For the first thousand years the Catholic Church was, broadly speaking, run by councils; then for the second thousand years, by popes. For most of the fourteenth century there was a breakdown of papal government. For a time there were two, and even three, ‘rival popes’. It required all the efforts of a Council, that of Konstanz in 1414-1418, to re-establish orderly government in the Church.
The scene was set for a battle between papalists and conciliarists to govern the Church. The Roman Curia with a vested interest in a papal victory naturally felt threatened and gave ’Conciliarism’ a bad name, as a sort of militant tendency conspiring to take over the Pope’s powers.
Extremists on both sides reduced complex issues to the level of a football match, where one side wins and the other loses. Pope John XXIII in convening the Second Vatican Council, was not thinking along these lines at all. He was concerned for the general good and the pastoral effectiveness of the Church as a whole - and assumed that the bishops shared his concern. Vatican II was a papal council, and John XXIII was a conciliar pope. Pope and bishops together aimed to re-vitalise the Church through ‘conciliarity’ -discussion, consultation, shared responsibility, joint decisions. The cautious term Vatican II hit upon was ‘collegiality’ - the effective participation of all the bishops as colleagues, with the Pope, in the government of the Church.
A leading historian of the Council - G. Alberigo - has stated: “Vatican II never had ’conciliarist temptations: the assembly was consistently devout in its dealings with both John XXIII and Paul VI…there was never any conflict.’ For a time after Vatican II, collegiality or conciliarity was embodied and practised in “Bishops’ Conferences” - regional gatherings to respond to matters of local concern, with an eye to the whole Church. However, when the South American bishops encouraged liberation theology, the Vatican grew alarmed. In the time of Pope John Paul II steps were taken to reduce the powers of Bishops’ Conferences and to restore centralised control. A parallel development was the shackling of another ‘collegial’ structure, the “Synod of Bishops” - representatives of the world-wide episcopate meeting in Rome every three years or so. Again, its agenda and activity have been closely controlled by the Curia.
As in the fifteenth century, so in the twentieth, the papalists have emerged victorious over the conciliarists in the struggle for control of the Church. However, whether the latest papalist victory will endure as long as the last is very doubtful. Far more certain, it is not the Pope but the Curia who have triumphed. Paul VI, who brought the Vatican Council to an end, hardly benefited from his coup d’état. After promulgating his encyclical, Humanae Vitae in 1968, in which he condemned artificial means of contraception, he was reputedly a broken man. As pope, Paul VI appears to have wanted to rescind the ban, but felt obliged to uphold a condemnation, reputed to be infallible, by his predecessor, Pius XI. There was a rumour at the time that an official at the CFD - the former Holy Office - warned him that were he to do otherwise, he would incur a charge of heresy. Whether Paul VI was almost literally the prisoner of the Curia, or of his own rigid thinking, which he shared with the Curia, we may never know. It seems probable, however, that had the matter been referred to the Council, the ban would have been lifted. In that way Pope and Council could have continued to work together harmoniously, as in the time of John XXIII. As it is, successive popes, effectively controlled by the Curia have increasingly lost their moral authority over the faithful, who frequently leave the Church, as they despair of it ever understanding their concerns in the twenty first century. Will the institutional church have to collapse, before renewal is possible?
Picture of John XXIII donated by the Catholic Culture