The Church Stands Apart from Other Social and Political Structures
ROME, 20 OCT. 20 2001 (ZENIT)
As the Synod of Bishops enters its final phase, a key topic raised by
participants is the relationship of bishops and the episcopal
conferences with the Pope and the Curia. Some bishops suggested that the
principle of subsidiarity be applied to the government of the Church.
Bishop Norbert Brunner of Sion, Switzerland, commented: "Subsidiary
structures are needed within the Church. At the universal level of the
Church, what is necessary for the unity of the Church should be the only
things resolved centrally."
Bishop Jayme Henrique Chemello, president of the Brazilian episcopal
conference, proposed the decentralization of some matters to the
conferences and the individual bishops. He spoke of applying
subsidiarity to "produce a healthy and effective decentralization
of the exercise of the salvific power in the Church."
Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the U.S. episcopal conference, also
mentioned subsidiarity. "For ecclesial solidarity to be genuine and
effective, it must incorporate appropriate subsidiarity," he
At the same time, Bishop Fiorenza said there are open questions
concerning the application of subsidiarity to Church structures.
"Is it a valid ecclesiological expression of 'communio' and
not just a sociological principle that cannot be properly adapted to the
transcendent reality of the Church?" he asked.
He also posed the problem of how subsidiarity could be applied without
putting in danger the position of the Holy Father in his role of
governing the Church and preserving "its precious gift of
unity." It is also necessary to prevent the introduction of a
"spirit of nationalism," or "reducing the universal
Church to a federation of particular Churches," noted Bishop
Limits to subsidiarity
According to the archbishop of Lublin, Poland, Jozef Miroslaw Zycinki,
it is incorrect to apply the principle of subsidiarity to all types of
concepts. He observed that there are areas of "theoretical
knowledge where no subsidiarity principle could be applied."
Regarding subsidiarity in relation to the Church, the archbishop
distinguished two meanings of the principle: a weak version and a strong
version. The first would not be controversial in that it "deals
with the practical application of a universal principle to the life of a
local ecclesial community," he said. In that sense, subsidiarity is
already in practice in the Church and there is no need for further
The strong version of subsidiarity, however, "deals with the
situation in which a given local community would like to decide by
itself what kind of theological principle should be accepted as a
doctrinal basis for its pastoral practice," said Archbishop Zycinki.
"This second understanding of subsidiarity cannot be reconciled
with Catholic ecclesiology."
On Oct. 11 the assistant general relator of the Synod of Bishops,
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, presented a
summary of the addresses made by the bishops. In relation to
subsidiarity, he noted that on several occasions the bishops had asked
for further study, as recommended by the Extraordinary Synod of 1985, on
the level at which this principle could be applied to the Church.
But Cardinal Bergoglio also observed that Pius XII, Paul VI and John
Paul II, "referring to the singular hierarchical structure of the
Church, existing by the will of Christ, exclude an application of the
principle of subsidiarity to the Church, which was univocal with the way
this principle is intended and applied in sociology."
The cardinal explained that a bishop possesses the power needed for the
exercise of his office, which is autonomous and protected. This power,
however, "coexists with the supreme authority of the Pope, who is
also episcopal, ordinary and immediate over all the churches and over
all the shepherds and faithful." It would not be correct to seek
some kind of automatic resolution of the tension between these two
functions by means of an appeal to the principle of subsidiarity, said
Origins of subsidiarity
Subsidiarity first came to prominence in the Church's teaching in Pius
XI's 1931 social encyclical "Quadragesimo Anno." Nos.
79-80 clearly state subsidiarity is intended as a "principle of
social philosophy" that seeks to protect individuals and smaller
bodies from an unjustified loss of authority through an excessive
concentration of power at higher levels.
Pope John XXIII reaffirmed subsidiarity in both "Mater et
Magister" and "Pacem in Terris." In the first
encyclical, Nos. 51-58, John XXIII applied the principle to the exercise
of authority by public authorities, particularly in the economic field.
In the second encyclical, Nos. 140-141, the Pope extended the
application of subsidiarity to the international level, but always
restricting it to the exercise of power in the area of politics or
Subsequent formulations of subsidiarity—"Centesimus Annus,"
No. 48; Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1883-5—have not
changed the essential meaning of the principle, or tried to apply it in
any way to the structures of the Church.
The reluctance of not a few participants in the synod to apply the
principle of subsidiarity to Church government stems from the nature of
the principle as a sociological concept intended to regulate authority
in political and economic spheres. While the Church is also a social
reality, it is much more than a political structure.
In its document on the nature and mission of the Church, "Lumen
Gentium," the Second Vatican Council employed the theologically
rich concept of collegiality rather than that of subsidiarity in
describing how episcopal functions should be exercised in relation to
the authority of the Pope and Curia. "Episcopal college" is a
term used by Vatican II, not in a legalistic manner, but as a
theological concept referring to the union between all the bishops. The
episcopal college unites each bishop in communion with its head, the
Pope, and in union with the Supreme Pontiff the college exercises the
supreme authority in the Church.
The collegiality between the bishops goes further than a restricted
political reading of authority. The Church is not the same as a civil
authority, where a balance of power needs to be maintained between the
parts of the organism. Nor does ecclesiastical authority draw its
validity from the will of the governed as a delegated power, but
proceeds rather from the divine plan for the Church as revealed by Jesus
A collegial exercise of authority where union with Rome is maintained
avoids the danger of a decentralized structure where a bishop or group
of bishops could act in a way that endangers the unity of the Church.
John Paul II touched on this matter in his apostolic letter Novo
Millennio Inuente. In No. 44 he wrote of the value of the Petrine
ministry and episcopal collegiality. "These are realities which
have their foundation and substance in Christ's own plan for the
Church," John Paul II stated, "but which need to be examined
constantly in order to ensure that they follow their genuinely
evangelical inspiration." ZEA0110203