Why Subsidiarity Doesn't Apply to Episcopal Power

Author: ZENIT



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 affirmed.

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 Fiorenza.

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 debate.

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 Cardinal Bergoglio.

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 economics.

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 Christ.

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  

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