The Quinn Proposals

Published November 1, 1996

Crisis Magazine


The debate on the future of the papacy and the Roman Curia launched this past June 29 by the retired archbishop of San Francisco, John Quinn, in a lecture at Campion Hall, the Jesuit residence at Oxford, is unlikely to simmer down anytime soon. For the argument that Archbishop Quinn was making and the debate he self-consciously tried to ignite are not about the papacy in the abstract: They are very much about the pontificate of John Paul II and the interpretation that should be put on it as the Church looks into the twenty-first century.


Even his critics concede that John Paul’s has been one of the most significant pontificates in centuries. But what has it meant? Has the distinctive pastoral method of the Polish pope set the pattern for papal activism in the future? Has John Paul II secured the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, whose “full implementation” he pledged would be the touchstone of his service as Bishop of Rome? Has he given effective expression to the collegiality of bishops, which was one of the Council’s major concerns? Has he emboldened Catholics in vastly diverse cultural circumstances to respond to what the Council described as the universal call to holiness?

I believe that each of those questions can be answered positively. Archbishop Quinn’s criticism of the way Rome has been doing its business suggests that he is not so persuaded. So an argument is indeed in order. The stakes, it seems to me, are considerable: Will Catholicism enter the third millennium of Christian history animated by its distinctive ecclesiological “form?” Or will Catholicism become, in practice if not fully in theory, another “denomination?” That is the option that Archbishop Quinn’s proposals put before us rather sharply. And that is why the archbishop’s proposals deserve to be seriously engaged.

The Radical Pope

That Archbishop Quinn is personally devoted to the Holy Father is not to be doubted. But has the archbishop grasped the truly radical character of this pontificate? I think not. Take, for example, the archbishop’s analysis of the “new situation” faced by the Church today. Archbishop Quinn’s lecture was in part a response to John Paul II’s request that fellow Christians help him think through the forms in which the papal primacy is exercised, given the Church’s new situation at the end of the second millennium. (In the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, the invitation was directed explicitly to Orthodox and Protestant Christians, but leave that aside for the sake of the substantive argument.) Reading that “new situation” accurately, through the prism of a distinctively theological analysis of contemporary history, thus is crucial in devising a thoughtful response to the pope’s invitation to a dialogue about the future of the papacy.

In parsing the new situation Archbishop Quinn made brief references to “the insistent thirst for unity among Christians” and to the postconciliar Church’s recovery of a sense of the baptismal dignity and evangelical responsibility of every Catholic. But Quinn’s primary reference points for the new situation were political, economic, social, technological, and psychological: the collapse of communism, the rise of the European Community, the women’s movement, the emergence of China as a major world power, and the resistance to authoritarianism evident around the world.

These are, to be sure, interesting facts-of-life at the end of the 20th century. But in thinking through a papacy for the third millennium, are they as crucial as certain other realities, on which a more theologically driven analysis of the new situation might have focused? For instance:

  • the fact that publicly assertive religion is the dominant political force in the world on the edge of the third millennium, contrary to the virtually unanimous expectations of secular intellectuals since the eighteenth century;
  • the collapse into absurdity of the two-hundred-year-old effort to define human freedom as radical autonomy from any moral tradition or moral community;
  • the terminal public thrashings of that “autonomy project” in the abortion license, the definition of physician-assisted suicide as a human right, and the campaign to legalize gay marriage;
  • the birth of vibrant, expanding Christian communities throughout Africa and Asia;
  • the challenge of militant Islam;
  • the demographic dissolution of liberal Protestantism, and the rise of culturally assertive evangelical, fundamentalist, and pentecostalist Protestant communities in the Americas, Eastern Europe, and Africa;
  • the possibility of a more theologically serious Jewish-Christian dialogue than at any time since 70 A.D.;
  • the explosion of lay movements in world Catholicism;
  • the fact that ours is the greatest century of martyrdom in Christian history.

Archbishop Quinn, reading his signs of the times, focused his prescriptive attention on bureaucratic change in the Roman Curia. Pope John Paul II, with a different optic on history, has acted on Peter’s mandate to “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22.32), redefined the ministry of the Bishop of Rome as primarily evangelical and pastoral (rather than bureaucratic and managerial), and made Catholicism the world’s primary institutional defender of the dignity of the human person.

Whose is the more radical vision?


