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By whose authority?…a Bishop has ultimate authority in a diocese

The following article was written by Rev Dr David Pascoe, Associate Professor of St Paul’s Theological College at the ACU National Brisbane Campus:

The Second Vatican Council is one authority that has not been questioned in the sad division within the Catholic Church around the standoff between the parish priest of St Mary’s, South Brisbane, and Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane.

On the one hand, Fr Peter Kennedy publically appeals to Vatican II for how St Mary’s is an expression of the council’s teaching.

On the other hand, Archbishop Bathersby grounds his assessment that St Mary’s is not in communion with the Catholic Church on the council’s theology of communion.

For some, of course, the above opposition might be all too easily resolved. My side is in the right; the other is in the wrong! But going beyond this all too simplistic view one way toward some resolution is to go back to the sources and ask the question: what does Vatican II teach on the legitimate authority for the ongoing formation of the Church?

A helpful first point of departure is Fr Tom Elich’s article on the matter of liturgical issues, The Bells of St Mary’s. He connects the tradition of the Church’s liturgy to ongoing communion in the Church, both over time and in the present, but with legitimate diversity.

He acknowledges that, “the Catholic liturgy has shown itself quite capable of embracing such variety, but the presumption is always that such variation takes place within the communion of the Body of Christ”.

Confirmation of this assessment is articulated in the opening words of Vatican II’s document on the liturgy, which gives the council its direction and purpose.

The council upholds both principles of a deep continuity with the long historical tradition of the Church along with an acknowledgement of the possibility of the need to adapt those structures of the Church, which are subject to change.

This is not a matter of just anything goes!

There is a clear creative tension between a holding-onto the Church’s tradition, with an adaption in various circumstances that always remains in accord with the Church’s tradition.

This tension is very real and raises the further question, how is legitimate adaptation decided in the Church? By whose authority?

The Second Vatican Council did a great many good things, which has brought the Church to re-forge its identity and renew its strength of purpose for mission in proclaiming the Gospel in the world.

One of these good things is how the council re-configured the Church’s focus on the significance of each and every local Church; that is, each and every diocese.

All Catholic dioceses together form the one communion of the Catholic Church.

Twenty years after the close of the council, the 1985 Synod of Bishops looked back at Vatican II and determined that the most appropriate key for interpreting the council was its self-understanding of the Church in terms of “communion” (communion within God, the Church’s communion with God, communion within a local church, and communion between local churches).

With this re-focus Vatican II did two things, which cannot be separated from each other. Simultaneously, the council focused on the bishop as the one entrusted with the task of safeguarding this sacred communion within and between every diocese and all the people who are the Church in each diocese.

Grounded in renewed emphasis on both the rights and obligations of all who are baptised the council sought to promote the full, active, conscious participation of all the faithful, which of course includes the bishop, and particularly in the Church’s liturgical life, as its aim before all else.

Since Vatican II this emphasis on liturgical participation has had a flow-on to many aspects of people’s understanding of participation in the whole life of the Church.

Along with this is the council’s teaching on the relationship between the bishop and the people within a diocese and particularly that between the bishop and priests in a diocese that informs our discussion on legitimate authority in the Church as a communion.

Vatican II teaches that the bishops are the legitimate successors to the apostles. Together, all the bishops, with the pope, as teachers and pastors, continue the apostolic college in the Church: “all of them jointly are responsible for the whole Church”.

As diocesan bishops each bishop has particular care of a local church or diocese. Vatican II teaches that the bishop has the authority in this local church in the areas of sanctifying (liturgy), teaching (belief) and governing (order).

This does not reduce or take away from the apostolic character of the whole Church, of all the people who are the Church.

Rather, the bishops, together and individually re-present the apostolic nature of the communion of the Church.

Vatican II describes the local church dimension of the relationship between the bishop, priests and people in one place in these words:

“the principle manifestation of the Church consists in the full, active participation of all God’s holy people in the same liturgical celebrations, especially in the same Eucharist, in one prayer, at one altar, at which the bishop presides, surrounded by the college of priests and by his ministers.”

The council continues its discussion on these relationships in a local church realistically acknowledging the necessity of parish groupings of the faithful, which are set up even more locally “under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop”.

It is in the light of this understanding that Vatican II teaches on the relationship between the bishop and the priests of a diocese.

Parish priests, while collaborators with the bishop are “under the authority of the bishop” in their care of a parish. Vatican II continues with this understanding:

“In exercising the care of souls parish priests and their assistants carry out their work of teaching, sanctifying and governing in such a way that the faithful and the parish communities may feel that they are truly members both of the diocese and of the universal Church.”

The above does not attempt to respond to all the issues of authority and governance in the Catholic Church.

Rather, in a situation where divergent claims to the one accepted authority – here Vatican II – are made, a return to what this original accepted authority actually says is presented.

An implication of the above is, for example, for a parish priest and/or local parish community to claim ultimate authority for adaption of the Church’s liturgy is simply not the case.

The bishop of a diocese has the ultimate authority in a diocese in all the areas of liturgy, belief and governance, as he holds this in communion with all bishops together who are in the communion of the Catholic Church.

Released by The Catholic Leader

March 8, 2009

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