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Letter to Women

Structures of Authority

The issue behind the issues today by Bill Cosgrave

from Authority in the Church, ed. Seán Mac Réamoinn, Columba Press, 1995, p.26-47.

You would need to be a very unperceptive member or observer of the Roman Catholic Church in our day not to know that all is not well. The many sexual and other scandals and controversies have done much to damage the standing and influence of hierarchy and clergy among the laity, and in society in general. Many, rightly

or wrongly, link these disturbingly numerous problems with the issue of obligatory celibacy for diocesan priests, and thus point to what they see as a common root behind the surface problems. Whatever about this link, there is no doubt that celibacy presents a difficulty for many priests today. But it is by no means the only significant problem that the Church is confronted with at the present time. There is a host of issues that show no signs of going away and that concern a great many church members, either directly or indirectly.


These include such contentious matters as the absolute ban on the admission to communion of divorced and remarried people; the ordination of married men; the anomaly of former Anglican clergymen who are married being ordained as Catholic priests, while Catholic priests who have married are excluded totally from priestly ministry; questions in sexual ethics like contraception, homosexual relationships, artificial reproductive techniques and divorce; the issue of women in the Church, and in particular the ordination of women; the appointment by the Vatican of very  conservative bishops, often against the wishes of the local Church; the disciplining of progressive theologians by the Vatican, and the concomitant growth of an atmosphere of fear within the theological community; the imposition of a new oath of fidelity on nearly      all important office holders in the Church, and the extension of the profession of faith to include all the provisions of the Code of Canon Law and almost all papal teaching; the total rejection by the Vatican of all public dissent from any church teaching; the virtual elimination of all real collegiality in the higher levels of church government; and so on.


And, underlying these, there is another issue or set of issues that has/have a big bearing on whether and how these problems are or are not brought to resolution. This is the matter of authority in the Catholic Church and in particular the structures of that au­thority, i.e. the way in which power is located, distributed and used. In other words, the root issue or problem that must be ad­dressed, if the Catholic Church is to deal adequately with the specific questions mentioned above, is a structural one. One writer puts it as follows: underlying the obvious issues is a hid­den agenda that blocks their solution at every turn. The hidden agenda is not a matter of something that someone is trying to hide or is even aware of hiding. It is simply authority in the Church and our assumptions about it.(1)  In a nutshell, this struct­ural problem can be seen as religious monarchy, threatening to overwhelm the beginnings of religious democratisation in the Catholic Church.(2)


This chapter will be devoted to a discussion of this issue and how it impacts on at least some of the specific problems of church teaching, law and policy already referred to.


When it comes to authority and its structures in the Catholic Church we tend to think automatically of the Pope and the Curia, and in particular perhaps of papal infallibility. This is un­derstandable and right, because there resides the highest authority in the Church in regard to both teaching and jurisdiction. However, the issue and our discussion cannot be confined to this papal dimension only. We need to look at the structures of authority at all levels, how they are and should be set up, understood and made use of. This will involve us looking at the papacy in its relation to the bishops and local Churches. We will also need to focus on the understanding and exercise of the epis­copal ministry at the diocesan level, and how it relates and should relate to the other structures of authority, actual or possi­ble, within the diocese. Finally, we must concern ourselves with the parish, its clergy and laity, and how they interact, and what structures of authority do and should exist at that basic level.


But first, it will be helpful to examine some background matters in terms of history, the theology of Vatican II, and post-conciliar theological and pastoral developments.


Pre-Vatican II position on structures of authority


There is no disputing the fact that for a very long time before Vatican II, and in particular from the time of Vatican I in 1869-70, the dominant understanding or model of the Church, and so of its authority structures, was what is referred to today as the in­stitutional or 'pyramid' model. This viewed the Church from above, as it were; it was a high ecclesiology. At all levels, and especially at the level of the papacy, the judgments of Church authorities were unquestioned and indeed unquestionable. And corresponding to this, the central virtue in Catholic practice at all levels was obedience, indeed even blind obedience. A big fac­tor in consolidating this understanding and practice was the de­finition by Vatican I of the jurisdictional primacy of the Pope over the whole Church:  the Roman Pontiff has full and supreme power of jurisdiction in the universal Church. This power is truly episcopal, ordinary and immediate over each and all Churches and over each and all the faithful. This was further re­inforced by the declaration of the Pope's infallibility. As a result of this latter, every act of the Pope became suffused with an aura of authority that went beyond what it had by its nature as papal teaching, and that some have referred to as creeping infallibility. Thus the Church became even more centralised, even more in­stitutional and pyramidal. And this percolated down to the levels of the diocese and the parish, and was reflected in the manner in which bishops and priests in parishes exercised their authority and understood their role.


