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Power & the Papacy

Centralized Control vs. Collegiality

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There is a lot of debate in the Catholic Church about the nature of the Church and how individual Catholics should relate to it. On the one side are those who take an authoritarian stand, insisting that authority in the Church flows from the top down, with Church members obligated to obey the hierarchy’s directives in all things.

On the other side are those who argue instead that authority flows from the bottom up — the Church is the collection of members and the hierarchy works to serve those members, rather than the other way around. They also argue that a Catholic can, in good conscience, disagree with directives from Church leaders while also remaining good Catholics.

Those in the latter group are strongly influenced by the Second Vatican Council, which insisted on using the term “the Church” in a manner with a very old pedigree: that it refer to the entire body of believers. According to this, then, the “Church” includes all Catholics. The successes and failures of each Catholic are thus the successes and failures of the Church itself. Pope John Paul II and his hierarchy have worked to turn the clock back to a more medieval usage in which the term refers only to the highest organs of doctrinal control.

One symptom of the current political struggle for control of the Catholic Church was the issuance of Liturgiam Authenticam. Through this, the church’s hierarchy furthered their effort to centralize power in the curia by assuming greater centralized control over liturgy and scripture.

Previously, Vatican II allowed churches around the world to make decisions on how to translate texts in ways which made the most sense to local populations and local culture. According to the Second Vatican Council, “the split between religious faith and daily life” is one of the worst errors of the modern age.

According to LA, translations must be made that are “proper to liturgical language,” even if that means that it is done with a “manner of speech that is obsolete in daily usage.” The target appears to be a method of translation known as “dynamic equivalency.” Instead of creating a literal, word-for-word translation, the goal of dynamic equivalency is to render the original text in a form which communicates the same basic ideas as the original did to those who first created it.

An example of where dynamic equivalency is important would be the book of Jeremiah, where the author often refers to God as the ultimate judge of his “kidneys.” In the ancient world, it was a common assumption that the kidneys were the location of one’s conscience, just as the heart was thought to be the location of emotions. Vernacular still makes use of the latter, but the former has long since fallen away and been forgotten.

Should Jeremiah be translated literally and confuse everyone, or should “kidney” be replaced with something that makes more sense, like “mind”? As long as a note about what was in the original is included, the latter is the best choice if you actually want to communicate to believers and potential believers — but according to Liturgiam Athenticam, that will no longer necessarily happen.

No longer will local Catholic leaders be able to make decisions which affect local Catholics. Instead of decisions being made by conferences of bishops — a meeting of peers working for a common cause — Rome will have complete control over what does and does not happen. This, of course, is a primary reason why many bishops and other church officials expressed dismay and even outrage when the document was released. They weren’t consulted before it was issued and now they are in the unpleasant situation of having to defend to their flock a directive they do not entirely accept.

Not all bishops are opposed to it, and even those who are upset will not deny that the Vatican should have some say in how church documents are translated — especially when it comes to the most important texts. However, that does not change the fact that “collegiality” is very important to the bishops who are used to making decisions as a group rather than being middle-managers who follow orders to avoid rocking the boat.

As power gradually shifts, step by step, from local bishops to the centralized hierarchy in Rome, the nature of the Catholic Church will also shift. No longer will we see the modern institution that has been developing since the 1960s, but rather a more medieval institution which many had hoped had disappeared for good. The Roman Catholic Church has always been an institution which has kept alive authoritarian ideals in the face of growing democratization and liberalization, and that may only continue to get worse.

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