Spiritual Marriage

Fr. Buckley states case for restoring a stronger link between bishops and local churches

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

In the early centuries of the Catholic Church, notes Canisius Professor of Theology Michael Buckley, SJ, few things were more sacrosanct than the relationship between a bishop and his local church: The church had a strong say in the choice of its bishop, he explains, and the bishop - except in rare cases - never left it for another diocese.

"It's been described as a 'spiritual marriage,'" said Fr. Buckley, director of the Jesuit Institute. "The union between the bishop and his local church was understood as far more profound than that of jurisdiction, or even of sacramental functions. There were canons which specified the church's voice in the selection of the bishop and prohibited the bishop's move to another see."

While this legislation has eroded over the past millennium for a variety of reasons, Fr. Buckley offers suggestions for considering its restoration in the recently published book Papal Primacy and the Episcopate: Towards A Relational Understanding . The book is based on a monograph Fr. Buckley presented at a 1996 symposium held by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Vatican City in response to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Ut unum sint . Fr. Buckley was present at the request of the congregation prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Canisius Professor of Theology Michael Buckley, SJ. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

Like the symposium for which it was written originally, the monograph addresses the character of papal leadership, and its service to episcopate and to the Church as a whole - an issue, Fr. Buckley notes dryly, which has generated considerable controversy over the centuries. Anticipating the potential for such discord, Fr. Buckley says, he sought to carefully lay out a framework in which to discuss the relationship between the primacy and the episcopate.

"The proposals this book advances do not constitute an original position per se ," said Fr. Buckley. "On the contrary, they suggest a return to practices that were normalistic in the Catholic Church for almost all of the first millennium. This exploration is undertaken without judging how wise or unwise were the decisions that over the more recent centuries led to the present state of affairs.

"What needs to be asked is, does the current settlement detract from the effectiveness of papal primacy to foster the vigor of the episcopate?" he continued. "Would papal restoration of ancient legislation on the selection of bishops and their stability within their sees contribute significantly to the strengthening of the episcopate and the local churches today?"

A major part of the controversy over such aspects of papal leadership, Fr. Buckley said, lies in the language used in the discussions. The term "primacy" itself is "systematically ambiguous," he points out: "Primacy" originally concerned patriarchal sees or bishops, then it became restricted to papal primacy, and further distinguished in controversies into a primacy of honor and/or jurisdiction. In the book, Fr. Buckley uses the term as "shorthand for papal primacy, while recognizing its very legitimate and ancient variations in meaning and in application."

Similarly, any examination of the primacy and episcopate faces the enormous challenge of separating theology from ideology, Fr. Buckley added.

With these parameters, Papal Primacy and the Episcopate outlines the various elements and functions in the primacy-episcopate relationship. In one chapter, Fr. Buckley describes the "twofold unity" - unity of the episcopate and of the faithful - which constitutes the fundamental mission of the primacy, and in the next explains how this unity is expressed in communion.

Later chapters explore the introduction into theological discourse of the concept of collegiality - the bishops' relationships with one another in the College of Bishops and their collective responsibility for the entire Church. Lastly, the book explores the relationship of primacy, episcopate and local churches.

From what he has been able to judge, said Fr. Buckley, Papal Primacy and the Episcopate received a generally favorable response, and he hopes it can make a contribution to the further dialogues on church leadership advocated by Ut unum sint .

"The primacy is one of God's great gifts to the Church," Fr. Buckley added. "It is vital to the degree that the episcopate is strengthened and united, just as the episcopate is vital to the degree that the people of God it is to serve are actualized and local churches are brought into the communion and the freedom that is their sacramental heritage."

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