Renewal and Clarity in the Government of the Church: Celso Queiroz OSB

(This article, written by a retired bishop of Latin America, and published in a 2013 issue of Concilium, is one of the best and most easily understood explanations of the problems around governance in the Church, and the struggle between the bishops on the one hand, and the curia/nunciatures on the other)

1. Introduction
This article is based on my pastoral experience as a bishop with responsibilities in the bishops’ conferences of my country. My intention is to describe and discuss the reintroduction of the collegial government of the Church by the Second Vatican Council, the problem of centralisation and the resulting expansion of the Roman Curia, with special reference to the diplomatic corps and the apostolic nunciatures. I also refer to situations of misunderstanding and embarrassment caused by ignorance, careerism and so on, and ask why these posts should not be open to lay-people.
11. A Complex Mixture
I worked int he Secretariat of the Brazilian bishops’ conference before and after becoming a bishop with a long period of ministry after Vatican II. This prompted Concilium to ask me to write about the need for and the possibility of renewal in the apostolic nunciatures as a specific aspect of the relations between papal government and the bishops’ conferences. Of course I discuss this subject as a bishop and not as a technical expert on a diplomatic corps or mechanism, or on the basis of information and historical analysis regarding the formation of this diplomatic corps of the Church.
The Church’s diplomatic apparatus was established in the political context of complex and often conflictive relations between ‘throne and altar’ in the era of sacred monarchies and power disputes. Admittedly, there have been significant developments since then. From the nineteenth century onwards these changes produced an increasingly complex mixture, that is, a form of hybridisation, of strictly ecclesial relations between the papal government and the local churches, and political aspects of the Catholic Church such as the Vatican State and the modern States with which the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations. The apostolic nunciatures are in the middle here. They present credentials and take part in state ceremonies, even in the case of corrupt and bloody dictatorships, and may even work on complex concordats, but they are also channels of the Church’s internal government. They are a means of making Episcopal appointments, and involve inevitable internal politics and what are in practice exorbitant powers. It is legitimate to ask whether they create an anomalous situation in relations between episcopates and the papal government or, more radically, in ecclesiology itself.
Theoretically, apostolic nunciatures are a service and provide a link between the papal government and other instances. From a bishop’s pastoral viewpoint, however, policies dictated by individuals or interest groups lead not only to considerable ambiguity in this diplomatic machine but, inevitably, to undesirable collateral effects. The people of God constantly and insistently call for renewal, participation and transparency instead of excessive secrecy about the criteria and procedures for the choice and appointment of bishops. This demand can no longer be ignored.
III, The episcopate as the governing power in the Church
The First Vatican Council was the end-point of a long process of centralization in the Church. This was not a necessary outcome of the dogma of papal infallibility, but a narrow interpretation of infallibility did set the seal on that centralization. It now seemed only logical to dispense with councils, and the ministry of bishops was gradually understood and treated as one of acting as local curates for the Pope. The purity of faith and the communion of all Christendom were guaranteed in and through the Pope. Many bishops understood their Episcopal ministry in this way. In order to undertake its broad jurisdictional mission (even though, given its accumulation of ‘universal, immediate and ordinary’ powers, any such mission was practically impossible), the papacy surrounded itself with a considerable number of assistance in Rome (the Roman Curia) and around the world (the apostolic nunciatures, coordinated by the Secretariat of State). These assistant ‘commanders’ relied on a sacramental, sacra, concept of hierarchy that gave them a position in the sacral order that was higher than, or at least equal to, that of their ‘subordinates’. Of course this arrangement was and remains reminiscent of the pre-modern feudal system. Cardinals, archbishops and monsignors compose a sacred hierarchy and are involved in a web of ecclesiastical honours. But, from a modern viewpoint, we can also envisage lay-people operating an equivalent system with a merely functional hierarchy. Historians of religion, perhaps even religious anthropologists, can account for the existing accumulation of hierarchical sacrality. But it has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus.
