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>Authority in the Roman Catholic Church, theory and practice

Authority in the Roman Catholic Church
Theory and practice

edited by Bernard Hoose; Ashgate 2002; ISBN - 0-7546-0531-0

Review by John Wijngaards

The question of how authority in the Church should be exercised is without any shade of doubt become a major issue for many thinking Roman Catholics. The recent heavy-handed interventions by the Roman Curia and the conservative policies ruthlessly put in place and pursued by John Paul II have created an unprecedented climate of tension and unease. Many educated Catholics leave the Church in total disillusionment. Others wonder whether the true reforms began in Vatican II will ever have a chance to succeed. At the root of most problems they see an outdated concept of Church governance that holds the international community of faith in a stifling grip.

Governance, however, is not simple, neither in theory nor in practice. It is highly to be applauded, therefore, that experts from so many ecclesiastical fields have come together in this book to share their insights. Since their approach is mainly academic, the book may seem at first forbidding to those not familiar with the theological disciplines. But it is precisely this serious and well-documented approach that will yield long-term results. A scientist in a laboratory involved in basic cancer research may, at first, seem less compassionate or relevant than a surgeon who is treating actual cancer patients. Yet, in the long run, the researcher may produce new medicines that will benefit millions of people. This truly academic book should therefore be received with the respect and optimism it deserves.

Nor does the academic character of this book make it unreadible. I am impressed by the way in which most authors have succeeded in explaining complex matters in understandable language. Exhaustive footnotes point the way to further reading for anyone who wants to pursue a particular question in depth.

All the studies show to the unmistakable need of the present-day Catholic Church to undergo substantial reforms. Every chapter enumerates them, implicitly or explicitly. The editor carefully, and with typical British understatement, lists the major trends that emerge: reform of authority itself, reform of the ministerial priesthood and reform of the papacy. This book is an indispensable tool for those taking part in the re-structuring of authority in the Roman Catholic Church.

Because different authors highlight different aspects, visitors of our website may be helped most by a briefly commentated look at the book’s page of contents.


1. Introducing the Main Issues - Bernard Hoose

Part I. Authority and the Church

2. What Do We Mean by `Authority'? - Gerard Mannion

The author notes that differing models of authority coexist in the Church, and frequently clash. He identifies and examines what he sees to be erroneous understandings of authority which have caused damage, and goes on to suggest how the Church as a whole might benefit from a reappraisal of the concept by the members of the hierarchy, with the aid of the whole community of believers.

3. Spiritual Authority and Governance: A Historical Perspective - Hugh Lawrence

An examination of the historical development of authority and governance in the Church.

4. Authors, Authority and Authorization- Nicholas Lash

The author argues that the subordination of education to governance is at the core of the crisis of Catholicism today, and maintains that, to a large extent, authority is understood and exercised in terms of governance within that Church, even where teaching authority is concerned. He insists rather that governance is an aspect of teaching. `Christianity exists to be a school of prayer and friendship.'

5. Ordination and Governance - Hugh Lawrence

On the role of ordination in governance. Not confining himself to the historical development of the subject, the author raises various points for discussion, including: the implications of the common priesthood of all the baptised; the declaration of Lumen gentium - which contrasts with the medieval hierocratic theory of delegated jurisdiction - that diocesan bishops are not to be regarded as vicars of the Roman pontiff; and the stress within the same document on the mutuality of the roles of priests and lay people within the community.

Part II. The Role of the Faithful

6. The Sense of Faith: The Sense/Consensus of the Faithful - Francis A. Sullivan

The auhtor addresses the often misunderstood concepts of the sense of faith, the sense of the faithful, and the consensus of the faithful and expounds on each of these. Whilst it is true, he notes, that Newman's insistence on consulting the laity referred to the belief of the laity, rather than their informed opinion on matters of doctrine, the situation is different today when many lay people have higher degrees in theology. He discusses ways in which bishops might consult lay people in this changed situation.

7. The Reception of Doctrine: New Perspectives - Richard R. Gaillardetz

The author discusses the question of the reception of doctrine. Making use of modern literary theory, communications theory and studies in popular religion, he argues that the handing on of the faith is a complex reciprocal process. Reception is not just an act of obedient submission to a teacher; it is active appropriation. In the very act of the reception of doctrine, the faithful contribute something positively to the Church. It is therefore a mistake to see the teaching office in isolation.

Part III. Ecumenical Dimensions

8. Trinity, Church and State - Paul McPartlan

The author argues that, in common with the other Churches, the Roman Catholic Church should strive to find the kind of structure, the kind of collegiality and the kind of primacy that best reflect the Trinitarian mystery and serve the Eucharist.

9. The ARCIC Statements - Nicholas Sagovsky

The author examines the three principal ARCIC statements on the subject of authority in the Church. These statements make few suggestions about the reform of Church governance. They do, however, provide a theological framework to help the Churches understand how the art of governance might be cultivated. Moreover, argues Sagovsky, the ARCIC texts have major implications for reform of Church governance which stretch beyond the confines of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.

10. The Same but Different: Living in Communion - Paul McPartlan

McPartlan highlights the fact that, whilst there are considerable differences between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the faith is the same. However, since the Orthodox fear that union might crush their distinctiveness, both Churches have to learn to underpin their dialogue with love and trust. One way or another, they must learn to deal with the differences, recognize their complementarity and achieve a visible communion of love and mutual esteem.

Part IV. Organizational Culture and Authority

11. The Experience of Religious Orders - James Sweeney

The author deals with the experience of religious orders in regard to authority, and points out that negative, as well as positive, lessons can be learnt from that experience. Major deconstruction has taken place, and some are tempted to use traditional disciplinarian methods to restore order. However, now that authority is open to critical awareness, he says, it can never be the same.

12. Communio Models of Church: Rhetoric or Reality? - David McLoughlin

There is no one formula for restoring coherence, but the key dream and impulse is koinonial communio. McLoughlin tackles the topic of communio models of the Church. Although he finds a good deal of rhetoric in the Church concerning its communio/shared/participatory nature, the reality appears to be quite different. He reflects upon both the history of the terms communio and koinonia and present-day rhetoric. The forces that work against such a model are far from negligible and produce real tensions that seem almost irreconcilable.

Part V. Marginalization and Authority

13. Language for God, Gender and Authority - Margaret Fraser

Fraser points out that only those who hear themselves included can truly participate. She analyses the use of language in the Bible, in the liturgy, in reference to God, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity and Jesus, and notes that problems exist for women in the ways in which language is used in all of these various sectors. She also discusses various points that need to be taken into account in the debate about how the voice of women can be heard.

14. The Authority of the Poor - John O'Brien

The author argues that the authority of the poor is rooted in the fact that the poor were the first addressees of the Gospel. Their voice is a privileged one, and adequate authority structures can be developed in and for the Church only if a privileged consideration is given to the experience of the poor.

Part VI. A Step Beyond

15. Where Do We Go From Here? - Bernard Hoose

Hoose outlines the over-all conclusions: reform of authority itself, of the ministerial priesthood and, last not least, of the papacy.

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