The Pope’s new Secretary of State has said things which have thrilled the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ boys to bits: but there’s nothing here for them

Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's newly appointed secretary of state (CNS)

A piece by the American blogger John Thavis caught my eye earlier this week: “As pope meets Curia, new secretary of state makes waves”, it is ominously headlined. “As Pope Francis presided over a meeting of Roman Curia department heads today”, he begins, “his new pick for Secretary of State was making news on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Archbishop Pietro Parolin, in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, said among other things that the Church’s tradition of priestly celibacy was not dogma and was therefore open to discussion. And he said that while the church was not a democracy, it needs to reflect the democratic spirit of the times and adopt a collegial way of governing.”

All potentially alarming to such as me: but one always needs to assess these things in the full context of what was actually said: and Thavis rightly continues “Neither statement is exactly groundbreaking, but the fact that the new secretary of state feels free to make them says a lot about the current atmosphere in the Vatican.” That sounds about right: Pope Francis has certainly generated a lot of “atmosphere”; and this has led some commentators, especially among our own so-called “liberals” — who under Pope Benedict were on their last legs, but are now hoping excitedly for better things — to fit every story of this kind into their own fantatical narrative, about a liberal Pope about to turn everything upside down. And the word “collegial” is aways guaranteed to get them into a flat spin of hyperexcitement, which is where some of them now are. Everything, they think, is about to change. “Incoming Secretary of State Parolin hints at married clergy”, chunters a headline on The Tablet online.

The piece begins: “The issue of priestly celibacy is one of the thorniest issues facing Pope Francis, according to the Vatican’s new Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. Speaking over the weekend, the archbishop also said that a more democratic approach is called for within the Church and that he plans to overhaul the way the Holy See operates internationally.” “Oh, frabjous day”, the Tablet almost continues; “what larks!” Everything’s going to be overhauled!” At first, the Tablet’s American soulmate, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) seemed to be saying the same thing: “Comments on celibacy and democracy in the church by Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, whom Pope Francis named as the Vatican’s new Secretary of State on Aug. 31, are raising eyebrows today”, a comment piece begins, “with some wondering if they herald looming changes in Catholic teaching and practice.”

But actually, that’s only the first para, which turns out to be by the Fishwrap’s only sensible commentator, John L Allen, who continues thus: “In truth, Parolin’s comments represent what might be termed the standard moderate Catholic line – priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, and can therefore be revised, but it nonetheless has value, and the church is not a democracy but it can and should be more collegial.”

The big question is: what does Parolin mean by that vastly overused word “collegial”? This is what he says, replying to his interviewer’s question “You have said that changes must be made without dividing the church. Don’t you think that [could] be by consulting the whole church, its bishops? Wouldn’t it be a democratisation?”

“Certainly,” replies Archbishop Paqrolin. “It has always been said that the church is not a democracy. But it would be good during these times that there could be a more democratic spirit, in the sense of listening carefully, and I believe the pope has made of this one of his pontificate’s objectives. A collegial movement of the church, where all the issues can be brought up, and afterward he can make a decision.

I repeat: “and afterward he can make a decision”. So that’s OK, then, despite its hopeful interpretation by some. Collegiality here is represented as the Pope listening to the world’s bishops and laity and then deciding: and of course that’s what has always happened. But it is worthwhile looking more closely at what the words “collegial” and “collegiality” actually mean: for these are the “Spirit of Vatican II” boys’ favourite terms to convey their longed-for draining away of authority from the Holy See, and an accompanying access of authority to individual bishops, to the point at which they are virtually independent of the Pope and can say and do just what they like (I refrain at this point from giving English examples of this principle in action).

For, that’s not, of course, what “Vatican II” says about “collegiality” at all (those who know all this perfectly well already can log off now; I just think you can’t say it too often, both to traditionalist opponents of the Council and to liberal misrepresenters of it). The word doesn’t, in fact, appear at all in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: but in the glossary found in certain editions of the Catechism, “collegiality” is defined as “The principle that all the bishops of the Church with the Pope at their head form a single ‘college,’ which succeeds in every generation the ‘college’ of the Twelve Apostles, with Peter at their head, which Christ instituted as the foundation for the Church. This college of bishops together with, but never without, (my italics) the Pope has supreme and full authority over the universal Church”.

As for what “Vatican II” says about the matter, the relevant document is Lumen Gentium (and, for those who say that the Council has no doctrinal authority, this central document has at its head the words “DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH: LUMEN GENTIUM. SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY HIS HOLINESS POPE PAUL VI…” Note the words “dogmatic” and “solemnly promulgated”. And it says this, about the relationship of the bishops and the Pope; this is the teaching of Vatican II on the matter: Tabletistas please read carefully:

Para 18.
And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. Continuing in that same undertaking, this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God.

Para 19
The Lord Jesus, after praying to the Father, calling to Himself those whom He desired, appointed twelve to be with Him, and whom He would send to preach the Kingdom of God; and these apostles He formed after the manner of a college or a stable group, over which He placed Peter chosen from among them. He sent them first to the children of Israel and then to all nations, so that as sharers in His power they might make all peoples His disciples, and sanctify and govern them, and thus spread His Church, and by ministering to it under the guidance of the Lord, direct it all days even to the consummation of the world. And in this mission they were fully confirmed on the day of Pentecost in accordance with the Lord’s promise: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria, and even to the very ends of the earth”. And the apostles, by preaching the Gospel everywhere, and it being accepted by their hearers under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gather together the universal Church, which the Lord established on the apostles and built upon blessed Peter, their chief, Christ Jesus Himself being the supreme cornerstone.

So, there you are, boys; that’s what the “college” of bishops is: it’s a “stable group, over which He placed Peter chosen from among them”; got that? The word “collegiality” authentically conveys the precise opposite of Episcopal independence: the bishop has authority to pronounce only what is believed by all the other bishops, with the pope at their head; it’s not what he happens to think himself. It’s all there, clearly spelled out by “Vatican II”. Get used to it.