In this context, collegiality, subsidiarity and similar participative and democratising attitudes and practices were given little place in theory or practice at any level. Practically all decisions, espec­ially important ones, were made from above and handed down with little or no consultation or participation of interested parties, whether these were bishops, priests or lay people. And this was regarded as normal, and no one questioned it. Thus bishops were appointed by the Vatican with little regard for the wishes of the diocese involved. At diocesan level, bishops made ap­pointments to parishes and curacies, not merely without con­sulting the people the priests were being sent to, but usually without any attention to the wishes or even the talents of the priest being appointed. Within parishes, priests frequently ran a one-man show and what the laity thought or said was largely ignored. They were not infrequently reduced to the roles of pay­ing, praying and obeying, and they accepted that that was the way things were.


Clearly, in such a conception of the Church authority was highly centralised, and totally clerical. The structures favoured authori­tarian rule, and the vast majority of those affected were exclud­ed from power and decision-making, and were passive recipi­ents of whatever those at the top decided.


This understanding and operation of the structures of authority makes the exercise of that authority easier and more decisive; there is usually little questioning of the decisions made, and so the whole community marches forward on the one step; life is ordered by clear and definite rules that are rarely disputed; all the members have to do is to inform themselves of the decisions and rules of those in authority and obey them; there is usually little ambiguity and uncertainty and, hence, people tend to feel secure, sure of their identity and role and clear about what is ex­pected of them. As against all this, most people are reduced to a very passive state with no say in the running of the Church com­munity; they are largely excluded from responsibility, decision ­making and active participation in church life, whether at epis­copal, clerical or lay level; they are rendered exceedingly dependent on authority, and, as a result, their growth to Christian maturity is slowed down or even halted. In addition, scripture scholars and theologians have not been slow to point out that such a model of the Church seems significantly at odds with the New Testament account of Jesus' exercise of authority, and with the structures and exercise of authority in the early Church. In the tight of all this, the pyramid model can be seen to be an historical development and, hence, not necessarily un­changeable or of divine origin.


It may be added here that Vatican I's strong teaching on the pri­macy of the Pope was not altogether free from ambiguity and unhelpful implications. The main one referred (and still refers) to the relationship between the Pope's power within any partic­ular diocese and that of the local bishop. Some put it starkly, and wondered was the Pope not now the bishop of every diocese and was the local bishop not, then, dispensable or at best a mere agent of the papacy? Despite assurances that this is not so, it is not fully clear that papal primacy, at least in theory, is fully re­spectful of the authority of local bishops in their own dioceses. In the present pontificate, when papal interventions in local Churches are more frequent than earlier, and often controversial, this question is especially pressing. Even Vatican II did not re­solve it, despite its extensive attention to the office of bishop in the Church and the relationship of the bishop to the Pope.


But, notwithstanding this point, Vatican II changed the Church's self-understanding in general, and especially in relation to au­thority and its structures and exercise, in profound and perma­nent ways.


Vatican II's teaching on authority and its structures


The central point of relevance here is that the Council's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) moved from seeing the institutional model of the Church as the dominant one, to placing the idea of the Church as the People of God at the centre of its thinking. This has profound implications for authority in the Church and for its structures. No longer is it possible to equate the Church with the hierarchy or the papacy, nor to view it as an absolute monarchy with the Pope as the repository of all power. Now it is clear that, in the first place, the Church is the community of disciples of Christ, the People of God, united by baptism and all having a fundamental dignity and equality as children of God, and brothers and sisters of Christ. Hence, each member, just because he/she is a member, has a role to play in the Church and is called to full, active and conscious participa­tion, both in the eucharist, and in the life of the Church generally.


In addition, this Church is in history, and is still on pilgrimage to its final goal, the kingdom of God in its fullness. Hence, the Church as it exists at any time is imperfect, and, so, it can and should grow, change and develop in important ways, even in its structures, as it has done significantly in the past.


Only when all this has been said, does the Council come to dis­cuss office and hierarchy in the Church., Office is to be under­stood in terms of service to God's People and not in terms of domination, as had been the case often in the past. In addition, the very significant idea of collegiality between the Pope and the bishops of the Church is firmly taught in Lumen Gentium.  Here was a recovery of a very ancient concept and practice in the Church, by which bishops are linked to one another and to the bishop of Rome by the bonds of unity, charity and peace. This collegial nature of the body of bishops is expressed chiefly in ecumenical councils but in other ways too. It means that all bish­ops have a corporate responsibility for the unity of faith and of communion in the universal Church. While continuing to affirm the primacy of the Pope in terms of Vatican I, the Council sees the order of bishops as the successor of the 'college' of the apos­tles in teaching authority and pastoral rule and, hence, as the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church.


