Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Unrest in the Church as "communio"

There is unrest in the Church today.

One example is the formation of priests' associations in Austria, Germany, Ireland, Australia, the Philippines, and the United States. Members of the clergy are calling attention to what seems to them to be the abuse of power by the Vatican and a decided move away from the reforms and direction set by the Second Vatican Council.

The Austrian priests' group is calling for the development and publication of a kind of "bill of rights" for the people of God plus a structure for participation of the people in the decision-making authority of the Church. Sensus fidelium is still a valid theological dynamic.

Msgr. Helmut Schuller, former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vienna, speaking on behalf of the 500 members of the Austrian priests' association, believes that the way many bishops and the pope have separated themselves from the views of the majority is a danger to the unity of the Church.

The Austrian association's initial call for "disobedience"  as a measure for reform alienated Vatican authorities, and prompted the pope to insist that the only way to renewal is through obedience and a focus on Jesus.

Schuller has asked the Vatican for a chance to talk about their position and explain what they mean by "disobedience" but the Vatican has not responded to their request.

If  Yves Congar were to address the stalemate between the priests' association and the Curia, he would most assuredly recommend that both sides focus on four things: 1)  the primacy of charity and pastoral concerns; 2) remaining in communion with the whole Church; 3) having patience with delays; and 4) seeking genuine renewal through a return to the principle of tradition.

Congar's advice can easily be gleaned from his 1950 masterpiece, True and False Reform in the Church. Each of his four conditions requires explanation and application if there is to be productive reform and the avoidance of schism.

Theologian and law professor Father Ladislaus Orsy, SJ,  suggests that one of the factors in the move toward the centralization of authority in the Vatican can be traced back to the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII. In an effort to purify the Church from secular influence, Gregory relied less on episcopal synods, and thereby changed the relationships between bishops and the Holy See.

This trend toward centralizing in Rome was exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation. A consequence of this centralizing of power in the papacy was the loss of the tradition of "communio," that is, the Church as a union of persons created by the Spirit of Christ.

"The Eastern churches," Orsy explains, "remained more faithful to the ancient doctrine of synodality, and the two branches of the same tree kept growing in different directions." At one point in the 11th century the tree split, and schism ensued.

{Synodality can be understood as councils, especially of bishops, sharing in the authority given the Church by Christ. The Eastern churches still operate in this fashion. The Roman Catholic Church, however, is less reliant on synods; the role and the authority of synods of bishops in the Roman branch are faint shadows of synods in the East.}

In Orsy's explanation, "The church was increasingly perceived, in places high and low, as a rigidly hierarchical institution where divine gifts (except those conferred by the sacraments) descended on the community through the mediation of the popes, bishops, and clergy."

Pope John XXIII and the ecumenical council of 1962-65  challenged that dynamic. Blessed John's aggiornamento in this case turned out to be a return to the older tradition, namely the understanding that the Spirit is poured out on all the people of God. We see that understanding in Lumen Gentium, where the theology of the people of God comes before the theology of the hierarchy.

Orsy continues, "There is a growing belief among the people that the church is a communio of persons --of all persons. This communio cannot be identified with the pope, or the bishops, or the priests, or with any particular group."

The communio of the Church is the Holy Spirit in the many. "Briefly but substantially," says Orsy, "this is the theological reality of communio" (cf. Receiving the Council by Ladislaus Orsy (Liturgical Press, 2009).

It is this notion of communio that provokes the call for decentralization of power in Rome (the conferences of bishops have been emasculated) and leads priests' associations in various parts of the world to call for dialogue with Rome. Congar's advice remains applicable.

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