A LETTER TO ARCHBISHOP
SECRETARY OF THE CONGREGATION
DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH
PO BOX 4053,
MANUKA. ACT. 2603.
20 April 1998.
Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone,
Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith,
Palazzo del S. Uffizio,
00120 Citta del Vaticano.
Vatican City State.
Dear Archbishop Bertone,
Re: Your ref. 96/82-05519
Unfortunately, I have not
received any response from you to my letter of two and a half months ago.
So, as a gesture of my willingness to participate in some form of reasonable
discussion of the concerns your Congregation has with my book Papal
Power, I have decided to initiate the dialogue by responding to
the Observations of your anonymous consulter. However,
because of my commitment to open discussion of these issues I wish to reiterate
that I will make this letter public.
But before addressing specific
issues, I think it is important to mention firstly some of the unanswered
questions involved in what is now being called in Australia "the Collins
case". I still remain ignorant of who it was who delated my book
to your Congregation. Subsequent events in Australia have suggested
to me, and to a number of other informed people here, that one or other
of the bishops may have played a role in the delation, but because your
process protects accusers, one cannot say definitely and we may be entirely
wrong in our suspicions.
The serious problem with
anonymous denunciation is that it breeds suspicion. Accusers act
in the dark and do not have to assume moral responsibility for what they
do, so there is an inevitable perception of injustice. I am obliged
to answer publicly for my book, but they can act silently, without having
to assume any public responsibility for their attacks on me and my perceived
Let us now turn to the consulter's
When I first received the Observations I showed them to an
Anglican friend, a theologian unacquainted with the ways of the Roman bureaucracy.
He commented that the Observations were written as though
Power was written in a vacuum and had no relationship to me.
He went on to say that the book was the product of my experience and ministry
and some knowledge of that would be needed to make a mature judgement of
This notion of context is
the second point that I want to emphasise with you. The book emerges
from my life and ministry which, for the last two decades has been lived
out in an attempt to explain some of the riches of the Catholic tradition
for those educated Catholics who are struggling to remain intellectually
honest in the church, or for those who no longer find that the church meets
their intellectual needs. I have also tried to speak to the broader
educated community that, perhaps unfairly, often sees the Catholic church
as an outdated rump focused only on the issues of sexuality and social
conservatism. Because of the way we Catholics often present ourselves
in Australia, the richness and breadth of the tradition of Catholicism
has been lost, and we are perceived in public discourse as a church with
a very blinkered vision.
The context of my attempt
to communicate with the people of today has been the media - radio, TV
and, to an increasing extent, the written word. I do not think it
would be immodest to say that I have had some success. This was acknowledged
by one prominent Australian Catholic theologian who, when commenting on
my contretemps with your Congregation, said: "Paul Collins has won a sympathetic
hearing for Christian positions among people who would normally class themselves
as the 'educated despisers of religion' ... [and] has attracted many young
people who had assumed that the church has nothing to say on the issues
of the day".
Thus the book has a context,
but your consulter seemingly regards it as though it existed in the abstract.
His Observations would have had more credibility with fair-minded
people if they had an introduction saying something like: "This is who
Paul Collins is and this is what he has tried to do. Now let's look at
the book in the light of that". Instead, there is an attempt at a
kind of "objectivity" that proceeds as though I did not exist.
is not, and was never meant to be, an academic treatment of theological
issues. It is popular theology written for an intelligent lay audience.
In the book I explicitly say that I am not a theologian (p 5) and I make
it clear that my approach is both historical and practical. This,
of course, does not excuse me from being doctrinally and historically accurate.
Interestingly, if you read
them carefully, most of the criticisms of your anonymous consulter are
actually inferences drawn from the book rather than clear
statements of mine that have been found to contain specific doctrinal problems.
The book is also explicitly
ecumenical in intention and is directed to members of the other Christian
churches. In Papal
Power I have tried
to explain as openly as possible the Catholic doctrines of ecclesial governance,
while remaining true to the tradition, as a gesture of openness toward
those Christians separated from us. I believe that my approach in
many ways mirrors the approach taken in official ecumenical dialogues,
which are often sponsored by the Holy See.
