By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
As the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome receives the command from Jesus to the first of the apostles as his own: “Strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). Catholic theology has always understood that command, along with other references to Peter’s primacy (Mt 10:1-2; 16:16-18; Acts 1-2; etc.), to reflect the unique mission entrusted to the Pope: he is the safeguard and guarantor of the Catholic faith, the bridge-building unifier of his fellow bishops and all the Catholic faithful throughout the world.
After the First Vatican Council confirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility, strengthening the supreme authority of the Pope, the Second Vatican Council complemented this teaching with an emphasis on the collegial nature of the episcopacy, strengthening the authority of local bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome. The healthy harmonization of the teaching expressed in the two Councils demands both a strong papacy to support a global Church and faithful adherence to the bishop of Rome by individual bishops and national episcopal conferences. As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote on the topic in 2013:
“Precisely because of the increased activity of particular churches and conferences, Rome is required to exercise greater vigilance than ever, lest the unity of the church be jeopardized. The global character of the Catholic Church today, together with the rapidity of modern communications, makes ineluctable new demands on the papal office […] The contemporary world situation, as I understand it, demands a successor of Peter who, with the divine assistance, can teach and direct the entire people of God. The Petrine office, as it has developed since Vatican II, has a unique capacity to hold all local and regional churches in dialogue while reaching out in loving service to all.”
The Jesuit Cardinal’s assessment of papal authority is prescient, for it serves as a compass for on and off-the-mark “synodal paths.” The most prominent of these currently is the series of meetings by the German bishops and the “Central Committee of German Catholics.” So exciting have their ongoing discussions been about updating the teachings of the Magisterium that the head of the German bishops conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, felt compelled recently “to reject the accusation repeatedly used of us being schismatics or of wanting to detach ourselves as the German national Church from Rome.”
Why would such a grave accusation be launched against those currently walking on the German Synodal Path? One is tempted to be theologically glib and reply that we’ve seen a protest against the universal Magisterium originating in Germany before. That particular one didn’t exactly end (and sadly, still hasn’t ended) on a note of unity. To be sure, the Church is always in need of reform, and the pastoral needs motivating the architects of the German Synodal Path are genuine, especially regarding those who feel marginalized in the Catholic Church. The fear of a revolt similar to Luther’s, however, is real, and very much on the minds of Catholic throughout the world. The tone and structure of this current Synodal Path suggest the tragically real possibility of rupture from Rome, especially if the German bishops ignore the experience of local churches in Africa and Asia where the apostolic Gospel message is actually thriving. The worry is that the Germans will unilaterally choose, in George Weigel’s pithy phrase, to decide “the truth of revelation and the contents of the deposit of faith by a ‘consensus’ created by a manipulative ecclesiastical bureaucracy attuned to the Zeitgeist.”
This situation reminds me of an amazing insight in Cardinal Ratzinger’s short book On Conscience: “It is strange that some theologians have difficulty accepting the precise and limited doctrine of papal infallibility, but see no problem in granting de facto infallibility to everyone who has a conscience.” If we substitute a national conference of bishops for an individual, the quote highlights the antithesis of communion as expressed in the marks of the Church: one, holy, catholic (meaning for everyone), and apostolic. No bridge-building is possible when a group accepts only the Church teachings that they like; the cost of synodality so understood is unity with Peter, the other apostles, and our fellow Catholics across the globe. The Ratzinger quote could also prompt us as individuals to an examination of conscience: what do I gain by employing secular opinion as the standard by which I judge the Pope and the teachings of my Catholic faith?
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.