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Quo Vadis the Maltese Church?

Martin Scicluna Wednesday, 5 December 2012, 08:52 Last update: about 11 years ago

I have recently had the pleasure of reading a book by Mary McAleese, who was until last year the (elected) President of the Republic of Ireland. Mary McAleese, a Northern Irish Roman Catholic, has a Masters degree in Canon Law from the National University of Ireland and has completed a Licentiate in Canon Law at the Gregorian University in Rome.

The book is called “Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code Of Canon Law”. It is not the kind of book I would normally read and, indeed, the dry title may be a little off-putting. But it is an extremely readable and timely book – one which holds lessons not only for the Vatican, at which it is aimed, but also for the Church in Malta as it struggles to come to terms with the modern world.

“Quo Vadis” is a study into the Vatican Council's teachings on “collegiality.” Don't be put off by the Vatican jargon. Collegiality simply means “how power and responsibility were to be shared between the Pope and the College of Bishops within the Catholic Church” when the Second Vatican Council was set up 50 years ago. It is a term associated with the more democratic and open image of the Catholic Church advocated by Vatican II, to which many aspired.

For those who had high expectations of Vatican II, the last fifty years have been a story of how that power-sharing has been side-tracked, or not yet been fulfilled. Vatican II held out a new vision of the Church, one which turned away from the rigidly hierarchical structure of the past. Fifty years on, as Mary McAleese vividly brings out, there is neither an orderly progression, nor a fully developed and formed story. Sadly, collegiality has been allowed largely to wither on the vine.

Her study is primarily concerned with how the 1983 Code of Canon Law ( the crucial document designed to give voice and structure to the decisions and spirit of Vatican II) deals with collegiality. It quite surprisingly reveals that even in what one might consider a precise legal document there are variations of interpretation and a general absence of definition. Words like “college”, “collegiality” and “collegial” are used inconsistently in ecclesiastical law, something that is hardly conducive to inspiring confidence or clarity.

As explained by Mary McAleese: “The Pope has full, supreme and universal power of governance over the whole Church, which he can exercise personally or collegially at his discretion and without being answerable to anyone or any forum. No attempt is made to reconcile this with the College of Bishops, but the Pope, though head of the College, has no required reporting relationship to it”. How many chief executives of successful international companies around the world enjoy that much autonomy, I wonder.    

The book is at its best when it evokes the excitement engendered by Pope John XXIII's decision to call the Second Vatican Council, coming as it did ten years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was an event that made the main offices of state and church accountable for the just treatment of all its citizens. At the start of the 1960s the winds of change were sweeping through the western world, aided in no small degree by the growing influence of the mass media, developments in science and technology, philosophy and literature and changed perceptions of the role of women. All these factors had a huge impact on people's opinions and beliefs. When he convened the Council, Pope John XXIII was extremely mindful that the Catholic Church needed to read the signs of the times, to modernise or risk becoming irrelevant.

“Conservatives” within the Catholic Church would argue that collegiality is a recipe for disunity and schism within the Church. “Liberals” like myself, on the other hand, see it as a democratisation of the institution of the Church through the increased involvement of priests and laity in the decision-making process. But the current climate within the Vatican, and particularly the Curia - the civil service of the Church – is hostile to any further liberalisation of the Church's doctrines and customs, believing that the new mentality and outlook engendered by Vatican II has led to a slippage in terms of religious observance and the adoption of an a la carte approach to Catholic doctrine among many members of the clergy and the laity.

Although increased involvement of the laity at parish level, Mass in the vernacular with the priest facing the people, an opening out to other faiths and religions are concrete signs that some of the aspirations of Vatican II have been realised, the Church remains monolithic, monarchical and hierarchical in an era when a better educated and more discerning laity is no longer prepared to accept blindly the dictates handed down by Rome.

Attempts to open up the Church undoubtedly appealed to many of the younger priests and members of religious orders in 1962. But now, in the twilight of their careers, these same people find themselves disillusioned by the current attempts to claw back changes that resulted from the Council, or simply to ignore the urgent need for the Church to move with the times – as we saw so vividly demonstrated in Cardinal Martini's extraordinary plea from the grave in his death-bed interview with the Corriere della Sera.

The lower clergy, in particular, are resentful of the disconnect between them and the church hierarchy, who rarely consult them on liturgical changes or appointments, yet expect them to deal with increasing unease in their parishes. In addition, the initially inept management of the clerical abuse scandals by Church leaders around the world, the lack of accountability and honesty that characterised their responses, have left deep wounds among an increasingly secularised and cynical laity.

At a time when the Church is being subjected to civil investigations in relation to clerical child abuse, and when its official teachings are being ignored by a large number of practicing Catholics, it is strange to reflect, as Mary McAleese highlights, that the Church's governance has remained fundamentally unchanged. But the world has moved inexorably on. Sixty-five per cent of nations across the globe are now democracies. This makes it more difficult for people steeped in the questioning and participation that denote democratic values to tolerate authority delivered heavy-handedly from the top down, as  prevails within the Catholic Church today.

There are clear lessons in all of this for the Church in Malta. Malta now has the first seriously educated laity in its history. With our accession to the European Union and increasing education, people are  more conscious of their democratic rights and are prepared to be more questioning of their political or ecclesiastical masters. The top-down, monolithic nature of the Maltese Church is no longer an effective instrument. There needs to be a better connection between the hierarchy, its junior clerics and the wider laity. The governance structures need to be streamlined and modernised. Quo Vadis the Maltese Church?

Mary McAleese's book, “Quo Vadis,” should be required Christmas reading for the Bishops and hierarchy in the Maltese Curia.

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