Framing collegiality

Pope Francis is posing challenges for episcopal conferences, writes Michael Higgins

Pope Francis never—and I mean, never—ceases to surprise.  His latest apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), is a bold, visionary, and utterly transparent  ‘statement’ of what he thinks about the Church, the challenges it faces globally as well as locally, and the demands of conversion.

One of these demands for conversion speaks directly to how power is exercised in the structures of the Church.  Cognisant that he should not call others to reform and renewal if not prepared to do so himself, Francis reminds his readers of John Paul II’s imaginative and prophetic invitation to papal correction, Ut Unum Sint, an encyclical that solicited responses from many quarters to offer advice on how to purify the papacy.  One archbishop actually followed up on the Pope’s invitation—John Quinn of San Francisco—and paid a heavy price in terms of controversy, negative criticism and collegial distrust.


John Paul’s encyclical appeared in 1996 and then two years later he issued a motu proprio—Apostolos Suos—in which he pointedly underscored the constraints around episcopal conferences (national and regional gatherings of bishops) as genuine bodies of collegiality. It may well have been the case that John Paul II was genuinely committed to papal reform but the appearance of a document two years after his invitation putting the brakes on one of the instruments of governance that could actually assist in such a reform generated confusion in some circles and anger in others.

Grave misgivings

There should have, however, been no real surprise. For some time Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had been asserting his grave misgivings around the theological status of episcopal conferences, the fact that they had in his mind acquired extra-juridical powers that constituted an impediment or obstacle to direct communication between an individual bishop and the Roman authorities, and that these very national conferences had increasingly assumed an independent role that could be understood to compromise the authority of the Vatican or isolate national bishops who didn’t fall in line with the conference’s position (on any number of theological, social, economic, moral or pedgagogical themes).

Now, Francis has reversed the previous position.  And not so subtly. In fact, this is one of the appealing features of the new papal style: an approach that is devoid of nuance, jargon, diplomatic niceties, casuistry and disingenuousness. He tells it the way he sees it. This can produce a few problems, admittedly, but in the end apostolic candor and not subterfuge is always preferable in the service of the Gospel.


By reinstating the function of episcopal conferences within the framework of collegiality and by accelerating his programme for decentralisation, Francis has performed a papal volte face and none too delicately.  Episcopal conferences, he reasons, “contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realisation of the collegial spirit. Yet this desire has not been fully realised, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would seem them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.  Excessive centralisation, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” 

The sad irony of these changes can be seen in the institutional fact that now, in light of the new thinking around episcopal conferences, much will depend upon their activity and resourcefulness at the time when they have been forced to contract personnel, eliminate offices, re-jig priorities, and ensure that their chairs or presidents operate deferentially under the scrutinising eye of Rome’s dicasteries.


Now they are called to be what they were envisioned to be. They will need to allocate appropriate monies and staff, re-build, and re-institute the infrastructure that facilitated wide consultation and coordinated national pastoral strategies.

The Unites States Episcopal Conference has reduced its staff and consolidated some of its operations; the Canadian Episcopal Conference has been more draconian and gutted its hitherto admirable operation. Neither enjoy the kind of public visibility and leadership they once exercised.


Their respective challenges will be to find the necessary funding at a time of severe budgeting, re-energise an often demoralised staff, hire to competency new personnel inspired by the Franciscan vision, and re-situate themselves as a serious and welcome power structure in their national Churches and a welcome recovery of the collegial spirit in the global Church.

Another Bergoglio bombshell.  But it is hard to imagine that once the bishops reorient their priorities and embrace the Pope’s disruptive but spirit-enflaming initiatives they will be more than a little pleased by this papal affirmation of their dignity and duty as shepherds.

The Church this side of the Atlantic is scrambling but it is more with joy than with panic, more in a spirit of adventure than in a spirit of fear.

Just like Advent.