Gallicanism Lite on Offer at the Synod

Febronius was the pseudonym of Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, who wrote against papal authority over German churches.
Febronius was the pseudonym of Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, who wrote against papal authority over German churches. (photo: Register Files)

Gallicanism, and its German sibling Febronianism, was the French notion that regional and state authority and custom have equal or greater authority than that of the pope representing the universal church. It’s not merely an extension of collegiality, but rather a semi-schismatic action that risks full rupture with the one holy Catholic and apostolic church by creating a host of alternate mini-magisteria. 

And a version of it seems to be what the German episcopate wants for the Church. 

Even a cursory reading of Church history reveals that one of its major recurring themes is the tension between secular and spiritual authority, with the papacy claiming exalted power not only to proclaim definitively on matters related to faith and morals, but to enthrone and depose kings. Meanwhile, the kings alternately embraced and resisted (and sometimes both) this authority based upon whatever served their own interests. The issue persisted until the 19th century, when the decline in secular papal authority and the loss of the Papal States led Leo XIII to declare, in Immortale Dei (1885), the separation of powers into “the ecclesiastical and the civil, the former set over things divine, the latter over things human.” 

Part of the drive to define papal infallibility at Vatican I was to settle the extent of papal power that was exacerbated during the 18th and 19th century tensions between Ultramontanism (which supported total papal authority and was most enthusiastically embraced, ironically, by the Jesuits) and Gallicanism/Febronianism (which has asserted, at various times over the course of centuries, that this power was distributed among secular authority, local churches, and/or councils). 

Vatican I drew the fangs of both movements, and largely settled the issue of Conciliarism. As initially defined by William of Ockham, Conciliarism is the notion that the entire body of bishops in council have an authority exceeding that of the popes. The doctrine of papal infallibility put that notion to rest in one sense, but left a role for bishops in council that allowed Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium (1964) to find a compromise between papal infallibility and the role of the College by stating that “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff.” Vatican II encouraged collegiality (and rightly so) by binding pope and bishops together while leaving the pope as the final word. 

And here we come to the current problem, which is the idea, currently floating in the air, that national conferences or councils have some extra-magisterial authority. 

In statements appeanded to T.A. Buckley's The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1851), Pius VI delcares: “The convening of a national council is one of the canonical ways, by which controversies regarding religion may be terminated in the Church of the respective nations,—so understood, that controversies regarding faith and morals, in whatever church they may have arisen, can be terminated by an indisputable decision by a national council, as though exemption from error in questions of faith and morals were applicable to a national council. Schismatical, heretical.”

And in case anyone thinks I’m just reaching back to ancient history, Lumen Genitum also shuts the door on it, quite firmly: “For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church.” [emphasis added]

Note well the word: discipline. Not dogma, not doctrine. This is a direct and specific limitation on the powers of bishops and local councils to practice disciplines that are not shared by the universal church. When the Germans suggest doing their own thing in adapting the Kasper proposal, they are in direct defiance not of a Tridentine documen, but a document of Vatican II.

 So, when we hear cardinals suggesting their local conferences may go their own way, we have reason for concern. For example

Cardinal Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, said as far as doctrine is concerned, the German episcopate remains in communion with the Church, but on individual issues of pastoral care, “the synod cannot prescribe in detail what we have to do in Germany.”

The German bishops want to publish their own pastoral letter on marriage and family after the synod, the article says.

“We are not just a subsidiary of Rome,” Cardinal Marx said. “Each episcopal conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their culture and has to proclaim the Gospel in its own unique way. We cannot wait until a synod states something, as we have to carry out marriage and family ministry here.”

“Pastoral care” is discipline, and the Church already described this action:

Schismatical, heretical.