This teaching on collegiality resulted from a return to the New Testament, and from an openness to the ways authority was structured in the infant Church and the early Christian centuries. But Vatican II only sketched out the broad lines of the principle of collegiality, and didn't detail what its implications and ex­pressions might be. One could assume that it would be rich with consequences, especially in relation to structures of authority in­volving the bishops. Examples are the synod of bishops, episco­pal conferences, diocesan pastoral councils, councils of priests, national conferences of priests, etc..


All that has been said so far about the teaching of Vatican II does not, however, give us the full picture. The other side of the coin is that, understandably, the Council repeated all that Vatican I had taught about the papacy, and in particular about the Pope's primacy of jurisdiction and his infallibility, while also developing Church teaching on the episcopal office.


Vatican I, as we noted earlier, left unresolved the problem of the relationship between the Pope and individual bishops in their dioceses. Vatican II did likewise, and may have added to the problem by its fuller theology of the episcopate. In addition to this, Vatican II by its teaching on collegiality raised another problem, namely, how to reconcile the fact that the Pope has supreme, full and universal authority over the Church with the fact that the college of bishops has the same power. Further­more, the Council discussed collegiality as pertaining largely to the papal-episcopal level, and while open to it at all levels, e.g. bishop and priests, priests and laity, it was not as clear and un­equivocal about these other levels as one might have wished. This has given room to more conservative or authoritarian pas­tors and theologians to maintain their attitudes and the non-participative structures they tend to prefer.


It is also true that, since Lumen Gentium is in important ways a compromise document, as between the more conservative and the more progressive bishops at the Council, it is open to being quoted selectively to suit one's preference in relation to Church structures. In consequence some have stressed the collegial, par­ticipative, democratising elements, while others re-affirm the Vatican I perspectives that favour more monarchical, authoritar­ian attitudes and structures. Thus, Vatican II is invoked by both groups in the Church today, conservatives and progressives, in ways that have fuelled post-conciliar debates and controversies, as well as providing for all a basis for unity and enrichment in regard to our understanding of the Church itself.


Post-conciliar developments: ambiguity and conflict


While the Catholic Church in our day is split into a conservative and a progressive wing, there is, of course, a silent majority not aligned with either group's attitudes and activities, and not very aware of them either. But the fact of a real polarisation is indis­putable. This division is based ultimately on theological differ­ences, rooted in contrasting ecclesiologies and, in particular, in differing theologies of authority. These differing theologies are both grounded in the teaching of Vatican II, with all the ambigui­ties and differing emphases we have adverted to. Thus, it becomes clear that the issue behind the issues in dispute between conservatives and progressives, is that of authority, and how it should be understood, structured and used.


It seems clear too that, in this conflict, the Pope and the Curia have in the present pontificate aligned themselves with, and in­deed led, the conservative tendency who are not slow to assert that their own position is 'the Church's' position. In all this we find a Vatican I perspective that is, of course, to be found in Vatican II, but does not represent the main thrusts of that Council.


The group of theologians, pastors and even bishops who are often referred to as progressives or, more derogatorily today, as liberals, base their thinking, attitudes and judgements on the more characteristic teachings of Vatican,II. These are the teach­ings that emphasise the role and importance of the local Church, that call us to greater respect for and use of the principles of col­legiality and subsidiarity, that urge all to full participation in Church life, that put high store on the ancient principle that what touches all as individuals should be approved by all, and so on. In short, the thrust of Vatican II towards democratisation grounds the views of the progressive wing on the Church itself, on its structures of authority and its pastoral decisions and policies. In this stance, it seems that this group is more true to the intention and attitude of Vatican II than the conservative wing, which has in effect sidelined Lumen Gentium, or at best pays lip service to its distinctive ecclesiology. In practice, they go a long way towards replacing it by Vatican I's Pastor Aetemus, with its monarchical and authoritarian attitudes, tendencies and practices.


Symbolising this conflict: attitudes to dissent


At this point, it may be useful to discuss briefly one issue in Church life today that can function as a kind of symbol of the polarisation referred to. This is the issue of theological and pas­toral dissent on disagreement. The contrasting attitudes to it mirror and sum up the contrasting ecclesiological attitudes and practices we have been outlining.


