Revolution in Vatican. What will the Polish Church do?

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Revolution in Vatican. What will the Polish Church do?
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Reform of the Roman Curia is ready – declared Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga. The Church hierarchy is changing. The role of Vatican is diminishing to the advantage of Episcopal Conferences. Bishops will have much more to say – also in terms of the doctrine. What will be the reaction of Polish Catholics to this revolution? Are we ready to function in the new formula of the Catholic Church?


The reform is ready


The reform of the Roman Curia is ready – declared the Coordinator of the Council of Cardinals, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga from Honduras. On 5 March, the portal informed about an interview given by the cardinal to the Spanish Journal “El Mensaje”. Maradiaga said that the Pope was to issue a new apostolic constitution governing the functioning of the Roman Curia and its relations with Episcopal Conferences. The document will replace the Pastor bonus constitution announced in June 1988 by Saint John Paul II. The Cardinal revealed that the old “pyramidal” structure of authority in the Church with the Pope on top of it will be replaced. The Roman Curia will no longer be a “body of authority”, but one of “service”. Importantly, the role of Episcopates will “significantly” grow. What will this all mean in practice? Maradiaga did not say that, but the direction seems clear. Episcopates will most probably acquire new power – also doctrinal. This is a major revolution.


Decentralisation in papers


Pope Francis announced this as soon as he had taken the office. In his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of November 2013, he wrote:


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”. (16).


Decentralisation is the key word. Back in 2013, the Holy Father did not disclose its true nature yet. It might have seemed that it was about granting local Churches more competencies in particular matters, which are – so to speak – external to the faith. The cards were laid back on the table only in February 2018. After a three-day meeting of the Council of Cardinals, Greg Burke, the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, made it clear that the changes prepared by the Holy Father were intended to grant “certain doctrinal authority” to Episcopal Conferences. Soon after, the Pope confirmed it himself. Moreover, he did it in a way as if the revolution had already happened.


In March 2018, he wrote in Gaudete et exsultate:


It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord. And it is even more difficult to express it. So we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives. Here I would note that in the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life; in their variety, they “help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word”. It is true that “for those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion”. [...] In effect, doctrine, or better, our understanding and expression of it, “is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries… The questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials and their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously. Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us”. (43-44).


Francis has declared that there NO LONGER is a uniform doctrine in the Catholic church. I want to emphasise this – the Pope spoke in a present tense. Thus, he did not present a future plan, but rather he commented on the existing – in his opinion – state of affairs. Indeed, lack of doctrinal uniformity in the Church has become evident after Amoris laetitia, although its signs were visible even before.


From Humanae vitae to Amoris laetitia


In his Exhortation of 2016, the Pope discussed, among other things, the relationship between the life of Catholics and the Divine law. He informally vindicated the situational ethics his predecessors had condemned. He proposed that an individual, in his conscience, take an autonomous decision, whether a given rule applies to him or, in a particular situation in life – it does not.


This lead to a new approach to the issue of administering sacraments to divorced persons who live in new relationships. The rules that have existed in the Church for ages, clearly defined by John Paul II in Familiaris consortio, obliged such persons to live in celibacy, if they wanted to receive the Eucharist. Amoris laetitia is not so clear about this, which makes room for interpretation. This is where the revolution has started. The respective diocesan bishops and Episcopal Conferences started issuing commentaries on and guidelines to the papal Exhortation. Some, like in Canada, Poland or some regions of Italy and the USA – continued in the line of teaching by Saint John Paul II. Others – e.g. in Germany, Malta, the Philippines or some Italian and American dioceses – allowed most divorced persons, whether or not they live in chastity – to access the Lord's Table.


The doctrinal unity is officially over. Because, unofficially, it is nothing new. When Pope Paul VI published Humane vitae and maintained the prohibition of artificial contraception formulated by his predecessors, many Episcopates rejected Vatican's teaching. Belgian, Dutch, Austrian and German Churches officially declared that in their countries the prohibition would not be so absolute as the Holy Father would want it.


The difference is that Vatican did not consent to this. Even though Paul VI did not choose to intervene in a determined way, a critical dialogue was undertaken with the rebellious dioceses. John Paul II mentioned the contraception ban many times, asking in public and in private to remain faithful to the magisterium of the Church.


The case is different with the divorced. Change of practice, and de facto also of teaching, and, after all, this concerns the sacraments, was possible not despite a Papal document, but thanks to it. There is freedom of choice now. Some have it one way, others – another, depending on the evaluation of local conditions done by the local bishop or the whole Episcopal Conference.