The strictly practical result of this sacral system was that the Pope no longer needed the Episcopal college as a partner to run the Church throughout the world. After all, it was not without opposition, and only after long debate, that Vatican II defined the Church as ‘governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him’ (LG8), and stated that in their ministry bishops, ‘in virtue of the unbroken succession, going back to the beginning, are regarded as transmitters of the apostolic line’ (LG20). Therefore, ‘this power, which they exercise personally in the name of Christ, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately controlled by the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff: for they exercise the power which they possess in their own right’ (LG27). Bishops’ authority is not ‘damaged’ but ‘defended, upheld and strengthened’ by ‘the supreme and universal power’ (LG23).
The Council also noted the respect due to groups of churches with their own discipline, liturgy and theological and spiritual traditions. Moreover, ‘in a like fashion the Episcopal conferences at the present time are in a position to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegiate spirit’ (LG23).
IV Excessive Centralization.
As Vatican II drew to a close, a consensus emerged among the participants. This held that the appropriate instrument to enable the action of the Episcopal college headed by the Pope to take effect would be a permanent synod-like body of bishops. Yet this idea was reduced to a regular meeting, mainly for study, with a merely consultative role in support of the Pope. This does not represent the Council’s intention.
The Roman Curia is the body that really functions in the central government of the Church throughout the world. But the Roman Curia, with its current size and power, is the result of a concept of the Church, and of an ecclesiology, exclusively centred on the person of the Pope as the guarantee of its unity. At some moments in history, in the distant past, this kind of compact centralization of jurisdiction might well have benefited the unity of the Church. Yet, at the very beginning of the greatest process of centralization, at the start of the second millennium, one result of centralization was a traumatic and painful break between West and East. But any such centralisation has become dysfunctional. The Church’s centralised government is necessarily confined and conditioned by a vast bureaucracy that lays it open to the risks characteristic of all bureaucracy, such as power struggles, careerism, corruption, concealment of information, delay and the blocking of new ideas. There is an added, fatal, risk in the Church: that of confusion between bureaucracy and priestly hierarchy, which has the effect of sacralising the bureaucracy itself, and this making it (like everything sacred) almost ‘untouchable’.
V. Decentralization and the college
Centralisation, therefore, lies behind the inflation of the Roman Curia. Centralisation was adopted to ensure the unity of the Church in various cultures and regions of the world. The degree of centralisations was even greater in the past than it is now. Vatican II introduced some efforts to reduce it, but we need to go further, and move from the centre to the various outlying areas. We need a genuine confluence of these regions towards the centre in a real catholicity. Furthermore, we cannot allow the quest for new pastoral expressions and methods to be prohibited with the simultaneous promotion of a reversion to old rites in a dead language, and to formulas alien to today’s cultures. The unity of the Church does not reside in languages or cultures from the past which deserve the respectful acknowledgement of a place of honour in our museums. The Church’s unity lies much deeper, in the unity of faith and essentials that flow from a common faith. If the unity needed to cultivate what is essential is guaranteed, the rest can be left to the bishops of each country or region, without any need for approval from an authority other than the bishops.
Vatican II made possible a degree of contact between the episcopates of various nations that had never existed between bishops in the modern world. Bishops learned from the Council that they were not merely heady of local or particular churches, but co-responsible for the universal Church. As Archbishop Helder Camara showed so forcefully, they are ‘catholic’ bishops. After Vatican it became usual for bishops from what was called the ‘Third World’ to be invited to talk to the church of more developed nations about problems confronting poor countries. They were listened to attentively. Helder Camara himself was also a great example in this process. But before long these bishops were summoned to Rome and warned that they were acting beyond the bounds of their dioceses, and should stop trying to exercise a mission reserved to the Pope. Something similar occurred with a project of the Brazilian bishops’ conference to study cases of oppression in under-developed countries. I was involved in this as a conference official. In contradiction of what the Council says about the collegial mission of bishops, together with the Pope, in world evangelisation, Rome ordered each bishop and each conference to limit themselves to their own country and to their own diocese.
