Friday, 4 February 2011

Bishops, communion, the local and the universal

I'm afraid I just don't understand Fr Ray's posting of Thursday Anaxios. Fr Ray tells the story of a woman deeply scandalised by the actions of her own bishop. While sympathising with her, he reports:

Though I could understand her feelings I told her that if she was not in communion with her own bishop then she could not claim to be in communion with the Holy See.

Fr Ray goes on to apologise for not speaking up on this lady's behalf, which is typical of his kindly heart. But, it is the theology represented by the quotation I just lifted that troubles me. Surely, that statement has to be highly nuanced from a theological perspective but let us take a historical starting point. The fact is that down the centuries, numerous heretics and schismatics have started their careers under the shade of a mitre. One early example that springs to mind is Nestorius whose heresy led to the solemn declaration of the divine maternity of Our Lady. Now, it was precisely a layman who was the first to challenge Archbishop Nestorius publically on this issue. In fact, he took Nestorius to task, so I understand, during a sermon which Nestorius was preaching.

Now, wasn't this brave individual expressing his non-communion with his bishop in that very moment? And should we conclude that in that very moment the price of fidelity to the gospel was infidelity to the Church? Surely not. Surely, the issue of communion with one's bishop is posterior to one's unity with the universal Church. Wasn't this the very point over which Cardinal Ratzinger clashed with Cardinal Kasper some years back? The former held that the universal Church was prior by nature to the local, while the latter held the contrary position. Perhaps I oversimplify the issue, but I think if we insist on the principle of being in communion with one's bishop in order to be in communion with the Holy See, we are effectively prioritising the local over the universal. One could even ask who exactly is my 'local bishop'? Is it the bishop of the place I am domiciled? Or is it the bishop in those places where I assist at Mass? And how is my unity to the Church determined by such a pure accident of geography, especially when that principle is not itself indefectible?

I'm not for a minute here suggesting that the local bishops are merely the branch managers of the Church universal. But in this sense they definitely are: that all local churches are defectible parts of the Church! They are branches that fall off or that can be lopped off. The local church undertakes the various missions of preaching, sanctifying and ruling which derive from the commission of the Apostles, but none serve the role of the Rock save one.

So, what about this maximalisation of the local church? Call me a cynic but I cannot help but wonder at the convergence of this kind of thinking with a period in which bishops have collectively shown as much irresponsiblity as any previous generation, if not more.

But it seems to me there is a third way between the sedevacantist position of Fr Ray's interlocutor and Fr Ray's own position: that if the price of one's communion with the bishop appears to be a rupture with the Holy See, then it is too high a price to pay. Or, to take another parallel situation, the Nuremberg defence, in criminal law as in canon law, is surely no defence at all.


Anagnostis said...

You raise an interesting general point distinct from, but not unrelated to, the ecclesiological one:

What is it that breeds and fosters "irresponsibility"?

Ches said...

Good question, Anagnostis. I might blog about that one!

Fr Ray Blake said...

I've just found this post.

I think charity demands a presumption of good faith in others, especially one's Father in God, the Bishop for whom prays in the Mass. The Canon presumes our communion with him, as with the Pope. The Canon suggests a double communion with the Pope and Bishop, with the local and universal Church.
One can criticise or correct, refute or rebuff but until a bishop is deposed one has to be in communion with him, and all Catholic bishops, we can't be selective.
One can avoid his company, his preaching, even his celebration of the sacraments but not communion with him.
Denial of that, is ultimately about taking to oneself an authority only the Church has.

It would be unthinkable to be in communion with some of the Apostles but not all of them.

Ches said...

Point taken, Father Ray, but what does it mean to be in communion with a bishop when one avoids his preaching and sacraments and can avoid his jurisdiction by crossing a diocesan boundary? I might pick this up in another post.

Fr Ray Blake said...

It is certainly far less than perfect!
And I am not sure that it quite works to say I am communion with the office but not the man.

Yet in the Church we are in communion with saints and sinners but are we in communion with heretics? The Church, in practice, has always made a distinction between formal and informal heretics which includes the invincibly ignorant.
In the past our presumption has been bishops teach and hold the Catholic faith.