A Decentralized Church: What Would Be Acceptable?

NEWS ANALYSIS: An assessment of the positives and negatives of giving more power to bishops and their flocks.

Bishops listen in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall as Pope Francis delivers his address outlining his vision of synodality on Oct. 17, 2015.
Bishops listen in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall as Pope Francis delivers his address outlining his vision of synodality on Oct. 17, 2015. (photo: YouTube/Catholic Sat)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ landmark address last October — in which he outlined his vision for a more collegial, decentralized and “listening” Church — was “one of the most powerful” of Francis’ pontificate, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, said last month.

So much so that the cardinal and the synod secretariat will be hosting a symposium Saturday through Tuesday to “build a discussion” on the topic, with doctrine as its “starting point,” and the goal of encouraging scholars to look into the possibilities more closely.

But the nature of the Pope’s speech — one that aims to pay more attention to the concerns of bishops and their faithful and offer them greater autonomy — has caused some concern. If inappropriately devised and executed, critics say, it could threaten unity and possibly even lead to schism. If handled well, it could foster unity and enhance bishops’ authority, enabling them to more effectively lead their flocks in accordance with the magisterium.

Addressing the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s institution of the Synod of Bishops last October, the Holy Father set out to present his hopes for a synodal Church — a key tenet in his reform of Church governance.

He spoke of “journeying together” and of “mutual listening,” in which “everyone has something to learn.” He stressed the importance of listening to the sensus fidei — the sense of the faith, or faithful — in order to prevent a “rigid separation” between the Church and the Church’s teaching. And he promoted a vision of a papacy and hierarchy as an “inverted pyramid,” in which all are at the service of others, beginning with the successor of Peter. The papacy, he said, needs to undergo a “conversion” so that the Pope is “not, by himself, above the Church,” but a “bishop among bishops.”

Emphasizing the role of bishops’ conferences, the Pope said that it is ultimately for them to discern problems in their territories, not the Pope, and that, “in this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy ‘decentralization.’”


Evangelii Gaudium

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Francis had already proposed such a reform, warning that “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” Further developments in this regard are expected to appear in the Pope’s upcoming apostolic exhortation on the 2015 Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, to be published next month.

Speaking to the Register Feb. 1, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said the “key concept” of the Pope’s “extraordinary speech” was that of synodality. This needs to be “reflected upon” and developed, he said, so that it “corresponds to the experience of the Church since the Second Vatican Council.” (According to Cardinal Baldisseri, synodality involves “the entire people of God, understood not as a passive subject, but active, according to the functions, the charisms and ministries of each person,” and collegiality as referring to the “authority that all the bishops, assembled in a college, exercise in the Church cum et sub Petro [with and under Peter].”)

Cardinal Ouellet pointed out that the word “synodality” was not used at the Council, but nevertheless said this “spirit of consultation” is the “essence of the Church, which is a communion of persons with different charisms and conscience.” The Pope, he said, “wants further progress in that direction, and I think it’s a very sound development of the Church.”


Open to Possible Abuse

But a major concern about the proposed reform is that it could be especially vulnerable to abuse, particularly if it facilitates national or regional conferences gaining authority to approve pastoral practices that are not coherent with doctrine. Some German bishops, for instance, have already intimated their wish to allow pastoral practices that the universal Church would oppose.

Speaking last February, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the country’s bishops’ conference, said, “We are not just a subsidiary of Rome,” and the synod on the family “cannot prescribe in detail what we have to do in Germany.” This is of particular concern, given that the majority of German bishops wish to allow holy Communion to remarried divorcees, a banned practice, but one bishops already turn a blind eye to, especially in many German dioceses, but also in others.

“You can see the worst potential problem by looking at the Polish and German bishops,” said Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute. “The Poles are fiercely united in wanting to keep pastoral practice about the divorced and remarried as it has always been [so] you have, potentially, the prospect of two countries sharing a common border: On one side of the borders, taking of Communion by divorced-remarrieds is a sacrilege against the Eucharist; on the other side of the border, it’s regarded as a wonderful new outpouring of God’s mercy.”

This scenario, Royal added, “does not seem an advisable arrangement for a Church that is Catholic.”

Another respected and well-informed theologian, who preferred to speak anonymously, stressed that while synodality can “claim some ecclesiological pedigree, decentralization cannot.” Moreover, he said the latter is a “political category” concealing a “theological agenda.”

That decentralizing agenda, he continued, aims to give priority to “synodality over communio” — in other words, transfer powers to bishops’ conferences hitherto reserved to the Supreme Pontiff and thus, in effect, “diminish the authority of the administration that serves the Petrine ministry.”

Sources say Bishop Marcello Semeraro, who has a key role as secretary to the “C9” council of cardinals advising the Pope on reform of Church governance, is a key proponent of such a vision. Critics believe a version of this agenda is found in the writings of Archbishop John Quinn and that it is reminiscent of the liberal-reformist movements conciliarism and Gallicanism.