Archbishop Quinn’s Oxford lecture then made numerous suggestions for restructuring the Church’s central administration. While not terribly original, the Quinn proposals seemed fresh to some, perhaps because the archbishop described them as expressions of the venerable Catholic social-ethical principle of subsidiarity – the idea that decision-making should be left with local communities wherever possible.

Archbishop Quinn proposed a drastic diminishment of the Roman Curia’s role in the governance of the Church and a dramatically heightened role for national conferences of bishops. In the twenty-first century Church envisioned by Archbishop Quinn, bishops would be nominated by local churches and local bishops’ conferences; the international Synod of Bishops would become a Church parliament with deliberative powers; ecumenical councils would be held frequently (perhaps every ten years); and the pope would be far more restrained in the exercise of his papal Magisterium, or teaching office.

The list of issues Archbishop Quinn’s new-model Church would address is quite familiar: sexual morality, priestly celibacy, women in the Church (including the ordination of women to the priesthood), the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics, the “inculturation” of the liturgy, the freedom of theologians. That these are among the issues being pressed by Call to Action, We Are Church, and other self-styled “progressive Catholics” is obvious. But I am less interested in what some will take as a convergence of agendas than I am in the archbishop’s structural proposals and their relationship to contemporary American religious history.

Archbishop Quinn argued that his is an “ecclesial” model of church governance, in contrast to the “political” model now in force in Rome. But one of the most striking things about the archbishop’s “ecclesial” model is that it is highly bureaucratic: Indeed, put into practice, Archbishop Quinn’s proposals would lead to a bureaucratization of Catholicism beyond the wildest dreams of the most ultramontane Italian curialist.

The Quinn proposals suggest an application, on a world scale, of the practices adopted by the U.S. bishops in their national conference. What would this mean for the office of bishop? Archbishop Quinn thinks it would make for a more effective expression of the individual bishop’s authority and the world episcopate’s collegiality.

But based on the experience of the U.S. bishops’ conference over the past thirty years, it seems likely that the primary impact of the Quinn proposals on the episcopate would be that bishops would find themselves dragooned into even more meetings – an aspect of their lives about which many of these men vociferously (and legitimately) complain already. When will bishops have time for evangelization and teaching if their lives are consumed by attending to the appointment of other bishops, preparing for deliberative synods, and taking part in frequent ecumenical councils?

Archbishop Quinn is eager to enhance the authority of local bishops. But the dynamics of the U.S. bishops’ conference suggest that the very opposite of effective subsidiarity and collegiality would be the result of implementing his proposals. Because of the bishops’ concern to maintain their unity as a national body, small, vocal, ideologically charged minorities now exercise power within the bishops’ conference far beyond their numbers – a clear diminishment of both the collegial authority of the conference and the authority of individual bishops. The bishops’ corporate and individual authority also has been whittled away by the rise of a “parallel magisterium” of conference officials and bureaucrats, whose ability to shape agendas and decide what it is the bishops must decide strikes more than a few observers as a far cry from collegiality.

The history of liberal Protestantism in America is a cautionary tale to which Archbishop Quinn pays insufficient heed. The once-great churches of the Protestant mainline are collapsing. That collapse has taken place parallel to – and, on some analyses, because of – the vast bureaucratization of those churches after World War II and the capture of those denominational bureaucracies by activists committed to a radical theological and political agenda. This is where Catholicism should go?

To be sure, Archbishop Quinn was not deliberately proposing the Protestantization of Catholic Church governance. But his Oxford lecture was rather more redolent of the Church as denomination than of the Church as authoritative witness to the Gospel.

Ecumenical Dimension

Archbishop Quinn’s lecture rightly laid great emphasis on the ecumenical imperative at the end of the second Christian millennium. Like Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint, Quinn acknowledged that the papacy and its functioning remain an obstacle to ecclesial reconciliation – an obstacle the archbishop believes can be removed by certain (in some cases, dramatic) adjustments in the way the pope and the Roman Curia go about their business. Christian unity can only be “bought at a price,” Archbishop Quinn argued; these adjustments are part of the “price” that Catholicism should pay for healing the breaches with Orthodoxy and Protestantism.

The image of Christian unity bought at a price was not, perhaps, the happiest one available to the archbishop. It suggests a zero-sum game, a win/lose negotiation in which one side’s gain is inevitably another’s loss. Negotiation (from an assumed position of invincibility) was characteristic of some less-fortunate Catholic approaches to ecumenism prior to Vatican II.

