Decentralization: Benefits and Concerns

Participant at recent Vatican symposium reveals some ideas being discussed.

(photo: Register Files)

Decentralization is a key part of Pope Francis’ reform of the Church, but what could it entail?

Some clues emerged from a meeting of theologians last month, hosted by the Synod of Bishops secretariat, in which the consensus appeared to be leaning towards a permanent synod, perhaps meeting every two months, with a greater emphasis on consulting the “People of God” ­— that is, all the baptized faithful.

"The People of God", which gained currency during the Second Vatican Council, is said to be “the new catch-word” that some believe will be used as the basis for a significant change in the synod's nature.

Such reform along these lines could bring necessary decentralization in terms of helping the Church hierarchy to be more answerable to the flock (to create, in the Holy Father’s words, a more “listening” Church), and to legitimately enhance the laity’s contribution to the life of the Church.

But there are concerns it could also place too much emphasis on a poorly catechized or non-catechized laity, and that synodality is just the start of moving the Church towards an Anglican model of ecclesial governance that has subsequently disintegrated the Anglican Communion.   

One of the participants at last month’s meeting was Father Severino Dianich, professor emeritus at the Theological Faculty of Florence. In a blog post written shortly after the meeting, and translated in full below, the Italian priest revealed some of the discussion around the term synodality at last month’s symposium.

In what is largely a hypothesizing article, he points out that some of the laity “have experience and competency” which clergy do not have, and so have an “indispensable” contribution to make to the life of the Church. He calls at the end for more study on the issue by canonists and theologians.

But some warn of dangers associated with the kind of decentralization Father Dianich proposes, arguing that it amounts to a form of “reductionism”, focusing too much on the Sacrament of Baptism, over-emphasizing the role of the laity at the expense of the hierarchy, and generally disregarding the truth of the Church.

The possible goal of this approach, they argue, is to hasten unity with protestant ecclesial communities, especially the Lutheran church, which marks its 500th anniversary next year. (Pope Francis placed a similar emphasis on baptism last November when he gave a controversial address to the Lutheran community of Rome. Many Lutherans read his comments as giving the green light to intercommunion, a view later corrected by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

Others believe decentralization and synodality are being used to present a “veneer of democracy” by radical modernist groups, keen to push their own agenda and to do so in the name of the wider Church.

For what might, or might not, be an acceptable form of decentralization, see my recent article here.

Some aspects to note in Father Dianich’s blog post:

  • He stresses that the “Christian, whoever he may be, in order to evangelize, does not need any other sacrament beyond baptism, nor does he need to be delegated by the hierarchy.”
  • He argues that that which holds the Church together “is not the law, but the faith, which the Holy Spirit inspires in the depth of the conscience of each and which, therefore, is expressed in a different way from one believing subject to another.”
  • Father Dianich says all aspects of “Christian life”, whether they be vocations to marriage, priesthood, consecrated life, or lay professions, are manifestations of the “exercise of the universal priesthood”.



Synodality — Necessary and Awaited Reform

By Father Severino Dianich

The question of synodality in the Church today, often, is translated in the inappropriate terms of a dichotomy: democracy yes, democracy no.

History contradicts both hypotheses. If one opts for “democracy yes”, he runs up against a constant tradition, for which decisions about the dogmas of the faith and the regulation of the sacraments was never consigned to popular assemblies. If one opts for “democracy no”, he runs up against the practice of the councils, in which decisions are made, as in parliaments, on the basis of the majority or minority. In the councils of the past, moreover, there was the participation of laymen, even if it was consigned, as was obvious should happen in an autocratic society, to princes and kings. Then, in the canonic regulations of religious orders, in the past as today, the nomination of superiors and important choices for the life of the community are decided democratically.

Let us look at history and the East

It is not easy to find in history a situation identical to today’s, in which faithful laymen, but even deacons and priests, in the regulation of the Latin Church, do not have any institutional seat in which they are able to give their vote on the questions concerning the Church. In other phases of history, however, many important decisions, starting from the election of bishops, were made by the community. Even today, for the rest, in the canonical regulation of the Oriental Church, every year the patriarchal synod is convoked for the election of bishops and for “the emanation of laws for the entire patriarchal Church” (cann 106 §2; 110 §1). Every five years, then, the patriarchal assembly of bishops, religious superiors, representatives of the priests and laypeople, the universities, and the theological faculties and seminaries (cann 140 and 143) to discuss the issues of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council, indeed, did not discuss determinate reforms for restructuring the synodal life of the Church, but it laid down the principles, starting from which the Code would have had to do it. It is a necessary reform for which the Church still awaits. It seems to me, there, one may hypothesize on two basic lines of conciliar ecclesiology: the people of God as far as it is responsible for the mission and its articulation on the basis of the different charisms.

