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Timely gift for the Church

THE BREATH OF THE SPIRIT IN THE CHURCH: THE SENSUS FIDELIUM AND CANON LAW
By Anthony Ekpo; St Paul Publications; 2014; $24.95 

Reviewed by Bishop James Foley of Cairns

breath of spiritAT first a disclaimer: I am not a trained canon lawyer but I have been a diocesan bishop for almost 23 years.

So I found the Rev Dr Anthony Ekpo’s study The Breath of the Spirit in the Church The Sensus Fidelium and Canon Law most timely and informative.

It results from Anthony’s recently completed and highly regarded Australian Catholic University doctoral thesis.

The “sensus fidelium” translates as “the sense of the faithful” or more broadly “the mind/the understanding” of the Faith held instinctively by all members of the Church and across the ages.

Another rendering of it may be “the Mind of the Church”. Yet this does not reside exclusively in the mind of the Pope, or in the minds of the bishops.

When I was appointed to Cairns there were still long shadows cast by Thomas Cahill, a highly competent canonist and the bishop here from 1949 till 1967.

Even as late as my coming in 1992 there was still the often repeated phrase or question “What is the mind of the bishop?”

This applied not so much to central matters of doctrine, but rather to much more practical and pedestrian issues – even down to the type of tea cups in a remote presbytery.

It was as if all wisdom in the diocese on every matter resided only in His Lordship’s head.

It is instructive that Pope Pius IX, before he defined infallibly Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception in 1854, carefully consulted the bishops of the Catholic world as to whether this long held tradition accorded to the “sense of the faithful” in each of their diocese: that this was a firmly and widely held belief of ordinary Catholic people.

In a compelling image, Anthony cites Cardinal Newman’s approach to the “sensus fidelium”, but from a somewhat negative perspective “… as a jealousy of error that the Church feels at once as a scandal … every living organism tends to assimilate what is congenial to its nature and to expel what is foreign to it”.   (p 33)

What is so helpful at the diocesan level is this study’s extensive treatment of the organisations or structures for consultation at the local level required by canon law: the College of Consultors and presbyteral council, the diocesan Curia and the finance council. The Code also recommends diocesan synods and pastoral councils.

My copy of Anthony’s book arrived as we were about to have our fifth annual diocesan synod. I borrowed extensively from the excellent section on this topic (p195-199).

Diocesan synods help the bishop “to listen to, seek out, and discern the ‘sensus fidelium’ of this diocese”.

Then follows the humbling and challenging words: “Synods have generally been successful in educating the diocesan bishop about the people and the concerns of the diocese”. (p 197)

Strong support: Fr Anthony Ekpo (centre) at the launch of his book The Breath of the Spirit in the Church: The Sensus Fidelium and Canon Law with Fr David Pascoe (left) and Archbishop Mark Coleridge in July last year.

Strong support: Fr Anthony Ekpo (centre) at the launch of his book The Breath of the Spirit in the Church: The Sensus Fidelium and Canon Law with Fr David Pascoe (left) and Archbishop Mark Coleridge in July last year.

I penned this review on the same day that ACU Vice Chancellor Greg Craven had an opinion piece in The Australian (February 17, 2014) on “Sovereignty may mean Mercy, too”, relating to the impending execution of two Australians in Indonesia.

Sovereignty is a long-established political principle. Medieval monarchs were absolutely sovereign-autonomous and independent – within their own domains.

So too today is the nation-state.

Greg defines sovereignty thus: “the unlimited power to make such laws as they think fit and to administer them according to their terms”.

“This is an awesome capacity, coming as close to the powers of God as it is possible to come on earth.” (p12)

Canon 331 states that “the Roman Pontiff has supreme, full immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power”.

This is sovereign power though the Code seems not to use this term. Nor does it use the temporal title “Sovereign Pontiff”.

Canon 381 states that “the diocesan bishop has all the ordinary, proper and immediate power required for the exercise of his pastoral office, except in those matters which the law or a decree of the Supreme Pontiff reserves to the supreme or to some other ecclesial authority”.

Influenced directly by reading Anthony’s book, I opined at our last diocesan synod that bishops are somewhat analogous to constitutional monarchs (or sovereigns) with certain reserved powers.

As has been observed wisely of the British monarchy, that, because the Sovereign holds such reserved powers – yet rarely, if ever – exercises them, this prevents any other politician or power group usurping/taking such powers to themselves.

So too in a diocese, because the bishop holds such power, this constrains, restrains or checks others from overbearing authority.

This is not unlike another – but unlikely authority – the sceptical philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): who described “a noble morality” as being like a big bear with sharp savage claws – but chooses not to use them.

Recent Australian political events have shown that there is little public appetite for authoritarian leadership or for that recently coined and ridiculously idiosyncratic concept: “a captain’s call”.

The Lord’s own warning is foundational for all Church order: “… Among the pagans it is the kings who lord it over them, …. This must not happen with you.” (Luke 22:25-26)

Hence, The Breath of the Spirit in the Church: The Sensus Fidelium and Canon Law is a very timely and challenging gift to all of us within the Church.

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