In the face of new pastoral issues, which forced them to produce new ideas on structures, bishops with a considerable reputation as pastors found the doors of the relevant curial departments closed. This happened to us in the archdiocese of Sao Paulo. A long investigation of ways of dealing with the challenge to the Church posed by our huge megalopolis gave rise to a proposal to give each region of the huge urban area the presence and ministry of a bishop, a council of priests, a pastoral council and other bodies, without dividing the city into totally autonomous dioceses. This move was intended to avoid both the danger of a fragmented response to the organic logic of the city, and the traditional practice of appointing a number of auxiliary bishops. It was a new proposal for interdependent dioceses, and abandoned the concept of the diocese as a territory around a bishop monarch in favour of the conciliar notion of the diocese as part of the people of God governed collegially. The proposal was not discussed. It was not even granted the courtesy of an acknowledgment. The city was simply divided into dioceses as if they were adjacent territories. For example, the Marian shrine of Our Lady, patroness of the city, at the centre of the archdiocese was left in an outlying diocese, outside the reduced archdiocesan territory, and the residence of Sao Paulo’s state governor was also relegated to an outlying diocese.
VI Apostolic Nunciatures in the Middle
In reality, real direct access to the Pope for bishops and their conferences continues to be very difficult and sometimes impossible. The curia, and especially the apostolic nunciatures, comes between Pope and bishops. In certain circumstances, nunciatures, as the diplomatic representatives of the Vatican to the governments of every country with which the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations, can make the Church’s mission easier. As Pietro Parolin, the new Vatican Secretary of State, said before taking up his post, the role of the Church’s diplomatic mission is the promotion of peace and human rights in the world.
In other circumstances, however, history shows that concordats can be ambivalent. Some can make things easy for both sides, while others do the opposite, give privileges, produce constraints and create resentments. A specific current example is the 2008 agreement signed between the Vatican and the Brazilian government. On the one hand, it made no difference to the situation that had obtained for more than a century, since the proclamation of the secular Republic. From that time the State has had no obligation to grant any favours to the Church and the Church has had no obligations towards the State. On the other hand, the new agreement is under examination by the Brazilian courts since it is suspected of unconstitutionality in certain points that grant privileges and create an anomaly in the State’s secular character. In has also created bad feelings in ecumenical relations. Furthermore, the bishops’ conference, which was neither consulted adequately nor discussed the text sufficiently to give it final approval, now finds itself obliged to defend what may turn out to be indefensible. If what is provided for in this agreement is valid for any Church that wants the same status, why do we need a specific agreement? A nuncio’s triumph has become a pastoral burden for the bishops.
When a nuncio, in his representative role, is seen by the media at political parties and dinners alongside government figures of dubious morals, this only increases the embarrassment of the bishops of local churches. In practice, however, the nunciature takes little interest in representing the Vatican State and the Pope as its sovereign. Its real business is church affairs, and in this role it acquires great power over local churches. Examples of this development are the appointments, transfers and ‘promotions’ of bishops and all the information sent to Rome without the local bishops, even the conference through the presidency, having any access to the processes. If mistakes occur through lack of wider dialogue, the price is paid by the local church and its bishops.
The role of the nunciature is possibly less decisive in countries where the Christian tradition is more ancient and church structures are more solid. But it is very important in younger countries, such as those of Latin America, and even more so in Africa and Asia. The difference in treatment follows from the variable attitudes towards the different parts of the world and their churches. This explains the minimal fuss when a nuncio in or region calmly remarked to the bishops: “‘Continent’ means Europe. The rest of the world is just islands, big ….. but simply islands”. This remark, which might be taken as a joke, in fact hides a serious problem in the diplomatic and, above all, internal relations of the Church, which is the level of knowledge or ignorance about the countries and the local churches in which they function shown by diplomatic representatives. A current example of bad diplomacy, which created a deep wound and almost a national riot in Latin America, concerns the diocese of Sucumbios in Ecuador. It is difficult to know what kind of ecclesiology or political principles led to the disastrous situation in which the Carmelite bishop was removed, only to be replaced by ‘Heralds of the Gospel’, who came into the diocese in their heavy boots and trampled over its people, who may have been uneducated but knew that they were the People of God.
Certain facts will help these comments not to become to abstract or idealistic. One embarrassing practice which infantilises bishops and local churches is that in regions like Latin America, where most churches are younger than elsewhere, the bishops avoid adopting any attitude of disagreement with the nunciature for fear of being disobedient to the Pope. The cause may be timidity, fear of ‘being marked’, or even perhaps concern to ‘preserve your career’, which was the unashamed advice of one secretary at the nunciature in Brazil. As a result, bishops often invite the nuncio, as ‘the Pope’s representative’, to preside at the most important ceremonies in the diocese, precisely at times when a reputable ecclesiology would require the diocesan bishop to lead his local church.
