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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
A Constitution for the Catholic Church

By James E. Biechler

I am hearing more and more about ARCC's idea that the Catholic Church should call a "constitutional convention" by the turn of the century. What would be the point of that? The Church is one of the world's oldest institutions and I can't see what good some kind of constitutional revision could do. Sounds like more chaos and trouble to me. 
--G. C., Durham, NC 

Perhaps you are too young to remember the enthusiasm and dynamism which characterized the Church's life during the Second Vatican Council in the early 60's. Every day brought fresh ideas and vigor to our liturgy, to our teaching and discussions. That experience made it very clear--the Church is most alive when it is in council. Then it is most true to its nature as the community of those seeking God's truth and justice. 

From its very beginning the Church had a "conciliar" constitution. The scriptures tell us that the apostles themselves met in council and not without some disagreement about the issues. The problem with councils is that the Holy Spirit seems to be too active then. This is disconcerting in the corridors of power. Entrenched bureaucrats do not appreciate the "meddling" of those coming in from "beyond the beltway" bringing their own non-Roman insights and experience. Rome has always looked down its nose at the "rudes," the country folk who lack the elegance and style of the highly trained Vatican official. Most of these functionaries have no experience with ordinary people, they have little appreciation of the problems of ordinary Catholics who have to work hard to make a living and raise their children. The bishops and pastors of the world have had more such experience and it for this reason that they must meet together in council, even more frequently in this rapidly changing world, if the Church is going to be at all effective in its mission. 

I recently read the published statement of a Chicago priest who said, "I would encourage us to take off the eyeglasses of denial and to acknowledge that the church is dying...." Walbert Bühlman, the Capuchin missionary, in his book With Eyes to See: Church and World in the Third Millennium (Orbis, 1991) blames the Roman Curia for stifling the vision of Vatican II and creating a climate of repression in the Church. We need something analogous to a constitutional convention to redefine the relationships between the people and the Church's leaders. We need a constitutional convention to establish lines of responsibility and accountability. Under the present law no one in the leadership is accountable to the People of God. And the people have no real legal recourse in matters which concern them in the Church. 

As I write this response to your question, South Africa is in the midst of its first democratic election. No one who saw the news media footage could fail to be impressed by the overwhelming emotional response of the people to their first vote for those who would be their leaders. The first two babies born in South Africa on election day were named "Freedom" and "Happiness." When did you ever vote for anyone who would represent you in the Church? When did you ever have anything to say about your leaders? When is our day of "Freedom" and "Happiness" to dawn in the Church? 

May I repeat. From the beginning the Church had a "conciliar" constitution. That constitution has been "canonized" out of existence, mostly by modern papal absolutism, even though papal pretensions to absolutism existed before modern times. The medieval conciliar movement generated an impressive theological and juridical elaboration of the Church's conciliar constitution. The movement was "defined" out of existence by an absolutist papacy supported by other absolutist monarchs and princes. The democratic and participative heritage of the conciliar movement passed to the secular order and gave theoretical foundation to modern European and American constitutional and parliamentary government. Conciliar government has its foundation in the vision of the Gospel, in the biblical teaching on conscience, freedom, personhood, rights in justice, and the claims of truth. 

Perhaps you have trouble with the term "constitutional convention." Maybe you would be happier with the notion of "Vatican III for the Third Millennium," a General Council whose primary task it would be to restructure lines of governance and accountability in the Church. By whatever term it might be called, I don't see how any thinking Catholic can doubt that we desperately need something like a constitutional convention to halt the malaise now afflicting the Church. We need a constitutional convention and a conciliar understanding of the Church if true and living community is to develop. 

In his recent "Directory on the Priesthood" Pope John Paul II speaks about the false idea of community which denies the distinction between clergy and laity. From his lofty eminence it may seem that when the clergy-laity distinction is emphasized we have living community. In a hierarchical society the view of community always looks satisfying from the top. Things have a different aspect when the eyes must always be turned upward. In true community our eyes should be turned not upward or downward but horizontally toward our sisters and brothers, all equal before God. 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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