VATICAN CITY — The American cardinals did something in Rome that they never do in the United States: They worked together, intensely, as brother bishops, for several days.

Unlike the situation when they meet at conferences of the U.S. bishops, the eight American cardinal-archbishops, along with U.S. bishops’ conference president

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., did not attend common lectures, receive committee reports, or vote on a long list of resolutions.

Rather, together with their brother cardinals in the Curia, they focused for three days on the sexual abuse crisis and they personally made decisions. It was collegiality in action.

And that it took place in Rome rather than stateside challenged one of the most established story lines in the post-conciliar Church. That script says that local Churches — supposedly the seedbeds of creativity and of sensitivity to ordinary people — are hamstrung by the dictates of a remote, central bureaucracy unaware of local needs.

Nowhere was this perspective stated more starkly than in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, covering what it termed a “cultural chasm” between “the Curia and Catholics in the United States.”

“The divide reflects conflicting values,” wrote the Times. “New World openness versus Old World secrecy, American home rule versus Vatican centralization, Anglo-Saxon CEO-style management versus a Mediterranean forgive-and-forget attitude toward sinners.”

Not Black-and-White

All cardinals wear red, but such reporting makes it clear who wears the white hats and who wears the black. Yet it isn't as simple as an old Western.

At last year's synod of bishops, prelates from all over the world were insistent that successors of the apostles cannot be treated as junior officers. The key word was “collegiality,” evoking the Second Vatican Council's teaching that all bishops belong equally to the universal episcopal college. Local bishops are not branch-plant managers for corporate headquarters and should not be treated as such by the Roman Curia.

What is overlooked is that Rome itself is often necessary for collegiality to work at all. Without Rome, the American cardinals would never have met for such intense days of work. In theory, there is no reason why the emergency meetings could not be have been scheduled weeks ago in the United States. It would have been possible for all the cardinals, or all the archbishops, to meet on short notice to respond to the crisis. But it didn't happen.

“You have come to the house of the Successor of Peter, whose task it is to confirm his brother Bishops in faith and love, and to united them around Christ in the service of God's People,” said Pope John Paul II, addressing the American cardinals. “The door of this house is always open to you. All the more so when your communities are in distress.”

In practice, the house of Peter is sometimes the only house where local bishops can meet each other. This is true for both theological and practical reasons.

Theologically, bishops belong to the episcopal college of which the Roman Pontiff is the head. Without its head, the college of bishops lacks a center of unity. What unifies every Catholic bishop with every other Catholic bishop is his communion with the bishop of Rome. That is why the college of bishops can never act authoritatively without its head.

Some commentators have said that the American bishops ought to be embarrassed that they had to run to Rome for help after having spectacularly bungled the sexual abuse crisis themselves. Others, though, note that this bad theology based on an inaccurate “corporate model” of the Church — when things get too hot in the field, it's time to call for help from headquarters.

Instead, the American summit in Rome should be understood not as a dictatorial summons from the chief executive officer of the Church, but as a desire for common action in a time of crisis. And that common action necessarily needs to be nourished by the source of communion — the house of Peter. The primacy of Rome is in service to the collegial action of the bishops.

Practically speaking, there is also the matter that if the bishops are all equally participants in the episcopal college, it becomes difficult for any one bishop to take a strong leadership initiative. Bishops who are conscious of the being the “vicar of Christ” in their own dioceses are not always open to taking direction from others. As a result, necessary initiatives, like the American summit, have to proceed under Rome's invitation.

Open Doors

John Paul has opened the house of Peter before to address particular problems. In January 1980, all the Dutch bishops met for two weeks in a special “synod for Holland” that attempted to heal the divisions in the Netherlands. In 1998, a series of meetings was held in Rome with all the Australian bishops, leading to a joint statement that was the spark for, amongst other things, ending widespread general absolution in that country.

Collegiality is not always easy, and sometimes it requires added stimulus. For example, faced with increasing divisions on ecumenical matters between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Council for Christian Unity, the Pope convened a special “joint plenary” meeting in early 1989. Forced to work together — to be truly collegial — the congregations were able to produce a joint document on directions for ecumenical dialogue.

Roman attention can also assist local Churches in simply focusing attention and energy where needed. The 1994 Synod for Africa was widely criticized at the time for being held in Rome instead of Africa. As it turned out, the 200 African bishops who participated stated openly that had it been held in Africa, no one would have paid attention. In Rome, they had the ear of the entire Church.

Emergency summit meetings in Rome are not the ideal. But as was learned last week, they are better than no meetings at all. What happened in Rome was not the Vatican “finally getting it” as many American officials put it, but rather local bishops finally getting together to address a crisis. It needed to be done, and couldn't be done in the United States.

When this crisis passes and Catholic commentary returns to the old story line about collegiality versus Roman primacy, the April 2002 summit should serve as a reminder that the two are not opposed. To the contrary, the former requires the latter.