VII. Nuncios’ Attitudes
In my long experience of work in executive bodies of the bishops’ conference, I have witnessed a nuncio acting towards the assembled bishops as though he was the national authority on liturgy or liturgical vestments. Then I observed on (and this is really serious) attempt to ban a bishop from talking at a course for fellow bishops on the battle against hunger. On another occasion, a nuncio tried to stop a bishop accepting an invitation to speak at a national priests’ meeting. On these and other occasions nuncios were intent on prohibiting the efforts of those with prophetic attitudes, or in favour of a Church in touch with the real world, or opposing injustice and concerned with the poor. I end my account with the most arbitrary behaviour I have witnessed. The retired Bishop Clements Isnard, a genial sage (now dead), who did great things to promote the reforms of Vatican II, wrote a booklet about aspects of Church structure which he felt needed rethinking, questions which we are all concerned with today. He had been vice-president of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, vice-president of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), responsible for the application of Vatican II’s liturgical reform, and a constant figure of reference in the field. The Brazilian bishops’ conference had sent him as a delegate on a particularly delicate mission to the Holy Father. The nuncio heard about the booklet, telephoned all the national Brazilian Catholic publishers, and forbade its publication, on the grounds that it might damage the Church. Bishop Isnard’s text appeared only when a small secular publisher accepted it. It generated a very good discussion, with no damage to the Church. But this provokes further questions. Is this an exception among the churches of Latin America, Africa and Asia? What motives lie behind this infantilizing behaviour by the nunciature? Is it fear of damaging the nuncio’s career? Isn’t this the product of a bureaucracy that is losing its way and becoming corrupted by the web of interests which I referred to earlier?
VIII Conclusion
Clearly, conceiving the very existence of nunciatures as intelligible only in terms of the Church as a sovereign State governed by a monarch does not accord with the Vatican II notion of the State. But how are we to incorporate apostolic nunciatures in the collegial government of the bishops together with the Pope without creating anomalies in conciliar ecclesiology? Admittedly, a diplomatic service allows the Church a presence among the family of nations and in international organisations where it can campaign for the gospel values, such as the dignity of the human person and life, freedom, peace, the fight against starvation, aid to poorer nations, and so on. Nunciatures can certainly help bishops’ conferences, bishops and local churches when they have problems, but they cannot place themselves above the bishops, local churches and the bishops’ conferences of the countries where they are stationed. That would mean promoting a collision between the prophetic dimension of the Church and the diplomatic logic of its historical existence, as has happened even in modern times, to the detriment of the prophetic dimension.
Obviously, reforming the system of church government and the bodies responsible for it is neither simple nor easy. We have made little progress in this area in the 50 years since Vatican II. Part of the problem is that one aspect cannot be changed without affecting the others. As a result, in order to make the mission of the Episcopal college with regard to the Church present in the world we need to scale down the Roman Curia and focus diplomacy more effectively. We also need to give the Pope a body of bishops that can exercise genuine co-responsibility and be more than a synod that meets for study sessions every few years. It is equally important to allow bishops’ conferences to decide everything that is not part of our unity of faith, and that ought to represent the richness of communion lived out in the diversity of the churches.
Finally, in all these aspects it is possible to open up spaces for a real participation of lay-people, to abandon the narrow world of clericalism, and to enrich decisions with the diverse experiences of various vocations. Why should a bishop, whose Episcopal consecration is directed to the service of a diocese, hold the post of ambassador or head of a Vatican department? Surely, the department for religious can be headed by a nun with experience in the government of her congregation, since, after all, three-quarters of religious are women. Surely the presidency of Pontifical Councils can be held by individuals that do not belong to the priestly hierarchy. Surely we can follow a model that has proved its efficacy in modern society and see that the role of nuncio can be exercised more appropriately by lay men or women, since they are baptised Catholics who are capable of representing the Church in the sphere of politics and administration, and various documents of the magisterium insist that politics is the sphere of lay people (both men and women). What prevents the pontifical diplomatic academy from training Catholic lay-people for this role?