“Central to this agenda is a weakening of the Curia,” the theologian continued. “It is a movement to reduce the authority of the Holy See itself, as well as of the papal office.” He added that the understanding of the Curia as a “properly collegial body,” and therefore divinely instituted with superiors who are cardinals, archbishops and bishops, “is directly under attack” and that an alternative ecclesiological model is being advanced, one not in accord with Vatican II, which would reduce the Curia to “more strictly bureaucratic organizational form” and remove its “collegial character, along with its authority and jurisdiction.”


The Authority of Bishops’ Conferences

For some, such as Church historian and professor Roberto De Mattei, president of the Lepanto Foundation, a Rome think tank, such a weakening of the papacy and Curia at the expense of elevating bishops’ conferences could be calamitous.

The “innovators,” he explained, want to “transform the hierarchical and monarchical constitution of the Church into a democratic and parliamentary structure.” But this “dream of a republicanized Church,” he told the Register, contradicts the dogma of the Roman primacy, as stated in the First Vatican Council constitution Pastor Aeternus, which “consists in the real and supreme power of papal jurisdiction, independent of all other powers, of all pastors and all the flock of the faithful.”

Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, one of the five cardinals who contributed to the book Remaining in the Truth of Christ that upheld the Church’s teaching on marriage, is more optimistic than De Mattei. He takes solace in the fact that Pope Francis has repeatedly affirmed that doctrine “won’t be touched” and that bishops cannot alter the Church’s teaching and discipline independent of the Pope cum Petro et sub Petro. “If we have this principle, what is there to fear?” he said. “There has to be the principle of unity; otherwise, we will not be in the collegiality.”

But even with this guarantee, an over-emphasis on consulting the faithful, the sensus fidelium, raises further concerns because today most Catholics are poorly catechized or lapsed, according to some observers. Cardinal De Paolis acknowledged that “this is a serious problem” and stressed that the sensus fidelium “implies the gift of the Spirit that leads the faithful to give their adherence to the magisterium of the Church.”


The Necessity of Decentralization

Despite these apprehensions, some form of decentralization is seen as necessary. Throughout its history, like all organizations, the Church has oscillated between the center and the periphery, between centralization and subsidiarity.

And in view of the current crisis of faith in the West, some argue that an over-centralized form of governance is unworkable as so many breaches in discipline and doctrine cannot be adequately policed from Rome. The answer, they say, is better training of bishops and sound episcopal appointments.  

For De Mattei, the only real form of decentralization would be to abolish the bishops’ conferences, which, he said, “now exert an intolerable bureaucratic and centralizing power.” He reminded that there is “no provision for episcopal conferences in the Church founded by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, but only the Pope and the bishops, as instituted by divine right.”

Instead, he would like to see the return to “full and immediate jurisdiction of bishops in their dioceses,” as this “would not fragment the authority of the Church.” And he added that the Pope “is in fact the central unit and authority, who can attribute and remove jurisdiction from individual bishops, through the canonical mission, emanating from him. This principle is the guarantee of the unity of the Church: unity government, unity of faith, unity of sacraments.”

In the 1985 book The Ratzinger Report, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger voiced similar concerns about bishops’ conferences. He said they risked smothering the role of the bishop in often “burdensome bureaucratic structures” and added: “We must not forget that the episcopal conferences have no theological basis; they do not belong to the structure of the Church, as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated; they have only a practical, concrete function.”

He subsequently discussed the matter further in his capacity as Pope Benedict XVI, in a November 2010 address he delivered to a group of Brazilian bishops. National bishops’ conferences exist to facilitate “the joint and harmonious exercise of certain pastoral functions, for the good of the faithful and of all the citizens of a particular territory,” he stated.

But Pope Benedict stressed, “The counselors and structures of the episcopal conference exist to serve the bishops, not to replace them.”

Royal said there is probably “some room” for bishops to address local situations that “don’t touch on the substance of faith of morals.” But he said bishops’ conferences “run the risk of a kind of bureaucratic clumsiness” that leads them into conflict with the universal Church. “Within carefully drawn limits,” however, he believes the Church “could accommodate local situations in a true subsidiarity.”


An African Perspective

Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso of Kaduna, Nigeria, who was a father at the recent synod on the family, still believes in the effectiveness of bishops’ conferences to “better handle” certain pastoral issues “in line with the principle of subsidiarity.” But, like Royal, he stressed “clear guidelines” are necessary.

“Properly handled and guided, I believe that decentralization will help the Church in this age,” he said, adding that fears it could lead to a Church similar to the fractured Anglican Communion would only materialize if the “so-called decentralization is done regardless of the existing structure of the Church.” This is why “we have the Petrine ministry,” he said, “to guard, lead and moderate.”

“The one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church must be incarnated in all cultures of the world,” he said, adding that it is important to note “there is no perfect process, and any process is open to abuse as long as it is human beings operating it; hence the need for caution and patience.”

“In God,” he said, “there is no time.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.