The Vatican, especially through the actions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, has made it abundantly clear in recent years that it sees no place whatever for public dissent from the teachings of the Church's official Magisterium or Teaching Office. The CDF judges that such dissent is wrong and it has issued a variety of documents expressing this view clearly and strongly. In addi­tion, the CDF has laid down and imposed disciplinary measures against those it regards as dissenting theologians and pastors, e.g. Hans Kung, Charles Curran, Leonardo Boff, Archbishop Hunthausen and Bishop Gaillot (France).


Those whom I have been calling the conservative element, and especially some articulate groups and individuals within it, have been and are very vociferous in their support for all this, and in­deed they have not been slow to call for Vatican condemnation of any theologians or pastors they judge to be public dissenters. It seems clear that Rome has listened to many of these calls, and has responded positively to them. Hence, the spate of cases where theologians have been removed from their teaching posts and declared no longer Catholic theologians, or have been si­lenced for a period. Hence, also, the cases where imprimaturs have been withdrawn from books of theology on the Vatican's orders, and where even bishops have been removed from office or have had their ordinary powers curtailed significantly. It is in pursuit of their campaign to crack down on public dissent, that the CDF has, as already noted, imposed a new and more exten­sive 'profession of faith' on many office holders in the Church, and now also requires an oath of loyalty from a great number of Church personnel as they assume any of a great variety of offices. It does not seem too far fetched to surmise also that the new cat­echism, which was strongly advocated and called for by many conservative voices at and outside the special Synod of Bishops in 1985, was not written merely to provide 'a sure and authentic reference text for…… preparing local catechisms.' In the minds of at least some of its supporters, and probably in that of the CDF also, the compilation of such a universal catechism had and has a 'political' purpose, namely, to provide a norm or standard by which 'liberal' theologians and writers could be checked and judged and, then, appropriately disciplined.


All these attitudes and measures in relation to dissent today re­flect an ecclesiology that breathes a spirit other than that of the main thrusts of Lumen Gentium and that seems to understand the relevant structures of authority in an institutional manner. Hence, any questioning of, or inability to accept, Church teach­ing is rejected as damaging to the unity of the Church and as lacking the requisite loyalty and spirit of submission that all Catholics must have towards the Magisterium and its teaching, even non-infallible teaching. In addition, this view asserts, the faithful have a right not to be confused about Church teaching by discordant and dissenting opinions from theologians and others. In consequence of this view, such dissent is seen as wrong and as something that may well call for disciplinary measures. A common way in which those who dissent from any of the Church's official teachings are today labelled is to speak of them as a la carte Catholics, i.e. those who take only what they like and leave the teachings they do not fancy. In this view, the truly loyal Catholic accepts and holds dear all the Church's official teach­ings. Those who dissent on any issue are, then, branded as dis­loyal. Some who are particularly fond of using a military model to understand the Church - they see the Church as the army of Christ sent to do battle in and against the world and its forces of evil - are not slow to suggest that those who cannot accept all the Church's teachings fully and, hence, are not fully obedient to the leaders of the Church, should simply leave the Church, there being a place in it; as in any army, only for those who can give total obedience.


Those who make up the so called progressive group see things rather differently. Viewing the Church as the pilgrim People of God, they see the search for the fullness of truth as ever ongoing and never complete. The whole Church is learning, and has to learn continually, while in a real sense the whole Church is a teaching Church, as it socialises its new members and deepens the faith and understanding of all who belong to it. As the Church thus learns and teaches, it will inevitably be the case that proposals and suggestions will be made in relation to particular religious and moral issues; some will be good and acceptable, while others will not survive discussion and debate. Occasionally Church leaders may need to intervene to point out errors and give indications of the best paths to take in the search for truth. Warnings may even be necessary and, at times, the rejection of some moral or theological position. Disciplinary measures may occasionally be taken. But overall, the emphasis of the Church's leadership should be on promoting the search for truth in a pos­itive manner and building an atmosphere of trust and co-opera­tion between theologians, bishops and the Vatican, something like the harmonious and very fruitful relationship that existed between them at Vatican II itself.


In the light of these attitudes to dissent from Church teaching, and the promotion of the search for fuller truth, it seems right to say that how one reacts to disagreement or dissent is indicative or symbolic of one's whole ecclesiology, of one's model of the Church, and especially of its structures of authority. Those who allow no place for public dissent of a responsible kind seem to be adhering strictly to the institutional model of the Church, and read Vatican II from a Vatican I perspective. The more progres­sive position sees disagreement as an element in the never-end­ing search for truth that may be constructive, and helpful to the pilgrim People of God.


