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

A Question of Rights
Petrine Monarchy or Christian Equality?

By James E. Biechler

I was just about to write you concerning your last column dealing with a possible constitution for the Catholic Church. I was going to suggest that such a constitution really is not necessary; the church has survived very well without one. But now that the pope has come out with his pulpit-thumping "definitive" decree condemning the very idea of the ordination of women I need no further convincing that such monarchical absolutism needs some kind of check. But just what kind of constitution would make sense?
--B. Q., Phoenix, AZ 

As I mentioned in my last column, the church had a "conciliar" constitution from the very beginning. The earliest account of the church's beginnings is found in the Acts of the Apostles. There we learn that the disciples made decisions "conciliarly." Confronted with the need to replace the dead Judas Iscariot, the disciples acted and decided as a group. Why didn't Peter, the so-called first "pope," simply appoint a replacement, the way the pope does today when a bishop resigns or dies? And when the burning question arose as to whether Gentile converts had to observe the Mosaic law, the matter was not resolved by an "infallible" decree from Peter. A "conciliar" approach, not without actual opposition to Peter, finally resolved the issue. Major decisions about doctrine or discipline in the first centuries of the church's life were made by synods or councils. 

The biblical tradition, especially the New Testament, teaches that human beings are equal before God, that they have a solemn responsibility in conscience to exercise their divinely given freedom for the welfare of the world and its humanity. These biblical principles exercised a profound influence in Western history and are at the root of the development of democracy and constitutional government. Throughout the Middle Ages, political bodies within the church--monasteries, dioceses, universities, religious orders--in varying degrees embodied the principles which Western democracies took over and refined. How ironic that secular governments and institutions are now seen to be the protectors of our God-given liberty and equality, while in the church the people are voiceless, ruled by an absolute monarch using the weapons of secrecy, suspension, and excommunication. 

Many in the church are calling for the adoption of a constitution in which the fundamental principles of Christian freedom and equality are made institutionally operative and are given institutionalized protection. Christian equality requires that people have a voice in the determination of matters affecting them and that these same Christians are given community protection when exercising their rights. The Second Vatican Council affirmed the principles of lay participation in ecclesiastical affairs, of lay initiative in the church's mission, of freedom of conscience in religious affairs, of episcopal collegiality and of equality of all before God. While some of these ideals are recognized in the post-conciliar Code of Canon Law, procedures which might effectively defend these ideals were not made available. The rights of lay person and cleric alike are, for the most part, mere assertions without actionable substance. Bishops and priests, unless they have special friends in high places, are as much at the mercy of Vatican power as are lay people. Lay people can do little or nothing when their bishop or pastor unilaterally pursues a plan of action at odds with their Christian convictions. Almost every day ARCC hears horror stories detailing the violations of rights in the church. Our regret is that little or nothing can be done as we witness the massive hemorrhaging occurring in the church under the present pope. 

The Second Vatican Council produced a splendid series of documents expressing Gospel truths for our time. Institutional structures embodying those ideals were only partially established by the time of Paul VI's death. Since that time the Vatican curia enjoys unconditional papal approbation for the anti-conciliar position which it manifested from day one of the council. The non-reception of Vatican II by the curia, its consistent retreat from and reversal of conciliar positions, its non-collegial treatment of bishops, its hardline, doctrinnaire treatment of theologians and its heavy-handed approach toward Third World inculturation of the Gospel message, all give urgency to the call for constitutional protection of our faith and its institutional expression. 

What happens when a pope tells the Catholic world, not that he refuses to change the law about the ordination of males only, but that God has eternally decreed that the church has no authority in this matter, and that Catholics are therefore forbidden to discuss it or even think it possible? The pope is requiring Catholics to make a judgment about God for which there is no basis is revelation. He is asking us to do something pretentious and therefore immoral. When a pope demands that the universal church act in a way that is antithetical to human nature, affronting all who enjoy the divine gift of reason and intellect, he should be made to answer to the universal church. The conciliar constitution of the church demands this accountability. 

ARCC's call for the adoption of a Catholic constitution is not the first initiative toward a formalized Catholic constitution. The reform of canon law after Vatican II envisioned a Lex Fundamentalis Ecclesiae, a fundamental law of the church, in essence a constitution, reflecting the conciliar reforms. Not surprisingly, that approach was abandoned and the revised code was very much like its predecessor. A formal constitution would have to establish structures of representation, collegiality, broad-based participation in decision-making, and due process. It would have to guarantee freedom of conscience and intellectual freedom; it would set limits on terms of office, provide for the election of church officials, and outline structures of accountability. It would give a more prominent role to councils and synods in overseeing the church's mission. 

The call for a formalized constitution for the church comes from the deep experience and anguish of Catholics, both lay persons and clerics, who love their church and cannot remain voiceless as church officials employ fascist maneuvers to buttress the untenable claims of Petrine monarchy while the local Christian community sees the church erode before its eyes. 


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

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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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