The subject responsible for the mission

It was very significant, during the redaction of the Conciliar Constitution on the Church, the episode of the movement, desired by the Fathers, of the treatment of the People of God from the third chapter, where it was located in the proposed scheme, after the treatment of the mystery and hierarchy of the Church, to the second chapter, that is, immediately after the chapter on the mystery of the Church. The new order, in fact, defines with clarity that the hierarchy is not in the first place before the entire Christian body, because the first and fundamental responsible subject of the mission is the whole body of the faithful. The ministry of the pastors, insofar as it is a particular ministry founded on the sacrament of Holy Orders, constitutes of it one function among others. The People of God remains, therefore, according to Lumen gentium 8, “populus messianicus…instrumentum redemptionis”, the responsible subject of the mission. Moreover, historical experience shows that the faithful, all the faithful, the subjects of the communication of the faith, which is the essential nucleus of the mission, on which depends the persistence itself of the existence of the Church. All the faithful have the charism for it, infused in them at baptism and confirmation.

Each of the faithful is an original and determining subject

The Christian, whoever he may be, in order to evangelize, does not need any other sacrament beyond baptism, nor does he need to be delegated by the hierarchy. Moreover, in Europe, those who have guaranteed the transmission of the faith, above all in the second millennium, were the faithful in the family environment. The Code translates this fact on the level of law in canon 781, attributing to the People of God, as its fundamental duty, the “opus evangelizationis”. Therefore, the most important act of the whole complex of the mission of the Church, the communication of the faith, is the competence of each of the faithful. We ask ourselves, therefore, why in other things of lesser importance, for example in the choice of the instruments and most opportune modes for evangelizing, the faithful ought not be able to be considered, not as subordinate subjects, but original and determining.

The People of God, then, is not an undifferentiated mass, in which one subject is interchangeable with any other. That which holds the Church together, indeed, is not the law, but the faith, which the Holy Spirit inspires in the depth of the conscience of each and which, therefore, is expressed in a different way from one believing subject to another.

The exercise of the universal priesthood

This is the primary form in which the plurality of charisms is manifested. Some charisms will become in fact so relevant as to determine new and different paths in the journey of the faith in the world. But in the great majority of cases, these are concretized in the different vocations to which Christians feel called: see the vocation to marriage, the call to consecrated life or ordained ministry, the undertaking of work in a determinate profession, types of social and political responsibility. All these aspects of Christian life cannot be considered a profane reality, deprived of an ecclesiastical character, useful only to the faithful for earning merits in the eternal life: they are in fact the exercise of the universal priesthood. In daily ordinary life, in which family, profession, social responsibility occupy the days of believers, the faithful realize the commandment of the Apostle: “I exhort you… to offer your bodies…; and this is your spiritual worship”. The mission of the Church finds here its most consistent part, in the witness to Christ, which the faithful give in to men in their interpersonal and social relationships.

Valuing experience and ability

Benedict XVI, in a speech on 16th of May 2011, affirms that the faithful ought not to be “passive users and performers” of the dictates of the magisterium, but “protagonists in the vital moment of its realization”. The pope extends therefore this thought even to say that, with respect to the magisterium, they ought to be “even precious collaborators of the pastors in its formulation”. They will be so “thanks to the experience acquired on the field and in their proper, specific competencies”. Synodality, therefore, ought to be applied in the valuing of experience and competency: I would not hesitate to translate: on the basis of the different charisms (sic).  The charism therefore, springs into view, first of all, of spouses and parents, in as much as their charism is founded, just as that of pastors, on a particular sacrament. Their sensus fidei in interpreting the gospel of the vocation to family life is indispensable to the whole life of the Church and cannot be reduced to the sole virtue of listening to the magisterium. The appeal of the pope “to the experience acquired on the field and to their proper, specific competencies” is valid then for every other area, in which the faithful laypeople have experience and competency which the pastors of the Church do not have.

Synodality, inescapable chapter of ecclesiology

In conclusion, the restoration of the synodal form of the mission of the Church ought not to be reduced to a banal democratization of the decisions to be taken by force of the majority and minority. It requires, however, the attribution of congruous forms of authority to the faithful, beside and in harmony with that recognized for the ordained ministry of the pastors of the Church, proportioned to the charismatic competency of each, in such a way that, according to the object of the decision, the charism of each should be recognized, with the attribution of a proportionate deliberative force. To give life to a new canonic regulation which recognizes these values is not, in fact, an easy operation, since it is necessary that the essential duty of pastors is safeguarded of being able to guarantee, by means of their sacrament, the authenticity of the faith and the unity of the Church. However, the need of a reform in this area is now strongly felt in the ecclesial conscience and it would be a good thing if theologians and canonists would work together on this chapter of ecclesiology, with its problems “de iure condendo”, united and seriously committed.

Translated from the Italian by Evan Simpkins