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Collegiality (or lack of it !) in the Catholic Church

Collegiality (or lack of it !) in the Catholic Church

Part 1. Collegiality of Pope and Bishops

One of the key words of the Second Vatican Council was aggiornamento, or updating, - a word that was to be heard time and time again, a word that was heralded when Pope John XXIII opened the Council with ‘Mother Church rejoices that, by the singular gift of Divine Providence, the longed-for day has finally dawned’. He was expressing the view that it was now time for change, time for the Church to wrest itself free from a preoccupation with the history of the world’s dangers and horrors, time to look to the future with confidence. He was asking the bishops to come together to discern how the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church in the world of the day; more than that, he was asking the bishops to do this collegially.

Collegiality affects many aspects of Church life. For the sake of our discussion we will focus in this paper on the collegiality of Pope and Bishops.

The bishop is a Vicar of Christ, not of the Pope

Prior to the Council, the members of the Roman Curia had prepared initial drafts for each of the documents which were to be promulgated; they hoped that the Council itself would not last more than the couple of months it would take for the documents to be discussed and ratified – but they were wrong. It was the bishops who, having come together as a body, took charge of the proceedings and acted as a body.

Collegiality was one of the most important principles established by Vatican II – whilst the Pope is ‘first among equals’ in the college of bishops, each bishop is the point of unity for his diocese, with each diocese acting autonomously:

‘The individual bishop is the visible principle and foundation of unity in his particular church…(and) represents his own church’’

Lumen Gentium§ 23

This document went on to express the role and responsibility of each bishop more precisely:

Bishops govern the particular churches entrusted to them as the vicars and ambassadors of Christ. ……..

The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of the sheep is entrusted to them completely.

Nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiff, for they exercise an authority which is proper to them, and are quite correctly called ‘prelates’, heads of the people whom they govern. Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power. On the contrary, it is affirmed, strengthened and vindicated thereby, since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church.

Lumen Gentium § 27

Unfortunately, it had also stated that,

‘In virtue of his office….the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church’.

Lumen Gentium § 22

and it is therefore the Pope who still calls the shots, even though the ‘full, supreme and universal power over the Church’ is actually given to the whole college of bishops, with and under the Pope. Sadly, this particular part of the vision does not appear to have been implemented. It began to be eroded as early as 1968 when Pope Paul VI acted alone in publishing the encyclical Humanae Vitae, re-affirming the ban on artificial contraception. He did this in spite of the fact that the advisory commission had overwhelmingly concluded that the traditional teaching could no longer be supported. In fact, many Bishops' Conferences rejected Humanae Vitae, but this was totally ignored by Rome.

The Synod of Bishops

So, whilst the vision of Vatican II was for the Church to act collegially, no structures were put in place to ensure that it did so – and the result has been further centralisation, rather than decentralisation.

In Christus Dominus, the Council showed how the bishops themselves would be the collegial instrument to support the Pope in his task, by means of the Synod of Bishops.

Bishops from various parts of the world, chosen through ways and procedures established or to be established by the Roman Pontiff, will render especially helpful assistance to the supreme Pastor of the Church in a council to be known by the proper name of the Synod of Bishops. Since it will be acting in the name of the entire Catholic episcopate, it will at the same time demonstrate that all the bishops in hierarchical communion share in the responsibility for the universal Church.

Christus Dominus § 5

But these synods have not been able to operate as envisaged, rather they have come under the complete control of the Curia. At one time, the final documents from the synodal discussions were prepared by the bishops themselves but, even so, it soon became apparent that the synopses and published documents frequently did not reflect the views of the bishops, on the contrary, they reflected the views of the moderators or the thoughts expressed in documents prepared in advance by the Curia. Since the 1974 synod on evangelisation it has been assumed that the synodal bishops cannot produce their own documents: they can merely submit proposals, which must be kept secret, to the Pope who will prepare the final document himself – a document which may, or may not, reflect the wishes and conclusions of the bishops involved.

Vatican II envisaged a move from the juridical, or ‘magisterial papist’(1) view of leadership and authority in the Catholic Church as described by Edmund Hill and towards a more sacramental and collaborative (‘ministerial collegial’(2)) understanding.

Given the hopes held out by Vatican II, it would be reasonable to expect that, by now, the principle of collegiality would be firmly established. However, this is not the case. Describing the governance of the Catholic Church in 1992, almost thirty years after the Council, Paul Avis is, sadly, still able accurately to describe the Catholic Church as,

‘A monarchy, a hierarchically structured society, with the Pope at the apex of the pyramid’.(2)

Appointment of Bishops

One of the greatest obstacles to the implementation of true collegiality would seem to have at its root the process through which bishops have been appointed. If we have a right-wing Curia, then the way to ensure that such right-wing views are perpetuated is to ensure that more right- wing bishops are appointed. In theory any member of the faithful can express their views as to who, or what kind of person they wish, might be considered for appointment, yet there is no way of ensuring that individual voices are heard, never mind heeded. Prospective bishops must be known to be orthodox in their views on such subjects as priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, marriage and sexual ethics – in other words, they must known by the hierarchy to be ‘safe’. It seems there is no room for a bishop who is an independent thinker or speaker, someone who wants the Church to take heed of the signs of the times rather than retreat into ‘as it was in the beginning…..’.

Writing in ‘The Tablet’ in 2002, John Wilkins asks the question, ‘why has the doctrine of collegiality been turned on its head?’ He concludes that the answer is -

‘For the Second Vatican Council, collegiality meant that the focus was on the team. For Pope John Paul II, collegiality means that the focus is on the captain’.

Questions for our Congress

  1. How does the overbearing centralisation of power in Rome affect you and me, us?

  2. Would you agree with these characterisations by our contemporaries?
    * The magisterium has become ‘ the battle-cry of intransigent people’ (Prof. Bernard Häring)
    * ‘I look at my church and I am troubled’(Mgr. John J. Egan)
    * ‘There is much untruth in the Church. There is hypocrisy and humbug at all levels. There is pretended loyalty, outward profession of the official line accompanied by inner denial; there is the corrupting power of fear’(Fr. Owen O’Sullivan)

  3. Does the Pope rely too much on his own advisers in the curia?
    * 'The organs of the Holy See, that is the departments of the Roman curia, may not speak “in the Spirit” as ecumenical councils do nor may they appeal to the gift of infallibility because that gift is personal to the pope and not transferable.' (Ladislas Örsy)
    * The Roman authorities may damage the Church by exercising excessive control. (Ladislas Örsy)


(1) Hill, E. ‘Ministry and Authority in the Catholic Church’ Geoffrey Chapman 1988

(2) Ryan, D. ‘The Catholic Parish’ London Sheed & Ward 1996

(3) Avis, P. ‘Authority, Leadership and Conflict in the Church’. Mowbray, 1992 p3

John Wijngaards

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