But since the Council, and because of the Council, Catholic understandings have developed rapidly. No theologically serious Catholic ecumenist today would argue that ecumenism should be understood on a negotiation model. Ecumenical dialogue is not a matter of haggling over the price anyone will pay for Christian unity. Rather, ecumenical dialogue involves committed partners who mutually plumb the biblical and theological sources of Christian identity in the conviction that, as the truth is one, so their mutual discovery of the truth on a variety of contested issues will close the gap between them.

Archbishop Quinn also suggested that “the way issues are dealt with” by the Curia is the principal obstacle to full communion with Rome for Orthodoxy and Protestantism. But is that really the case? The major logjam in Anglican-Catholic relations today, for example, was caused by the unilateral decision of the Anglican Communion to ordain women to the priesthood – an act that the Anglican leadership knew would gravely widen the fault-line between itself and Rome (and Orthodoxy, for that matter).

Then there is the breach between Rome and the East. John Paul II has said, on more than one occasion, that there are no doctrinal issues dividing Rome and Orthodoxy. And in Ut Unum Sint, the pope broadly hinted that no crucial jurisdictional issues remained to be resolved, either; for his part, John Paul suggested, he would be happy to return to the situation of the first millennium, when the East was in full communion with Rome, and Rome did not make the jurisdictional claims in the East that it did in the West.

So if there are no doctrinal issues to be resolved, and if Rome is willing to meet the jurisdictional concerns of Orthodox churches rightly jealous of their ancient prerogatives, what is the obstacle to restoring full communion between East and West? The Roman Curia? Or divisiveness among the Orthodox themselves, such that there is no one leader – or group of leaders – who can authoritatively and effectively say “Yes” to the pope’s invitation?

Archbishop Quinn’s lecture also implied that the doctrinal assertiveness of this pontificate has been an obstacle to Christian unity. No doubt some Protestants find the doctrinal vigor of John Paul II difficult. But for others, sickened by the collapse of Christian orthodoxy and morality in their communities under the assault of Marxist, feminist, and environmentalist ideologues, the pope’s unabashed embrace of the fullness of Christian truth and his proclamation of texts like the Catechism of the Catholic Church are among Catholicism’s principal attractions.

Sometime soon we may well see entire Lutheran and Anglican congregations, with their pastors, presenting themselves to the local Catholic bishop and asking to be received into full communion with the Church. These people are not agitated about the Roman Curia; they could not care less about the Roman Curia. They are deeply concerned for the authentic transmission of the truth of God in Jesus Christ – and they see in the Catholic Church, led by this pope, the greatest hope for the vigorous proclamation of the Gospel available in Christianity today.

That is one of the great ecumenical signs of these times. Archbishop Quinn’s Oxford lecture would have been strengthened by some acknowledgment of it.

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Yet Again

Archbishop Quinn’s lecture also urged a more cautious, even limited, exercise of the papal Magisterium. The former archbishop of San Francisco was at pains not to deny the pope “the right to teach on his own initiative when he judges it necessary or appropriate.” The real question, Quinn suggested, is “when and under what circumstances he should prudently exercise such a right.”

The archbishop worried that those who raise such questions today are dismissed as deficiently loyal to Rome. But that seems a bit overwrought. Bishops and theologians have vigorously pursued arguments over the scope and appropriate exercise of the papal Magisterium throughout the pontificate of John Paul II; under these circumstances, it can hardly be said that papal heavy-handedness or curial threats have squelched debate. Moreover, to press hard on the question of “when and under what circumstances” the pope should “prudently exercise” his teaching authority is to suggest, however obliquely, that the incumbent pontiff has been less than prudent in fulfilling his responsibilities as an authoritative teacher.

By any reasonable measure, John Paul II’s has been one of the greatest teaching pontificates in history. It is a curiosity, to put it gently, that Archbishop Quinn’s lecture did not acknowledge the pope’s bold proclamation of Christian humanism in Redemptor Hominis and Evangelium Vitae; his creative extension of Catholic social doctrine in Centesimus Annus; his summons to a “new evangelization” and to an evangelical “method of persuasion” in Redemptoris Missio; his profoundly Christological reading of time and history and his unprecedented call for ecclesial repentance in Tertio Millennio Adveniente; or his powerful defense of the universality of human rights and the fundamental right of religious freedom in his 1979 and 1995 addresses to the United Nations.