Not democracy but democratisation


One sometimes hears it said, especially by more conservative Church people, and not infrequently in response to a call for greater participation in Church life and decisions by the laity and especially by women, that 'the Church is not a democracy'. This statement is, of course, true, but as used in these contexts, and by more institutionally minded Catholics, it tends to carry the meaning that in the Church authority really belongs to the hierarchy, not to the laity and, in particular, not to women; that it is up to those in authority at every level to make the decisions and that, at the end of the day, everyone else is called and indeed obliged to accept and obey these decisions. In short, the meaning conveyed by such an assertion is that the Church is hierarchical to the point that authority is exercised, basically, in a monarchi­cal manner, i.e. by one person who is really the 'boss'.


But, while we would all agree the Church is not formally a democracy, in the sense in which societies in the Western World are nowadays democracies, there is every reason why, especially in the light of Vatican II, we should seek to develop in the Church what has been called an ethos of democracy. Such an ethos would espouse mutual respect, a readiness of members to make the common interest one's own, to listen to one another, and to ensure that all who are affected by a given decision are accorded a hearing. In a word, a democratic ethos calls for and involves the participation of all, dialogue and open communica­tion at all levels, and participation in all decisions that affect one as a Church member. What is in question here, then, is a process of democratisation rather than formal democracy. Such democra- tisation, in forms of government that are not democracies, envis­ions the formal enactment of norms of consultation, collabora­tion, accountability and due process, even in the absence of a mechanism of elections.(3)


One can hardly doubt that the spirit and the letter of Vatican II favours and promotes such a process of democratisation throughout the Church and its structures of authority. It may be added here that in democratic countries there is bound to be pressure on the Church to move in the direction of democratisa­tion, and that this has been and is being resisted inside the Church at every level by powerful forces. However, it is very important for the credibility of the Church in democratic soci­eties that this process of democratisation continue and succeed. An overly monarchical and centralised bureaucracy in the Church distances itself from the faithful and loses contact with urgent pastoral needs. When the Church in and by its structures neglects consultation, collaboration, accountability and due process, and when it assumes an adversarial and negative atti­tude, then its credibility and its moral authority with its own members and in society generally are lessened and gradually

eroded.4 This would seem to be happening at the present time.


Rome and local Churches


Vatican II understood the Church as really a communion of local Churches which together constitute the Church of Christ. This understanding tends to highlight the place and importance of the local Church, and so encourages local initiatives by bishops in their dioceses, by national and regional episcopal conferences, and by the whole local Church in any particular diocese or re­gion. Vatican II's emphasis on collegiality is in line with this re­newed significance given to the local Church.


In the light of this, the immediate post-conciliar period (the late 1960s and the early  1970s) was characterised by the Vatican giv­ing more attention and weight to the voice of local Churches in the appointment of bishops and, as a result, many bishops were ordained who approached their ministry with a Vatican II theol­ogy and pastoral attitude. In consequence, a collegial spirit began to percolate through the Church in many dioceses and re­gions, and great stress came to be placed on pastoral renewal, openness to the signs of the times, and progress in ecumenism. Social justice and the option for the poor became living realities in many local Churches, especially those in Latin America. Overall, the winds of change and growth, so powerfully en­couraged by the Council, began to blow refreshingly through the local Church and the Church universal.


In this period, too, the synod of bishops was established and met regularly in Rome, with very significant results, especially in the form of final documents on several important issues, e.g. the priesthood, justice in the world. The synod appeared to be a real and valuable exercise of collegiality between the college of bish­ops and its head, the Pope. In these years also, national and re­gional episcopal conferences were set up and proved their value and importance, not merely as forums for discussing issues and exchanging ideas, but also as instruments of teaching and collective decision-making on a range of topics that were of great significance for the local churches of the area. In addition, theologians, continuing the most fruitful relationship between them and the bishops that obtained at Vatican II, did very creat­ive and enriching work on many fronts, while acting also as the best and most probing critics of each other's theological output.