The Observations begin
by saying that "the book is primarily a critique of papal primacy and ordinary
magisterium". This is simply a completely mistaken reading of the
book. It is much broader than that. It fundamentally attempts
to deal with the major structural issues facing the Catholic church today
and makes suggestions as to how we might move as a church community into
the future. In the process
Papal Power deals with issues
such as Christian leadership in the New Testament and the early church
as a model for today (pp 139-143; 149151), the churches and ecumenism (pp
111-117), the collegiality of bishops (pp 14-20; 185-187), councils and
the future of the church (pp 197-203), the role of theologians (pp 15-20),
priestly celibacy (pp 101-103), and much more.
At first sight one of the
most extraordinary comments made by your consulter's
is that my "presentation implies that a true and binding revelation does
not exist". (Note well, he uses the word "implies". As I said above,
we are dealing here with an inference, not a fact). At first I could
not believe that I was reading this. Excuse my bluntness, but I found
that an insulting comment, given that the man making it was hiding behind
a mask of anonymity, and that he was a person who clearly knew nothing
I have spent much of the
last two decades of my life standing up for the Catholic church in public
life in Australia, often having to face hard questions in the media, for
example in the area of clerical sexual abuse. There have not been
many of us who have stood up and been counted in public as people explicitly
committed to the Catholic church. I am sure you can understand that
to have someone chosen by the Holy See to then imply that I do not believe
in the truth of Christianity is rather hard to take.
It was only when I cooled
down that I realised that much in the Observations could
be explained by the fact that your consulter and I are coming from different
I am a Catholic believer,
indeed a passionate one, but for me faith is always lived out within the
context of history. Thus our theological understandings are always
determined and limited by the constraints of culture and human experience.
We can never exhaust in any one theological approach or statement the transcendent
and mysterious realities that underlie and give context to our beliefs.
Among these realities is the church, whose mystery we are constantly challenged
to explore. My belief is that in all of this the Holy Spirit of God
is alive and active, constantly guiding the church. Our understanding
of ultimate mystery is always developing.
Something of this was well
expressed recently here in Australia by Father Kevin Dance, CP. He
is the President of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes,
and commenting on "the Collins case", and another public ecclesiastical
dispute here, he said: "The Catholic church is committed to truth, but
discovering truth is a process not an accomplishment. Truth is dynamic,
not static". Exactly !
What I try to do in Papal
Power, albeit in terms of popular theology, is to examine something
of the development of the structure and government of our church.
For me change and development, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit,
is part of the process of belief. However, I would also maintain
that there is an organic and continuous development that occurs in, through,
and often despite the vagaries of church history.
Your consulter, however,
clearly emerges from a different theological perspective. Here faith
is seen in a more normative, static sense - and I do not use the word "static"
in a derogatory way. He seemingly proceeds from the assumption that
the profound mysteries at the core of faith can be clearly expressed within
a specific theological tradition, and that the development of doctrine
is an almost logical process within that context. The process is
largely outside and beyond the realities of history.
I would suggest that Cardinal
John Henry Newman's notion of the development of doctrine is actually closer
to the historical view of faith. Catholic Christianity has never
been a religion of static law and unchanging doctrine, established once
and for all in the past and true for ever. Taken to its logical conclusion,
this is fundamentalism.
Newman argues in his Essay
on the Development of Christian Doctrine that the church's inner
life is like an idea that is continually clarified and expanded by development
and growth. His profound historical sense led him unerringly to the
realisation that the more the church grows, develops and changes, the more
it becomes truly itself. He concludes his extraordinary image of
the river in the Essay on Development with the famous statement:
"Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed
When discussing my "method"
your consulter says that I read church history out of context, that there
are "not a few historical inaccuracies" in the book, and that I look for
proof texts "to support [my] thesis that the primacy of the Roman pontiff
is not rooted in divine revelation but in secular political models".
Now, Archbishop Bertone,
I think it is important to get this on the record: I certainly do not deny
that the Roman primacy is part of divine revelation. Your consulter
does not seem to have read the book carefully. For example, I say
unequivocally on page 150: "The Petrine text is clear that the leadership
of the church was conferred on Peter and it is also demonstrable that there
was a strong early tradition of identifying the bishop of Rome with Peter...
In fact, as [Father J.M.R.] Tillard points out, the notion of Petrine succession
is far more significant than is generally recognised today. He argues
that there is an almost sacramental sense in which Peter lives on in his
see of Rome" (p 150).
It is clearly spelled out
in the book that I believe in the continuation of Petrine primacy through
Roman primacy. Any other reading is a distortion of my position.
