Catholic Scholars' Declaration on Authority in the Church

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The Roman Catholic Church is one of the oldest religious institutions in the world. Its teachings, worship, moral code and church organization are set by a hierarchy of leaders: mainly the Pope, Bishops and local parish priests. The Church originates with Jesus Christ but it inherited a bureaucratic structure from the Roman Empire and feudalism from the Middle Ages.[1]

In this Declaration, 200+ reform-minded theologians in the Catholic Church make proposals for changes in church governance. They demand a redefining of papal authority with more latitude for bishops in Synods and Bishops' Conferences, more power to selected groups of clergy and privileged laity in diocesan and parochial councils.

The Demands[edit]

The Declaration is made up of seven demands.

  1. The role of the papacy should be redefined in line with the Vatican II Council so as not to hamper the exercise of authority by others in the Church. These ‘other’ authorities are spelled out under the next six headings.
  2. Bishops should be given more autonomy, both as pastors of their dioceses and members of national episcopal conferences.[2]
  3. The Central Synod of Bishops should take part in deciding overall church policy, with and next to the Pope.[3]
  4. The laity should actively participate in church governance through pastoral councils on all levels.[4]
  5. Bishops and other church leaders should, to the extent possible, be elected more locally and democratically. The Vatican Council recommended democracy in politics. By implication, it is claimed, this applies also to selecting bishops. Moreover, the election of bishops used to be more local and democratic.[5]
  6. The Roman Curia needs to be reformed.[6]
  7. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith needs to be given independent, professional advisers. The implication is that it will then protect the freedom of academic research and expression, rather than suppress it.[7]

The Declaration has been published in eight languages, with a fuller explanation of each of the seven demands in further documentation. It ends with the appeal: “The exercise of authority in our church should emulate the standards of openness, accountability and democracy achieved in modern society. Leadership should be seen to be honest and credible; inspired by humility and service; breathing concern for people rather than preoccupation with rules and discipline.”[8]

Origin and Launch[edit]

The idea was born when a group of reform-minded Catholic theologians met at an international conference on 'Handing On the Torch' (Utrecht, 2010). They concluded that in many areas of the Church's life progress is blocked by an imbalance in the exercise of authority. Theologian and writer John Wijngaards spearheaded the effort to gather more information and documentation.[9] Wijngaards, a priest who resigned from his ministry in 1998 and subsequently married, is primarily known for his early and consistent advocacy of women's ordination and for founding the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Declaration was opened for endorsement on 11 October 2012 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. That is why it was originally known as the ‘Jubilee Declaration’.[10] However, since this name could be misunderstood as only indicating a passing event, it was soon changed into ‘Catholic Scholars’ Declaration’. It was decided that just as Vatican Council II took four years to run its course (1962-1965), so the Declaration will stay in the public domain for at least four years to present its blueprint for reform. Meanwhile, enrolment for academic support increased and still continues.

The gathering of support for the declaration is done through networking. The academic signatories, or ‘sponsors’ as they have been called, have been invited by other sponsors. "We only invite persons who possess the academic qualifications and the experience of Catholic life that enable them to endorse the Catholic Scholars’ Declaration responsibly. No one is put on the list unless he or she has clearly indicated his/her endorsement of the Declaration.”[11]

On 5 March 2013 the Catholic Scholars’ Declaration was publicly launched for England by an endorsement ceremony in the Houses of Parliament, London. Baroness Helena Kennedy, Lord Baron Hylton, and Professor Ursula King explained their reasons for becoming academic sponsors.[12]

The Academic Signatories[edit]

The academic signatories of the Declaration include present and past leaders of the Church’s theological associations, such as The European Society for Catholic Theology,[13] the Catholic Theological Associations of America,[14] Great Britain,[15] India, Ireland and Poland, la Asociación Española de Teólogos y Teólogas Juan XXIII,[16] the Ecclesia of Women in Asia,[17] the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians[18] and the World Forum on Theology and Liberation.[19]

Of the handful of bishops who signed the declaration were Australian Geoff Robinson (Australia). Other signatories include Mary McAleese (Ireland), Bernard Linares (Gibraltar), Erik Jurgens (the Netherlands), Siobhain McDonagh (Great Britain). The vast majority of the others are past or present professors from 140+ universities. Well-known reform-minded theologians signing the document were Leonardo Boff (Brazil),[20] Hans Küng (Germany),[21] Gregory Baum (Canada),[22] Gotthold Hasenhüttl (Austria),[23] Wacław Hryniewicz (Poland),[24] Carlo Molari (Italy),[25] Wilfrid Harrington (Ireland),[26] José María Castillo Sanchez[27] and Juan José Tamayo,[28] John Haught,[29] Leonard Swidler (USA).[30]

Among the women are scholars known for their outspoken views. We note: María Pillar Aquino[31] (Mexico), Kari Børresen[32] (Norway), Christine Gudorf,[33] Rosemary Radford Ruether,[34] Sandra Schneiders,[35] Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza[36] (all USA), Helen Schüngel-Straumann[37] (Zwitserland), Teresa Toldy[38] (Portugal), Mary Grey[39] and Ursula King[40] (both UK) and Marie-Theres Wacker[41] (Germany). Other significant groups are the liberation theologians, the moralists, church historians, scripture scholars and canon lawyers.[42]

Scholars exercise the ‘charism’ of both teaching and, occasionally, prophecy (1 Corinthians 12,4-11). This charism of theologians is another source of ‘authority’ in the Church – next to the authority of popes and bishops.[43] The ‘Magisterium’ is reserved to the teaching authority of the Pope and Ecumenical Councils. The 13th-century Thomas Aquinas recognised the ‘professional magisterium’ of university professors next to the ‘pastoral magisterium’ of bishops[44] and scholars were voting participants of Ecumenical Councils[45]


