In a discussion of the process by which the Catholic Church will select a successor to Pope Benedict, the NPR correspondent Sylvia Poggioli (the real winner in this whole episode) raises the possibility that we may see serious changes to Church structure:
Can this global organization, the Catholic Church with 1.2 billion followers, continue to be governed by an absolute monarch, or is it time for a more collegial management, as it was in the early stages of the church and as was recommended by the Second Vatican Council? Some analysts say Benedict’s resignation has potentially opened the gates for a major overhaul of Church governance.
As Father John O’Malley explains in his definitive recounting of Vatican II, nothing on the council’s agenda was more contentious than the relationship of the bishops to the papacy:
The technical expression for the relationship the council advocated was “collegiality.” What kind of authority did the bishops have over the church at large when they acted collectively, that is, collegially; how was that authority exercised in relationship to the pope; and how was collegiality different from “Conciliarism” (supremacy of council over pope), a position condemned in the fifteenth century and repeatedly condemned thereafter? Closely connected with this issue was the more technical question of how bishops related to the sacrament of orders. Also implied was the question of what voice others in the church, including the laity, rightly have in decision-making.
O’Malley offers the proliferation of papal encyclicals from the mid-19th century on as evidence of the growing centrality of Rome, as more and more of the Catholic world learned to look to the Pope for the answers to all questions. Technology, too, played a role in this centralization, with the invention of the telephone and the telegraph only bolstering the Vatican’s ability to hold sway over its most far-flung constituents.
Interesting, then, to consider the fact that just two short months ago the Pope himself joined Twitter and invited the world to submit questions. Mind-numbing and time-sucking though it is, no one’s suggesting that tweeting’s to blame for Benedict’s abdication, though the timing is certainly curious. Could it be the case that the communication technology that once solidified the Pope’s centrality has now advanced so far as to render it untenable? At least for a man of 85?
Again from O’Malley:
The majority at the council certainly did not press for a statement on collegiality merely to make a theological point. They brought it to the fore, like other ressourcements, because it had practical ramifications. The bishops who promoted the doctrine and fought for it so passionately wanted to redress what they saw as the imbalance between the authority exercised especially by the Roman Congregations and their own authority as heads of “local churches.” Collegiality was the supreme instance in the council of the effort to moderate the centralizing tendencies of the ecclesiastical institution, of the effort to give those from the periphery a more authoritative voice not only back home but also in the center.
In our new world those distinctions collapse; the center now is back home, and vice versa. So, as Poggioli asks, is a single infallible figure still the answer for a world so over-connected? We’ll see.