Certainly, I am critical of the First Vatican Council's definition of primacy
precisely because it is couched in canonical, legal terms and has actually
neglected the rich theology of primacy that can be found especially in
the first millennium of church history. But criticism of a conciliar
text - and I am not alone in this criticism - is not tantamount to rejection.
My point about Vatican I is that it did not take church history sufficiently
Now, I concede that Papal
Power is not a complete history of the papacy and that I choose
material to support my (perfectly reasonable and verifiable) argument that
the gradual process of over-centralisation of control has brought about
a dysfunctional situation in the contemporary church. But the practical
problem that my publishers faced is that they had to work within the constraints
of size and price when putting out a book such as mine. You can't
say everything in one work.
Let us now turn to the specific
problems with the book that your anonymous consulter mentions.
First he says that "the author's
concept of tradition is more than nebulous" and then refers to passages
on p 128 and p 216. Again, I have this feeling that he has not read
the book carefully. I talk specifically about tradition in pp 125
to 130. I define tradition not as the static process of merely repeating
the past, but as a dynamic process of handing on the faith. Then
I say: "Catholics take tradition as a source and norm of faith. God,
Catholic theology says, reveals God's self to us through the Bible and
through the tradition of the church. But tradition has never been
definitively defined. Probably it cannot be: it is one of those dynamic
concepts that defies definition" (p 126).
The argument then goes on
to reject the post-Tridentine idea of tradition as the articulation of
the unwritten teachings of Jesus. I then emphasise the creative element
in tradition and stress that tradition is more about process than content.
It is here that we strike again the problem mentioned above: my approach
is explicitly historical. My position is that doctrinal truth works
itself out in the processes of church history under the guidance of the
Holy Spirit, whereas your consulter seemingly has a more static view.
All that I have said is in complete harmony with Vatican II's Dei Verbum.
This leads us logically to
the second criticism of your consulter. His Observations
say that I "appear to deny the identity of the Church of Christ with the
Catholic Church, suggesting a reunion of Christians characterised by indifferentism".
Here again we are dealing with an inference: I "appear" to deny.
But when you read the passage he quotes from p 199 I simply talk about
"the richness and diversity of the [other] Christian traditions" and suggest
that we work toward intercommunion rather than corporate union, so that
the richness of each of the traditions of faith be preserved. This
is hardly a denial of the truth of the Catholic church.
In fact, Archbishop Bertone,
you can set your mind at rest on this issue. I have said over and
over again, both publicly and privately, that I have a deep sense of belonging
to the Catholic church and to its extraordinary tradition. I have
no intention of leaving, for it is here that I have found God in the Spirit
But that does not blind me
to the profound Christian truths and tradition embedded within the other
churches. Does your consulter think that the other communities -
the Orthodox, for instance - are deficient and second class Christians
? Does he suggest that we are the only "true" Christians? If so,
he might have difficulty with the 1993 Ecumenical Directory
(17) - which I have no doubt your vigilant Congregation would have carefully
scrutinised before publication. The Directory talks about "the rich
diversity of spirituality, discipline, liturgical rites and elaborations
of revealed truth that have grown up among the churches" (my emphasis)
. The phrase that I have emphasised would certainly suggest that a diversity
of theological views is also acceptable within the broad ambit of Catholic
Here I would like to refer
briefly to the least relevant comment that your consulter makes.
He says that I attack "the condemnation of modernism, failing to understand
its true harm". It would seem to me that assessing "the true harm
of modernism" is a matter of historical judgement and has nothing whatsoever
to do with doctrine. As a consequence it certainly does not come
under the aegis of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
This statement seems a bit like "point scoring" to me.
In fact, the reality is that
the overwhelming weight of historiographic opinion today is against your
consulter's view. The majority view is expressed by Professor Roger
Aubert, who knows the papacy of Pius X and this period better than most.
Having conceded that the modernists were far from perfect in attitude (who
is?), he says: "One has to admit that the various measures employed to
hold back the tide of modernism must be assessed negatively. Many
men loyal to the church were mercilessly banned ... But more serious than
these personal fates were other facts: for a long time the undifferentiated
suppression of modernism kept the majority of the clergy from pursuing
intellectual investigations .... The gap between the church and modern
culture widened. The solution of fundamental problems was postponed,
and by simply ignoring them nothing was won, but, on the contrary, harm
was done" Roger Aubert in Hubert Jedin (editor), History of the Church.
The Church in the Industrial Age, New York: Crossroad, 1981, Vol
IX, pp 387-388).
Sometimes one is tempted
to think that there are contemporary parallels to the suppression of modernism.
