"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Papal Reform in Service to the Gospel

In the late 1990s a book was published by the prolific and erudite English Dominican Aidan Nichols whose argument about Orthodox-Catholic unity has long stayed with me, and deeply influenced me when, just over a decade ago, I began my doctoral program that led to a dissertation which more recently was turned into a book, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity,

That book of mine was influenced by Nichols' Christendom Awake: On Re-Energizing the Church in Culture. In that book, Nicholas suggests that the Catholic Church, greatly weakened by the post-conciliar experience, very much needed unity with Orthodoxy not only for its own sake, and for the sake of the fulfillment of the gospel, but also for the ballast that Orthodoxy could provide to the Catholic Church, particularly in the areas of liturgy, monasticism, and asceticism. Once united, the Catholic-Orthodox Church would be vastly stronger than either "lung" separated from the other, and as a result could turn from ecclesiological issues to re-evangelizing an increasingly rebarbative world.

I mention this bit of intellectual genealogy only so that you will understand my amazement at the new document released today by Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, which you may read here on the Vatican website (PDF). I'm not claiming the pope has read Nicholas (possible) or me (entirely unlikely), and I'm not done reading it yet (for all the hype about a new style, he has, alas, held to the old-style prolixity of John Paul II with a document clocking in at 224pp--oy!) but there are at least two paragraphs that, verily I say unto you, jumped off the page and made me more than a little amazed at how much they accord with what Nichols suggested and I expanded upon at length. (These are not, of course, entirely surprising given that they are in accord with other recent papal utterances on the topic, as I noted here.):

"Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization'" (no. 16).

This is followed some time later by a longer and even blunter paragraph which references Ut Unum Sint on which my own book was based:
Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding 'a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation'. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position 'to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit'. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.
Ecclesiology is not, or should not be, ultimately about constant self-referential fussing over who gets the cushiest chair or the biggest hat. The story of the rebuke of the libido dominandi of the sons of Zebedee (Mark 10:35-45) should ring loudly and constantly in the ears of every churchman and ecclesiologist. The point of working for unity--the same point of this encyclical--is so that we can all stop focusing on ourselves and instead focus on bringing the world to Christ, who summed it up best: "that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:21).

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