see how a pope should depose a bishop guilty of grave misconduct. But to remove a bishop because he held a non-theological position contrary to his local colleagues does not seem to be a “win” for this bishop, or any bishop given the recent precedent this reinforces.
What is more, bishops’ conferences have not empowered individual bishops in the governance of their own dioceses but rather have tended to be forums for a peer pressure that coerces individual bishops to toe the party line. The Bishop of Arecibo stepped out of line with his colleagues, not on doctrine, but on a prudential issue of conscience. Is this really a “win” for bishops?
Most recently Rome has removed the right of diocesan bishops to erect associations of the faithful in their own dioceses without prior approval from Rome. Rome has restricted a bishop’s right to offer provision for the older form of the Mass, and must have Rome’s permission to allow any of his seminarians to learn the old liturgical forms.
Collegiality does not sit easily with such increasing centralization and restriction on a bishop’s power in his own diocese.
Synods are all the rage today, but not synods in their usual form, that is as meetings of bishops and clergy. Rather they are assemblies in which laity (supposedly representative of the whole but manifestly not) overshadow clergy in both number and voice. Look at the train wreck that is the German Synodal Way, with its anti-clerical and anti-episcopal agenda. This is no “win” for bishops.
Lastly, we have seen a change in Rome that has gone relatively unnoticed. The “sacred congregations” of the curia are now all “dicasteries,” not just as a descriptive term (and not new in this usage) but as a formal title. Not a change to make much ado over, you might argue. Seen in isolation, that is a reasonable opinion. But this change must be seen in the wider context of the new synodality.
In short, a “sacred congregation” implies that its head will be at least a cleric, almost always a bishop and inevitably a cardinal. However, a “dicastery” admits of a lay, even female, leader. I am not making this up.
Now, there may be good arguments in favour lay people holding certain curial offices. It better reflects current business wisdom after all. However, running the Church is not—or at least, should not— be the same as running a business. With episcopal ordination comes the gift of apostolic authority, a gift shared by all bishops. The curial dicasteries are the executive organs of the pope’s supreme apostolic authority. This pope works round them as much as he can, not through them. Separating the governance of the Church from apostolic authority is a dangerous step, especially in the light of history and the corruption that has been bred in the Church when laity—usually privileged and unrepresentative in the modern sense—begin using the organs of papal government according to their own worldly, usually pecuniary, agenda. Clerics can be corrupt enough, but invariably that is not because they are too religious, but too worldly. The current Vatican trial of quondam cardinal Angelo Becciú suggests a corrupt cleric, but note that the instruments of the apparent corrupt activity are largely laity.
So, I cannot help but conclude that the pope’s negative attitude towards bishops and their proper authority, his consistent indifference to priests and even denigration of them, his promotion of a predominantly-lay synodality, and his recent reforms of the curia—all these suggest that the papal agenda seeks a radical shift of “power” in the Church from the ordained to the laity. He is at best indifferent, at worst antagonistic, to bishops and priests because they are part of the problem as he sees it, and not part of the solution. He wants a lay-led Church.
The danger is that a lay-led Church will entrench a worldly agenda in the heart of the Church’s workings. It has begun already. The agreement between Communist China and the Vatican, the details of which are still largely unknown, is an example of secular pragmatism prevailing over sacred principle and a. betrayal of a persecuted yet loyal local Church. The pope’s abject refusal to condemn unequivocally the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and his refusal to visit that beleaguered country of fervent Christians, including the most fervent of Eastern-rite Catholics, seems to be another example of the tragic triumph of the secular over the supernatural, pragmatism over principle, the city of man over the City of God. These are the linemarkings of a “synodal” Church, as are the outrageous doctrinal demands of the German synodal way.
With Tyconius and St Augustine, I hold that the Church on earth is both the Body of Christ and the body of antichrist. Current trends seem set to privilege the latter over the former, a dire mistake. The losers will be many, above all people of faith.