In the last fifteen or more years, however, and especially in the pontificate of John Paul II, a lot of this has changed. There is a definite rowing back from the Vatican II perspectives just mentioned, and we are in the midst of a 'restoration' of pre-Vatican II emphases and attitudes, something that is quite evident in the Vatican's relation to local Churches around the world. The ap­pointment of bishops is, perhaps, the most widely known and debated example. Numerous very conservative bishops have in recent years been appointed, especially to crucial positions in the hierarchy. These bishops place loyalty to the Holy See at the head of their ministerial priorities and are chosen because they are 'safe' men who are judged by Rome to be 'sound', especially on the controversial issues of our day - contraception, the ordin­ation of women and the law of celibacy. These bishops tend to adopt an earlier other-worldly perspective, and to de-emphasise social justice, the option for the poor and the Church's ministry in the political, social and economic areas. All this raises the issue of whether and why individual dioceses should not have a major say in appointing their own bishops, as in the early church, with Rome having, perhaps, a veto. There seems to be no good reason today why this should not be the case.


Add to this the fact that many of these new conservative bishops have been created cardinals and, in consequence, the college of cardinals has now taken on a very restorationist and conserva­tive hue. It appears that the present Pope is preparing the ground for the election of a successor very much in his own image and likeness. Thus, while the language of Vatican II is regularly invoked, there is no doubt that many of its perspec­tives are less than popular in the Vatican of John Paul II, and seem to have been effectively sidelined.


In relation to the synod of bishops, one has to state with regret that it is now little more than tokenism as far as collegiality is concerned. It is so fully controlled by the Curia that it has only the appearance of being collegial. The bishops of the Church universal air their views on the topic under discussion (itself chosen by Rome), but are not allowed to issue a final document to the Church in general. This is reserved to the Pope who, it seems, incorporates only what suits Vatican policy and thinking at the time. This is greatly to be regretted, since this instrument of collegiality could be a very valuable one, if it were permitted to function in a truly collegial manner. One has to ask, what is the Church's central administration afraid of? Does Peter not trust his fellow bishops to work and speak for the good of the Church in a constructive and helpful way?


We find a similar story in relation to episcopal conferences. In recent times, Cardinal Ratzinger in particular has been endeav­ouring to establish that these conferences do not have a teaching function. They are, he holds, merely practical instruments for bishops of a particular area to consult together and exchange views, but they do not and cannot teach. Only individual bish­ops can do that, or a group of bishops in which all have agreed to the statement being made. This seems hard to accept, espe­cially in the light of experience, e.g. the US bishops' pastorals on peace and on economic justice were documents which did in fact teach, even outside the United States, in a very influential way, however much some may seek to deny this. Vatican II speaks of these conferences as places where bishops jointly exercise their pastoral office. Does the Vatican today fear that the magisterium or teaching function of the local Church would somehow take from the papal or curial magisterium, rather than supporting and enhancing it?


The issue of the Vatican silencing or dismissing theologians and removing even bishops from their office is now well known, and, as we have noted, highly controversial. It raises several questions in connection with authority and its structures. The question of respect for the principle of subsidiarity arises here. It seems difficult to accept that these Vatican interventions are fully respectful of it. In addition, one has to wonder whether such methods of suppressing dissent achieve much beyond cre­ating an unhelpful and repressive climate of fear and suspicion. Many have criticised the procedures used as unjust, falling far short of what exists in many secular democracies. One fears that justice within the Church is not attended to with the same zeal and impartiality as Church teaching regularly displays in rela­tion to justice in the world. The 1971 synod of bishops implied as much.


Finally, a recent Vatican document moved from seeing the Church as a communion of local Churches to putting the emphasis again on the universal Church and its leadership, thus highlighting the role of the papacy and the Curia. This de-emphasising of the local Church seems to be central to the thinking and policies at present operative in the Vatican. Until these change, we can only expect more of what the last fifteen years have brought us.


Diocesan structures of authority


The commonest and most talked about structure of authority at diocesan level is the Council of Priests. This post-Vatican II instit­ution has been established in most, if not all, dioceses in Ireland and, it would seem, elsewhere also. It is required by Church law (c 495) and is intended to be representative of the presbyterium of the diocese, and to assist the bishop in governance.


One's impression is that, while the Council of Priests does some good work and is in ways a useful structure in a diocese, it is not, generally, viewed with great enthusiasm or approached with deep commitment either by bishops, its priest-members or the clergy of the diocese as a whole. A lot depends on the attitude of the bishop: he may fear it will usurp some of his authority or that he won't be able to control it. He may also be less than en­thusiastic about 'democratic' structures and/or may find it diffi­cult to manage or work with such a body. Increasingly today bishops may be less collegially minded, and so more difficulties may arise. In addition, some priests may have a similar mindset. They may not be good at operating collegial structures, may chaff at the time needed to run them well, and feel it's not worth the effort, given the sometimes meagre fruit that results from their work. All this leads on many occasions to a lacklustre Council of Priests that is greatly loved by few, though also seri­ously disliked by few. There seems to be no easy solution that will make it a really vibrant collegial structure. Both bishops and priests need to change in attitude and commitment and only then will the hopes placed in these councils by Vatican II be ful­filled.


