January 19, 2019

Primacy vs. synodality

By Russell Shaw *
St Peter’s Basilica / Credit Yeo Khee on Unsplash
St Peter’s Basilica / Credit Yeo Khee on Unsplash

Something that happened at a bishops’ meeting nearly half a century ago raises questions about the Vatican’s action last month telling the U.S. bishops to cancel a scheduled vote on two proposals for self-policing on sex abuse. It also illustrates the built-in tension between two interlocking principles – “primacy” and “synodality” – that today are increasingly shaping the Church.

The earlier incident is recounted in my book about secrecy in the Church, Nothing to Hide (Ignatius). It occurred just before the general meeting of the American hierarchy held in April of 1972 in Atlanta. Five months earlier, the bishops had voted to set aside their practice of meeting behind closed doors and open the proceedings to the media and observers. As director of media relations for the bishops’ conference, I was one of those who’d argued for this step.

On the eve of the spring general assembly, the administrative committee of the bishops’ conference met to review the agenda. At a coffee break, Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, who’d been elected conference president the previous November, approached me holding a sheet of paper and looking angry.

The Cardinal had a reputation for being tough. But he also was notably fair man with a wry sense of humor. “I just got this message from Rome,” he said. “They’re very worried at the idea that the bishops are going to allow reporters in. They want me to prevent it. You know very well that I opposed the idea from the start. But the bishops voted for it, and it’s my job as president of the conference to see that their decision is carried out – and I will.”

He paused and, fixing me with a glare I took to be only partly humorous, added, “I bet you think that’s funny.”

Although the Cardinal proved good as his word, he also managed to take his revenge. As the meeting got underway, he addressed the bishops and reporters for the first several minutes in Latin.

Fast-forward to the bishops’ meeting last month in Baltimore and the scrubbing of the vote on the two proposals. This incident has been reported and commented on repeatedly since then. No need to repeat here much of what has already been said. 

But it is helpful to reflect on the tension clearly illustrated in what happened between synodality – the decision-making authority of a group of bishops such as an episcopal conference or a synod – and primacy – the absolute authority enjoyed by the pope and, by extension, agencies of the Roman Curia acting in his name to answer questions, settle issues, and make decisions anywhere in the Church. In noting this tension, furthermore, it’s helpful to consider the contrast between what happened in Baltimore and what happened in Atlanta in 1972. 

Although some element of conflict between primacy and synodality is unavoidable, it would make good sense to develop clearer ground rules for the relationship than apparently now exist. “We are not branch managers of the Vatican,” one bishop reminded his brothers during the debate in Baltimore. The Vatican no doubt would agree – and then go on to add that the pope always retains universal jurisdiction in the Church. Isn’t there some middle ground?

Back in 1972, when the term “synodality” was not yet in use, Cardinal Krol’s decision expressed the wisdom of letting local bishops facing sensitive practical issues handle them as they judge best, without last minute interventions by people in Rome who lack an experience-based grasp of the facts. That sounds like a sound principle to me. 

Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books, including three novels and volumes on ethics and moral theology, the Catholic laity, clericalism, the abuse of secrecy in the Church, and other topics. He has also published thousands of articles in periodicals, among them The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, L’Osservatore Romano, America, Crisis, Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Reporter, and many others. From 1967-1987 he served as communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops and from 1987-1997 was information director for the Knights of Columbus. He lives in Washington, D.C.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.