Archbishop Quinn may well be enthusiastic about each of these expressions of the contemporary papal Magisterium. But they are not the focus of his attention. Rather, running through his Oxford lecture like a subterranean stream is the tacit suggestion that the crucial magisterial statement of this pontificate was the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which affirmed that the Church did not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood. This, it is subtly suggested, was a circumstance in which a prudent pope would not have exercised his “right to teach on his own initiative.”

It is difficult to understand the archbishop’s argument here. A prudent leader does not encourage speculation about impossibilities. Rather, he clearly identifies the boundaries of the discussion so that attention can be focused on real and achievable reforms. That, I suggest, is what John Paul II did in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. By defining the boundaries of the possible, the pope cleared the ground for a more fruitful – indeed, far more radical – discussion about the declericalization of Catholic life and the depoliticization of the ministerial priesthood.

Archbishop Quinn is similarly worried that a too-assertive papal Magisterium has foreclosed discussion of contested issues like clerical celibacy and the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics. Perhaps I haven’t been paying sufficient attention, or perhaps the archbishop’s antennae are more sensitive than mine, but it seems to me that discussion of these issues has been going on full-blast for decades. The frustration in some quarters comes not from any lack of discussion, but from the substantive conclusions on these questions that have been reached by the Magisterium. I do not suggest that Archbishop Quinn is among the frustrated; I do know that a more elastic process will not assuage the grievances of those who want a Catholic Church dramatically reconstructed according to the “progressive” agenda of Call to Action and We Are Church.

When John Paul II exercises his papal magisterium, he is not an autocrat imposing the personal opinions of Karol Wojtyla on the Church. Rather, the pope has been giving voice, through the gifts of intellect and imagination with which he has been endowed, to the authentic and living tradition of the faith, of which he is the servant and custodian. His is an authoritative, not authoritarian, office. Archbishop Quinn would have helped dispel one of the great myths about Catholicism had he pointed that out in his Oxford lecture.

The Stakes

The praise lavished on Archbishop Quinn’s lecture by Commonweal and other similarly-disposed Catholic journals and personalities suggests that something more was going on at Oxford on June 29 than yet another lecture (which was, as it happens, poorly attended; one picture of the event I have seen shows a curiously large number of empty chairs in front of the archiepiscopal podium in the garden of Campion Hall). Indeed, this portside response was so quick, so widely disseminated in the secular press, and so uniform in its identification of the archbishop’s key themes that some suggested, perhaps not without reason, that Quinn’s was the keynote address in a wider campaign to re-assert the “progressive” interpretation of Vatican II, with an eye to the post-John Paul II period of Catholic history.

On this interpretation of things, John Paul II has some accomplishments to his credit; but the basic characteristic of his pontificate is that it has been “divisive.” This is an image intended, in no small part, for political purposes; for if it can be established that this pontificate has, for all its successes, been divisive, then the door is open for a successor to John Paul who will be . . . well, less divisive. Which seems, according to the Quinn proposals, to mean less doctrinally and morally assertive, more in sync with Western notions of personal autonomy, and more given to bureaucratic process of the sort one finds at the bishops’ conference in Washington. “Broad-Church Catholicism,” one might call it.

Is this what Vatican II really had in mind: a porous sense of the theological boundaries of orthodoxy and a surrender to the Zeitgeist, married to a vision of Church governance that, irony of ironies, is more intensely curial than anything one is likely to find in Rome these days? I think not. It may not even be what Archbishop Quinn and his supporters want. But that is exactly where the Quinn proposals lead, it seems to me.

It is also unfortunate, verging on cruel, to suggest that divisiveness is the primary characteristic of this pope, a man of dialogue since his youth who is intensely committed, philosophically and theologically, to what he has called the “method of persuasion.” No one knows that he is a sign of contradiction to some within the Church more than John Paul II. No one feels the pain of division within the Church more than the bishop who, for more than eighteen years now, has had the sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, the “care of all the churches,” as his God-given responsibility. To suggest that this man who has become, for hundreds of millions of human beings around the world, the living embodiment of the fullness of Catholic faith, boldly and winsomely proclaimed, is essentially a divider: That is a very curious business, indeed.

But that is precisely what the argument has come down to in one of the worlds-within-worlds of Roman Catholicism today, the world that has long thought of itself as the one true custodian of the Second Vatican Council. Which seems, finally, very sad.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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