Catholic bishops and the magisterial codes of power

By J.P. Grayland
(Photo by Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/ dpa / picture-alliance/ Newscom / MaxPPP)

The recent curial letter to the German Bishops’ Conference regarding the establishment of a Synodal council that shares power between bishops and laity is not to be underestimated. Nor is it surprising.

Also unsurprising is the argument that canon law does not allow the power-sharing proposed by the German Synodal Council. Canon law did not permit the structure of the bishop’s Synod on synodality in Rome, either. But it still happened.

So why is the Vatican concerned about the German proposal? Its opposition to the German proposal lies in the threat it brings to the culture of power through ordination. Because Catholics share both implicit and explicit theologies that are both international and local, we have to construct semiotic codes (liturgy, magisterium, hierarchy, etc.) that enable us to relate to each other.

Semiotic codes use symbols that enable a Catholic from one language system to attend Mass in a second language system and “participate” at Mass because they “know what the priest is doing” or which part of the ritual is being used without literally understanding anything being said. Our symbolic systems enable us to determine whether something (liturgical, theological, or cultural) articulates the truth of the Paschal Mystery or not.

One of the most potent semiotic codes in Catholicism is the symbolic code of ordained power: the power to bless, decide, teach, govern, and obey are all encoded in the ordination rites and indoctrinated in seminarians throughout their training. Where this code breaks down, we experience a breakdown in the magisterial code of power, creating a magisterial frailty.

What we see in the Vatican’s letter to the German bishops, and in their response not to proceed with the Synodal Council, is the playing out of this central semiotic code. Equally, though for different reasons, in the non-reception of Fiducia supplicans, we see a breakdown of the magisterial code.

“Fiducia supplicans”

Although Fiducia supplicans exposed the underbelly of homophobia within the Church and the nationalism of episcopates in Africa and elsewhere to support cultural-political structures of discrimination, its most important message was its clear articulation of Catholicism’s central semiotic code, the potestas of the ordained which underpins the magisterial code. It did this through its muddled liturgical concept of blessing, but the message was clear.

The African hierarchs base their rejection of on an “African-exceptionalism” that removes them from submission to the magisterial system and enables them to create a parallel code of power based on their ordination that speaks with an African voice. The African claim to exceptionalism reflects a generalized experience of colonization and the rejection of “Westernism” as a valid form of contemporary theological inquiry and pastoral practice.

As a result, African prelates tend to speak of a Western, European, or Northern dissolute Church imposing its amorality on a morally intact African, Southern Church. By contrast, German Bishops have not claimed a German exceptionalism for their position, though this might be implicit for some. The German position reflects, as does the African one, the culture of local contexts to which they belong.

Interestingly, the Vatican’s response to the African bishops’ opposition to Fiducia supplicans has been more welcoming of debate, more synodal. In contrast, its response to the German situation has been a solid call to conformity, uniformity, and obedience.

In the German situation, we see the movement of centralizing forces to protect a central semiotic code threatened by a diversification of relationships that can potentially change long-standing presumptions of the magisterial system. Simply put, the laity are not encoded into the magisterial system as decision-makers but as recipients of decisions made.

Why are conformity, uniformity, and obedience applied as a brake to the German Church’s synodal process but not to the African bishops? There are two aspects I would offer for consideration.

Changing the magisterial structure

The first is the difference in their approaches to the symbolic system of ordained power. Unlike the German Bishops, the African bishops do not propose a power-sharing system with the laity; instead, they have used the semiotic code to justify their episcopal worldview.

The second reason is the intra-Church struggle between “cultural Catholicism” and “cultural Catholic theologies” within the Latin Rite. How diversity and unity are understood theologically within Catholicism determines how we deal with diversification, pluralism, and dissent.

Through their rejection of Fiducia supplicans, the African bishops have shown that the local-universal relationship cannot continue to be expressed through a magisterial structure of centralization, conformity, and uniformity. Through their promotion of an episcopal-lay power-sharing structure, the German Bishops have shown the same, though their recent response is ambivalent.

The question for the future is not whether the Church can change but how it will change its magisterial structure to enable Catholicism to operate globally in a technologically driven information age as the community of “baptized strangers” who are united in Christ and divided by culture.

One of the fundamental changes to the magisterial structure will have to begin with the code of ordination and power. Previously, this question was answered through a rigid uniformity and a magisterial structure that demanded obedience and adherence to a set of teachings and a single liturgical structure.

Now, the Church’s biggest challenge—theologically and organizationally—is to figure out how unity works in a context that requires diversity in liturgical practice, pastoral practice, doctrinal explication, and organizational management without losing sight of the Paschal Mystery.

Intra-Church dialogue and a more inclusive magisterial system

The power-sharing structure proposed by the German bishops and the rejection of Fiducia supplicans by the African bishops represent deeper issues faced by the magisterial system in a Church organizationally enfeebled by its central semiotic system of power. The protagonist of change is culture. “Cultural Catholicism” in all its variety cannot be ignored, nor can it be managed through a magisterial system structured around adherence to centralization through conformity, uniformity, and obedience.

Synodality offers Catholicism a platform for dialogue between local Churches. Intra-Church dialogue works where the listening is contextual, in that one listens to the speaker’s economic, social, societal, ecological, and religious context. Such a process might enable us to comprehend our “Catholic pluralism”.

Intra-Church dialogue would help us explore the cultural-religious relationship within each cultural-Catholicism and the dynamics of diversity and unity between Churches. It could help us create an inclusive, not exclusive, magisterial system. The outcome of this dialogue will shape the future of the Church’s governance and its ability to witness to the Gospel in an increasingly pluralistic and interconnected global community.

The critical question facing the Church today is not whether it will change but how it will change. The current debates over synodality, ecclesial governance, and the role of the laity are not mere administrative concerns. They are fundamentally about the identity and mission of the Church in the 21st century. As the Church navigates these waters, it must find ways to honor its traditions while also responding to the legitimate aspirations of its members for greater participation and representation.

J. P. Grayland is currently visiting professor at the University of Tübingen in Germany. A priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North (New Zealand) for nearly 30 years, his latest book is titled: Catholics. Prayer, Belief and Diversity in a Secular Context (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).

Thanks to La Croix International.


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