  1. ^ Barry J. Colman (Ed.), Readings in Church History (Newman Press 1965); Charles Dahm, Power and Authority in the Catholic Church (University of Notre Dame Press 1981); Patrick Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy: Authority and Autonomy in the Church (Crossroad 1990); Helen Ebaugh, “The Revitalization Movement in the Catholic Church: the institutional dilemma of power” in Sociological Analysis 52 (1991) 1, pp. 1-12; Eugene Bianchi & Rosemary Ruether (Eds.), A Democratic Catholic Church (Crossroad 1992); Paul Collins, Upon this rock: The Popes and their Changing Role (Melbourne Univ. Press 2000); Bernard Hoose (Ed.), Authority in the Roman Catholic Church. Theory & Practice (Ashgate, 2002).
  2. ^ Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium § 27.
  3. ^ Vatican Council II, Christus Dominus § 22.
  4. ^ Vatican Council II, Christus Dominus § 16 & 27; see also Lumen Gentium § 31-32.
  5. ^ Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes § 75; Hans Küng, "Bishops and People", Westminster Press 1970; Luca Badini Confalonieri, "Democracy in the Christian Church. An Historical, Theological and Political Case", T & T Clark 2012.
  6. ^ Vatican Council II, Christus Dominus § 9.
  7. ^ Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes § 62.
  8. ^ "The Catholic Scholars' Declaration". 
  9. ^ "". 
  10. ^ "The Tablet, 13 Oct 2012". ; Newsblogs: "Katols Vision". ; "Catholica Australia". ; "Bridget Marys". ; "Patheos". ; "Diane Doughertys". .
  11. ^ "How are Academic Sponsors chosen?". 
  12. ^ "The BBC Scotland, 5 March 2013". BBC News. 5 March 2013. ; "Mexican News Forum, 5 March 2013". 1900. 
  13. ^ "ESCT". 
  14. ^ "CTSA". 
  15. ^ "CTA". [permanent dead link]
  16. ^ "la Asociación Española de Teólogos y Teólogas Juan XXIII". 
  17. ^ "Ecclesia of Women in Asia". 
  18. ^ "EATWOT". 
  19. ^ "World Forum on Theology and Liberation". 
  20. ^ Leonardo Boff, Passion of Christ, Passion of the World: The Facts, Their Interpretation, and Their Meaning Yesterday and Today (Orbis Books 2011).
  21. ^ Hans Küng, Ist Dei Kirche noch zu retten? Anstösse zum Kirchereform (Piper Verlag 2012).
  22. ^ Gregory Baum, Signs of the Times: Religious Pluralism and Economic Injustice (Novalis 2008).
  23. ^ Gotthold Hasenhüttl, Glaube ohne Denkverbote. Für eine humane Religion (Darmstadt 2012).
  24. ^ Wacław Hryniewicz, God’s Spirit in the World: Ecumenical and Cultural Essays (Washington 2012).
  25. ^ Carlo Molari, Credenti laicamente nel mondo (Cittadella 2006) and Per una spiritualità adulta (Cittadella 2008).
  26. ^ "Wilfrid Harrington". 
  27. ^ José María Castillo, La Iglesia y los derechos humanos (Madrid 2007).
  28. ^ Juan José Tamayo, Invitación a la utopía. Ensayo histórico para tiempos de crisis (Trotta 2012).
  29. ^ John Haught, Science and Faith: A New Introduction (Paulist 2013).
  30. ^ Leonard Swidler, The Study of Religion in the Age of Global Dialogue (Temple University Press 2000).
  31. ^ María Pillar Aquino, Feminist Intercultural Theology: Latina Explorations for a Just World (Orbis 2007).
  32. ^ Kari Børresen, Democracy, Religion and Women's Human Rights (Research Council of Norway 2007).
  33. ^ Christine Gudorf, Victimization: Examining Christian Complicity (Trinity Press 1992).
  34. ^ Rosemary Ruether, Contemporary Roman Catholicism: Crises and Challenges (Sheed & Ward 1987) and A Democratic Catholic Church: The Reconstruction of Roman Catholicism (Sheed & Ward 1992)
  35. ^ Sandra Schneiders, Prophets in their Own Country: Women Religious Bearing Witness to the Gospel in a Troubled Church (Orbis 2012).
  36. ^ Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire (Fortress Press 2007).
  37. ^ Helen Schüngel-Straumann, „Gott bin ich, kein Mann“ (Schöningh 2006).
  38. ^ Teresa Toldy, Deus e a Palavra de Deus na Teologia Feminista (Edições Paulinas 1998).
  39. ^ Mary Grey, ‘’Prophecy and Mysticism: The Heart of the Post-modern Church’’ (T.& T. Clark 1997).
  40. ^ Ursula King, ‘’Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions. Spirituality and Mysticism in an Evolutionary World’’ (Paulist Press 2011).
  41. ^ Marie-Theres Wacker, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. The Bible in Women's Perspective (Minneapolis 1998).
  42. ^ "Sponsors' Gallery". 
  43. ^ "Karl Rahner, The Dynamic Element in the Church, Herder & Herder, New York 1964". 
  44. ^ Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibet 3.4.1 ad 3 (Parma ed., 9:490-491) and Contra Impugnantes cap 2 (Parma ed., 15:3-8)
  45. ^ Avery Dulles, “The Magisterium in History” & “The Two Magisteria” in A Church to Believe in (Crossroad, New York 1983, pp. 103-133).