Large organisations need to be run, they cannot simply run themselves. The first Christians soon discovered this and we see, in Acts and in the Epistles, a structure being developed, partly to allow for different charisma, and partly because even house churches need leaders. Church leadership is perhaps the most testing type of leadership. The successors of the Apostles are endowed with a great deal of spiritual as well as ordinary power, and if absolute power corrupts absolutely, then those exercising such power need our prayers even more than other leaders. There was once a time when the ruler could just say ‘off with his head’, and it was out of such episodes that more conciliar forms of governance arose – in England Magna Carta was a direct response to King John’s pressing of his powers beyond custom and practice; where rulers cannot be trusted to keep their word, their subjects look for ways to bind them, and, in extreme cases, to depose them.  

Church history is full of examples of the difficulties attendant on trying to secure consensus on issues of doctrine; nearly every schism has emerged from the failure to achieve agreement. Constantine embedded the idea of having a Church Ciuncil yo reach agreement on such matters; if he had expected good and holy men to find the way to agreement easy, Nicaea disabused him. Subsequent Councils, like the most recent Church Synods, suggest that if times change, human nature does not. The Church failed to find a consensus on the vexed issue of whether remarried people could receive Communion under any circumstances.  This came as a surprise to those who thought Canon Law already embodied a consensus; but, of course, what was really meant was that the Church had not agreed to trim its sails to the prevailing wind. So, after attempts to get the required consensus, attempts were made to assert that that consensus really had been reached. These were not authoritative voices, but the intended direction of travel was clear. Which is why, as they are bound to, some Cardinals asked questions of the Pope. He, as we know, has not replied. We hear voices raised taking unguardedly on both sides of the issue.

At which point we return to the subject of governance. The point of having a teaching Magisterium is that it should teach. The point of having Synods is they should allow the Pope to throw light on vexed issues. There is always the old way, of the ruler asserting that his will is the law. It is the old way for a reason – it has never ended well. So perhaps the Holy Father is wise to say nothing! Newman bade us drink to a well-formed conscience even before toasting the Pope – there is wisdom in that.

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