And I think I need to ask your Congregation if any consideration is being
given to the harm done to the reputations of many loyal and hardworking
Catholic lay teachers, theologians, priests and even bishops by reactionaries
who constantly call anyone with whom they happen to disagree "modernists"
The consulter then goes on
to say that I hold "an erroneous concept of infallibility, in as much as
[I] only conceive of it in its solemn and ex cathedra manner, thus excluding
the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium". He
quotes four passages from the book which are apparently meant to demonstrate
In fact the passages he quotes
do not show that I exclude the infallibility of the ordinary and universal
magisterium at all, but they reveal my concern about the extension at the
popular level of the ordinary and universal magisterium to all and every
papal teaching. And please remember this book was written as popular
theology. Papal Power nowhere suggests that I have
any problem with accepting what is universally held by the pope and the
My argument is with the way
in which this phrase has subsequently come to be used as a catch-all term
for each and every papal teaching. The view of the book is that the
ordinary and universal magisterium has been gradually expanded to include
the ordinary magisterium of the pope -and to extend to it a kind of "quasi-infallible"
status in popular perception.
I am not alone in this concern
about "creeping infallibility". Father J.M.R. Tillard, OP in his
seminal book The Bishop of Rome
(Wilmington, Del: Michael
Glazier, English trans., 1983), after detailing some examples of ultramontanism
which passed in some places as catechetical instruction up to as late as
the 1960s, says: "Another sign of this inflated ultramontanism, so different
from the vastly more prudent and sober tone of Pastor Aeternus, is a particular
conception of the ordinary magisterium ... This may be seen in the way
every judgement which comes from Rome is implicitly canonised, whether
it be dogmatic, theological or spiritual. Before the influence of
Vatican II made itself felt, the starting point of theological reflection
... was 'the teaching of the magisterium. The views of anyone not on the
same wavelength as 'the centre of Christianity, were systematically ignored,
indeed considered suspect; theological light could only shine from on high",
(pp 32-33). My contention in Papal Power is that this
false canonisation of Roman teaching has continued and is still to be found
among many people.
In the book I use Ordinatio
sacerdotalis (on the ordination of women) as an example of ordinary
magisterium being 'modulated" into the ordinary and universal magisterium
and thus, by implication, into infallible teaching. The problem that
I make reference to is the question of how Ordinatio sacerdotalis
can be part of the ordinary and universal magisterium when there is no
apparent evidence that anyone has asked the bishops their view, and when
a sizeable portion of the theological magisterium is seemingly doubtful
about how the question should be resolved ?
Father Francis A. Sullivan,
SJ certainly seems to back up my concern in the quotation I cite on p 19
of Papal Power. He says that for something to be taught
infallibly by the ordinary magisterium it has "to be clearly established
that the tradition has remained constant, and that even today the universal
body of Catholic bishops is teaching the same doctrine to be definitively
held". It is hard to see how these conditions could be fulfilled
when the question has only been around for at most two decades.
Moving now to your consulter's
comments on my treatment of the doctrine of reception. He says that
I maintain "that in order for a teaching to become a doctrine of the Church
it is first debated by theologians and decided on by Bishops, but then
it must be accepted or received by the Congregatio fidelium". He
does not say what is wrong with that summary of the notion of reception,
although I suspect it is the reference to the community of the faithful
that worries him. Obviously, my text presupposes that the pope participates
in this process as head of the college of bishops.
Actually, I would have thought
that your consulter's summary of Papal Power's views is a
reasonable, if a somewhat abbreviated and simplified statement, of the
doctrine of reception. my understanding is that the papal magisterium has
a solemn obligation to make sure that what it teaches is in conformity
with what the bishops and community of the church believe. When this
is carefully and fully carried out "The assent of the church can never
be lacking to such definitions on account of the Holy Spirit's influence"
(Lumen gentium, 25). If non-reception occurs those responsible
have a further serious obligation to review their decision in the light
of the belief of the faithful.
A criticism has been made
by some theologians that I tend to treat reception as a post factum reality;
that is, a teaching is ultimately confirmed as true when the Catholic community
"receives" it. I would simply argue in defence of my view that it
also seems to be the approach taken by Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Speaking specifically of the definition of infallibility at Vatican I,
Newman said: "If the definition is eventually received by the whole body
of the faithful ... then too it will claim our assent by the force of the
‘securus judicat orbis terrarum'".
