I thoroughly enjoyed today's "Special Edition of Letters from the Synod" which included a discussion by Cardinal Pell concerning the application of the notion of subsidiarity to church governance in the Catholic Church. His Eminence's treatment is disciplined and worth the read and our thoughtful consideration. Here is a key passage, together with his closing paragraph, which gives you a good idea of what it is about:
"Just as one’s faith is defined by belief in, or rejection of, the divinity of Christ, so one’s Catholic ecclesiology is defined by the status ascribed to the papacy, to the pope as successor of St Peter. Sometimes our enemies understand better than we do the importance of the papacy. In every country the communists controlled they attempted to set up a national church independent of Rome. We know also from Hitler’s Table Talk that he intended to set up a pope in every country he conquered...
"In the first centuries, when Christians wanted to be sure they were teaching as Christ taught, they appealed to the churches founded by the apostles as custodians of the apostolic tradition. The church in Rome had a double claim to pre-eminence, being founded by both Peter and Paul. However the principle of subsidiarity might be applied prudentially within the Catholic Church from time to time, this will not change. The role of the papacy as providing the last word, defending the apostolic tradition, will always be unique."
In reading this, I was reminded of a famous statement attributed to Pope Saint John Paul II, where he taught or teased a bit that the real "pope" was the parish priest for his parishioners. Especially today, for the proximity of all manner of means of social communication, I find the compelling argument in favor of subsidiarity to rest on sorting out the virtuality-reality divide in human consciousness, whether individual or collective. If, thanks to the marvels of the media running full-throttle, the Holy Father comes much closer in a way to everybody around the world and thus gives expression to the "role of the papacy as providing the last word, defending the apostolic tradition," the question becomes one of judging the adequacy or even the reality of such a presence. The media have rendered possible for millions upon millions from the comfort of home what was for St. Therese of Lisieux and her father a very intimate exchange in Rome with the reigning Pontiff about a little girl's sense of a call to cloistered life. The difference between the two, simply stated, was that the Little Flower and her dad had a real exchange and what happens most often today is a virtual exchange, that is, no human exchange at all. No less important is to remember that neither the Pope nor the father and daughter would have classed the Holy Father's counsel as "providing the last word, defending the apostolic tradition".
The other day in the Apostolic Palace I had a very wonderful sit down exchange with Pope Francis. We spoke about a lot of different topics ranging from the way I left Kyiv to his hopes and prayers for the life of the Church in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Forward, as I tend to be, I shared with him my present views on what being a Papal Representative, an Apostolic Nuncio, is all about. I defined myself and my colleagues as collegial figures able to do their job to the extent that the Pope and the Curia give us a mandate to do so, which in turn is accepted as such by the bishops of the territory to which we are sent. In effect I told him, "you, Holy Father, and the bishops of Switzerland are the ones who will let me be "pope" in your stead for them." He didn't object, nor did he correct my observation. The exchange was indeed a very real one, not in any way shape or for virtual or one-sided. Subsidiarity, I believe, serves the cause of real human exchanges regardless of their intent or capability of "providing the last word, defending the apostolic tradition,"
Subsidiarity, rightly understood in faithful adherence to the fullness of Catholic Truth, as it comes to us from the Apostles, risks nothing but rather renders our faith dialogue real. Many folks, most of them older, seem to thrive on the virtual and give it primacy over direct contact with those closer to hand whom they either fail to come to know in any kind of meaningful exchange or whom they reject off-hand for being too real. The principle or notion of subsidiarity applied might not come down to us from the Apostles, but there is something to be said for that "old-time religion" which not only bent knees and bowed heads in the presence of the Living God, but also acknowledged very real vicars closer at hand.
The Holy Father has his key role for Catholic Communion in providing the last word, defending the apostolic tradition". I don't think there has ever been a time when the Petrine Office was not exercised through living and breathing intermediaries, but above all by those entrusted with office in the Church as it has come down to us from the Apostles. If you will, to my way of thinking, subsidiarity is eminently Petrine and more necessary than ever today to the Church's length, height, depth and breadth.