How much can the Episcopacy do?


According to progressive thinkers, the new rules do not function good enough yet. The problem is due to disobedient bishops who refuse to join the liberal choir. Concerning the divorced, Italy and the USA entirely resigned from issuing any uniform state-wide guidelines, as they were impossible to develop, given the differences of opinion. Consequently, differences run along not only national borders, but also diocesan borders. This, undoubtedly, causes problems. In response, there has already been the first, quite brutal, attempt to overcome the difficulties. It was done by Germans in 2018. During the winter plenary session of the Episcopacy, it was agreed by a majority of votes to allow Protestants married to Catholics to receive Holy Communion. The chair of the German Episcopacy, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, announced it with enthusiasm. However, the 7 bishops who voted against, complained to the Vatican. They claimed that the Episcopate's decision was against the law. They referred to the Code of Canon Law, which says:


Canon 455:


1. A conference of bishops can only issue general decrees in cases where universal law has prescribed it or a special mandate of the Apostolic See has established it either motu proprio or at the request of the conference itself.




4. In cases in which neither universal law nor a special mandate of the Apostolic See has granted the power mentioned in §1 to a conference of bishops, the competence of each diocesan bishop remains intact, nor is a conference or its president able to act in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given consent.


The dispute was about whether administering Holy Communion to protestants was an issue of faith or rather of pastoral practice. According to Marx, the latter was the case, and according to his opponents – the former. The Holy See was forced to agree with the opponents of the new regulations. Consequently, Germans could not issue any state-wide guidelines, as was the case with the divorced; they only published an informal instruction book that bishops could choose to put or not to put into practice in their respective dioceses. An attempt to strain the law and actually expand the competencies of Episcopal Conferences proved unsuccessful. Marx openly declared his dissatisfaction and progressive thinkers started complaining that the Catholic Church looked like a patchy carpet with no uniform attitude to the Protestants.


Warning made by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


What do Cardinal Maradiaga's words on granting more power to Episcopates mean in this context? Will their role grow so much that problems like the one in Germany last year will no longer happen? This is exactly the scenario that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, warned against in 1985. In his famous interview with Vittorio Messori, published under the title “Report on the State of the Faith”, he claimed that the Church must not become a federation of local Churches. He said:


[…] this is about protecting the principle of the Catholic Church, based on the episcopal structure, rather than being a federation of national Churches. The national level is not an ecclesiastical dimension. It should be reaffirmed that in every diocese, there is only one teacher and minister of faith, who remains in unity with other pastors and ministers of faith, and the Vicar of Christ. The Catholic Church is based on a balance between the community and an individual. In this case, the balance is between the community of individual, local Churches (united in the universal Church) and the individual responsible for a diocese”.


The Cardinal reminded that “a collective cannot replace the bishop”, as he is the only “authentic teacher of faith for the believers whom he serves”. “No Conference of Bishops in itself has the teaching mission. Also, its instruments have no significance other than that those given to them by respective bishops”, added the future Pope.


What shall we do, the Polish Catholics?


The Church as a federation of national Churches? It is a Protestant, not Catholic model. Will Pope Francis' instrument be enacted? If it is, what will the Polish Episcopal Conference do? Are Polish bishops ready to accept the new and huge responsibility?


They have not yet spoken on the matters currently disputed in the Catholic Church. We do not know their stance on the issue of homosexuality, also among priests; we do not know what they think about celibacy and the viri probati concept; no one discusses female diaconate and presbyterate; even divorced persons living in new relationships have not been mentioned on an official forum.


Will things stay “the old way”? It is not so easy. Faith among the Polish society is becoming more and more shallow. The young generation are leaving the Church at a fast rate. The burning problem of sexual abuse, so far marginalised, will have to be solved; let us hope it will not be done in such a brutal way as in the West, where accused cardinals are imprisoned even without strong evidence!


We need debates and discussions, as the Polish Church is about to confront challenges posed by the Polish society, changed and no longer attached to the Catholic values.


Even if the fear of the increased role of Episcopates is exaggerated and the federational vision drawn by Cardinal Ratzinger does not come true, the fact is that there is no longer any doctrinal unity. Changes are now possible on the level of the local or particulate Church. We have to confront the reality. We have to wake up. Things are about to change!


Paweł Chmielewski





DATA: 2019-04-23 11:03
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