He refers to reception by the faithful as "the ultimate guarantee of revealed
truth" (Both quotations are taken from The Letters and Diaries of
John Henry Newman, edited by Charles Stephen Dessain, Vol XXV,
pp 165, 1712).
Your consulter then turns
to the issue of conciliarism. I said in the book that "I lean strongly
in [the conciliarist] direction" if that term is taken strictly to mean
that a general council is ultimately superior to a pope, especially in
time of crisis. Contrary to your consulter, that is the teaching
of the Council of Constance. At the third session on 26 March 1415,
led by Cardinal Francesco Zabarella, the Council declared that it had been
constituted in a proper way and at the fifth session on 6 April 1415 the
fathers confirmed the decree Haec sancta synodus which had
already been prepared by Zabarella.
The decree is clear about
its purpose: "the eradication of the present schism" and the "reform of
God's church [in] head and members". The very directness of the language
of Haec sancta conveyed the feeling of the need for action in a time of
crisis. The first two points of Haec sancta were the most important
theologically: Firstly, Constance claimed that it was "legitimately assembled",
that it represented the whole church and it had power "immediately from
Christ". Secondly, Haec sancta stated: Therefore, "everyone of whatever
state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which
pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general
reform of the ... church" (The translation is from Norman P. Tanner's Decrees
of the Ecumenical Councils).
Most historians now accept
that Constance was ecumenical from the beginning. The idea that it
only "became ecumenical" from the time the legate of Gregory XII staged
a reading of the bull of convocation is now largely abandoned. It
was not clear who was the pope at the time - there were three candidates
and it is simply an assumption to say that Gregory XII was legitimate pope.
Again, we are engaged here in historical issues and it is for historians
to decide, not theologians.
Finally, your anonymous consulter
says that "I appear to reject papal primacy" - another inference - because
of lack of freedom at Vatican I. Let's get clear what I actually say.
I summarise Father Luis Bermejo, SJ saying: "There are serious doubts about
Vatican I's freedom, but he (Bermejo) emphasises that this is still an
open question" (p 115) . "Open" in English means that the question is still
debatable. To say that debate about a possible lack of freedom is
an "open question" is hardly tantamount to rejection of papal primacy.
then goes on to examine the question of the required moral unanimity at
Vatican I. With Bermejo I think that there are more serious questions to
be asked here. I quote Bermejo saying that the required moral unanimity
was not reached (p 116) . I have great respect for him as a careful historian
who has studied the sources thoroughly. On this issue I neither agree
nor disagree with him in my book. And that is still my position.
Your consulter also says
that I say that "the place of the Supreme Pontiff in relation to other
Bishops is primus inter pares" as though this were an absolute statement
on my part. But it is qualified (in block letters) with the phrase
"primacy in the first millennium" (p 161) . The whole section (pp 161-164)
simply talks about the theological views held in the period prior to Damasus
I (366-384) . In this section I am not spelling out what I think, but what
the historical situation was. Either the consulter has not read the
section, or he misrepresents my position totally. Either way, it
is an utterly incorrect assumption to infer - again it is an inference
- that this brief saying sums up my view of papal primacy.
He then goes on to say that
I "reject the plenitudo potestatis of the Roman Pontiff claiming
it is a juridical term that has its roots in the Bull Unam Sanctam
and not in divine revelation".
I have one simple question:
where in divine revelation can one find the term plenitudo potestatis?
The historical facts are that the term comes from Roman law. It entered
the canonical tradition just before the time of Innocent III. In
this period fullness of authority became synonymous in canonical thought
with papal primacy. As John A. Watt has pointed out two historical
sources come together to inject meaning into the term plenitudo potestatis.
The canonists linked the authority granted to Peter in the Petrine text
with the notion of imperial or monarchical power which had came into canon
law from Roman law. Increasingly, in practice, the popes imitated
imperial power. By the time of Innocent III the term plenitudo
potestatis denoted papal sovereignty. This sovereignty became
co-terminus with primacy.
Again here we are dealing
with historical facts. To infer from this historical discussion that
I reject papal primacy is totally incorrect.
In conclusion, Archbishop,
I have to say that in general I found your consulter's Observations
quite extraordinary. With the exception of the issue of the ordinary
and universal magisterium, the criticisms are nothing more than inferences
drawn from quotations taken out of context from my book.
Ultimately, the Catholic
church and the people of God will be the judge of us all,
[Rev. Dr. Paul Collins,