Diocesan synods have been held in some diocese in Ireland with, it would seem, mixed results. Much like the National Pastoral Congress in England in 1980, the preparation and the synod event itself tend to be truly collegial and even inspirational, though in some places it has degenerated into a bishop-bashing session. The really difficult thing is the follow up or implemen­tation of the synod and its resolutions and decisions. Here the fruits have been thin enough in general and often frustration and anger have been the outcome. How a richer harvest can be garnered in this area is not immediately clear, but one would imagine that a diocesan synod could, in the proper circum­stances, and with adequate preparation and structuring, be a very significant event for bishop, priests and laity.


Particularly in the circumstances of the present time in the Irish Church, having a Diocesan Finance Committee, as mandated by the Code (c 492), makes eminent sense. How it works in places where it exists will depend a lot on the bishop's openness and commitment to accountability and transparency. One assumes that most dioceses in Ireland do have these committees and that they are valuable collegial structures in and for today's Church.


Another collegial structure that has its roots in Vatican II is what is called the Diocesan Pastoral Council. This is quite different from the council of priests and, according to the Code (c 511), may be established ‘when pastoral circumstances suggest'. It is to be representative of the diocese, priests, religious and especially laity (c 512), and its purpose is to study and weigh those matters which concern pastoral works in the diocese.


One hears relatively little about this kind of instrument of collegiality, at least in Ireland, and one can assume that they have not been established in very many dioceses. What evidence exists points to the conclusion that the performance or success of these pastoral councils has been spotty, much like councils of priests. But it seems fair to state also that pastoral councils can function effectively, if they are encouraged and facilitated in their opera­tion by the bishop and those in other positions of power and in­fluence in the diocese.(5) But here again, old attitudes and styles of leadership and of being led die hard and, hence, many at all levels find it difficult to adjust to and to operate this collegial structure in the spirit it requires for real effectiveness.           ,


We may mention briefly also the position in the diocese that is referred to as the Vicar Forane or Rural Dean. Some efforts have been made in recent times to revamp this role and the Code (c 555) gives this Vicar some important tasks to carry out, e.g. to promote and coordinate common pastoral action in his vicariate or deanery, to ensure that the liturgy is properly celebrated, the churches well kept and the registers in parishes maintained cor­rectly.


As far as one can observe from experience, VFs, as these func­tionaries are often called, have a very insignificant role in prac­tice and often do not even attempt to carry out what the Code lays down for them. The reasons for this seem to be that priests generally do not expect or want them to do anything along the lines the Code specifies and VFs themselves seem to take a simi­lar view. The bishop often doesn't encourage a different ap­proach and so VFs end up as virtual non-entities as far as their role is concerned. One feels that there is here room for improve­ment, so that this structure of authority could be given life and real clout at deanery level. One can say the same thing about the deanery meetings within any particular diocese. Priests seem to feel about these much as they feel about the council of priests and, in consequence, while they do some useful work, they can­not be said to be really successful, at least as far as my experience goes.


One feels that here too diocesan clergy in general are not over- enthusiastic for democratisation within the diocese, at least in practice, perhaps because they find it difficult, haven't got the skills to cope with it, or just prefer the old institutional models and structures at diocesan and, perhaps, also at parish level. Bishops probably feel much the same and so on the ground not a great deal happens and enthusiasm is often lacking. Where col­legial structures of authority operate well, one usually finds that it is due to the conviction and energy of individual bishops and/or priests. But unfortunately, such men are relatively scarce.


There is, in general, no structure or system of accountability for bishops and for pastoral priests. It must surely be considered a scandal that bishops in diocese and priests in parishes and in other ministries are accountable for their ministry and its quality to no one, except to God through their conscience. Hence, a priest or bishop can be, say, twenty-five years in a parish or dio­cese or other ministry, can do the minimum, do it badly and with an unhelpful, negative and non-collegial (to put it no stronger) attitude - and very little is or can be done about it. If such a pastor does not fall into heresy or schism, misappropriate parish or diocesan funds, regularly fail to celebrate Mass, or commit some grave misdemeanor like child sex abuse, he can carry on his bad work with scarcely any possibility of anyone doing anything about the situation. Devising a structure of ac­countability in this regard is not at all easy, but it is urgently needed Finance committees are, or can be, one element of this accountability; so can liturgy groups and parish councils. But an adequate overall structure does not yet exist.


Another structure of authority that is much needed at diocesan level is some system whereby newly ordained priests are supported and guided in the early years of their ministry. This would help them grow into their new work more easily, avoid many mistakes, cope better with difficulties and failures and, thus, maintain their priestly commitment, self-esteem and good morale at a high level. Something like medical internship might be what is needed here, or at least a pastoral supervision or (men­toring system such as obtains in the helping professions in the secular world. One is not, however, optimistic on this score, as very little discussion seems to be taking place among diocesan clergy on these deficiencies in our diocesan pastoral system.


Structures of authority at parish level


At the level of individual parishes one finds that much of what has been said above about dioceses holds true as regards atti­tudes, collegial Structures and their success or lack of it. And perhaps this is not surprising, since at both levels the same priests are involved. Since this is the case, we need look only very briefly at individual pastoral structures within the parish.


In 1980 the National Conference of Priests of Ireland expressed its concern about the general absence of effective Parish Pastoral Councils, and reports from individual diocese confirmed this judgement.(6) Things have probably improved somewhat since then, but one has the impression that a lot still remains to be done in this area, despite strong recommendations and urgings from many bishops. The parish pastoral council is a parish ver­sion of the diocesan pastoral council and its purpose is similar. The reasons for its rarity are probably much the same as in the case of councils of priests, and that the attitudes of the laity are not a whole lot different from those of the clergy in relation to such collegial structures.


Other structures at parish level


In some parishes there are many groups or committees working in the pastoral area. They deal with finance, liturgy, religious ed­ucation, women's issues, youth work, ecumenism, justice ques­tions and so on. At its best a parish can have a great number of such groups. Thus, e.g. Fr Jerry Joyce of Clogh parish, Co Kilkenny tells us that his parish has 36 groups, organisations and services.(7) There are also many other ecclesial groups in exist­ence since Vatican II. Some are parish based and-some are not. These too are signs of life or 'seeds of a new Church', as they have been called. Twenty two of them are described in one author's book (8) and they represent a great and rich variety of activities and involvements at the grassroots level of the Church in' our day. They are an encouraging and significant fruit of the concil­iar renewal that Vatican II initiated and inspired.


Overall, however, one has to admit that at parish level there is a lot more that could be done. Many priests seem to function as basically maintenance men and, so, little happens except the basic sacramental services. These priests are in important ways sacristy or cultic ministers, as priests tended to be in medieval times. Many, perhaps; most, laity are happy with this under­standing of priesthood and seem not to be tuned in to Vatican II and its theology of the Church, the parish, the priest and the laity. Until this tuning in happens at all levels, the present situa­tion will not change greatly.




What has been said in this chapter will have made it clear that the issue of the Church's structures of authority is a basic one in­fluencing how we view, approach and respond to many specific questions or matters of debate in the life of the Church today. Clearly, one's ecclesiology or understanding of the Church itself has a very pervasive influence on one's position on a whole range of issues, from parish councils to women priests. In a real sense, then, the question of the structures of authority in the Church is the issue behind the issues. Unless we can bridge our differences and arrive at an ecclesiological outlook that brings the conflicting viewpoints into at least a substantial harmony, we are unlikely to get much beyond acrimonious debate, and we will be far from a meeting of minds in regard to what will best promote the welfare of the Church community.


Despite the drive towards 'restoration' that is so powerful in the Church even at the highest level in our day, we can still be grate­ful for the many seeds of renewal that are growing and bearing fruit at all levels. These represent Vatican II coming to fruition and give grounds for real hope and confidence that the council will, in God's good time, and not ours, produce fruit a hundred­fold, in the way Pope John XXIII envisioned and desired.



1.    See Monica Hellwig, What are the theologians saying now?, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1992, p 46.

2.    Bianchij Eugene, C., & Radford Ruether, Rosemary, A Democratic Catholic Church, Crossroad, NY., 1993, p 34.

3.    Coleman, John in A Democratic Catholic Church, p 228-9.

4.    Coleman, op cit, p 29.

5.    Beal, John in A Democratic Catholic Church, p 73.

6.    The Furrow, March & April 1981

7.    Joyce, Jerry, The Laity Help or Hindrance? - A Pastoral Plan, Mercier Press, 1994, p 86

8.    O'Brien, John, CSSp., Seeds of a New Church, Columba Press, 1994, Part Two, pp 43-134.

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