A Bad Move? Theologians Critique Archbishop’s Call to Relocate Church’s Governance Out of Rome

ANALYSIS: ‘The Pope is not the CEO of Catholicism, etc., who can work remotely from somewhere or who can move corporate headquarters if deemed advantageous.’

Archbishop Christopher Coyne.
Archbishop Christopher Coyne. (photo: Wilson Ring / AP)

VATICAN CITY — A U.S. archbishop caused a stir recently when he suggested that the Catholic Church should relocate its governance away from Rome in order to be more efficient.

However partially tongue-in-cheek Hartford co-adjutor Archbishop Christopher Coyne’s proposal was, what would that look like in reality? Theologians who spoke with the Register said that, while technically possible, decamping from Rome would be a bad move for the papacy — pope out of Rome — for both practical and theological reasons.

“Relocating the Roman pontiff to another city would only obscure the meaning of his office and damage its witness to the essential unity of the Church,” said William Stevenson, a theologian at the St. Paul Seminary and School of Divinity in Minnesota.

Stevenson was commenting on a proposal made by Archbishop Coyne to get the Church’s governance “out of Rome.”

“We need to put it someplace [else]. It’s too Roman,” Archbishop Coyne said in a Nov. 20 interview with local media.

By “too Roman,” the Connecticut prelate meant that the Church’s governance is “inbred” with the culture and community of Rome and wider Italy — a place somewhat notorious for inefficiencies and nepotism. In turn, Archbishop Coyne said, these thick, centuries-old customs and connections get in the way of efforts to reform the Church’s structures, finances and governance, such as the ones Pope Francis has been pursuing throughout his papacy.

“That would be the first thing I’d say,” said Archbishop Coyne regarding what advice he would give Pope Francis if he had the chance. “Is there any way we can move out of Rome and just kind of start over with a different bureaucracy?”

Archbishop Coyne reiterated to the Register Dec. 6 that what he said in the interview was “half in jest” and isn’t doable in practice.

“I wasn’t actually seriously calling for the relocation,” he said, “but I’ve experienced some of the frustrations in dealing with the Roman bureaucracy” and was suggesting a possible way to ameliorate that.

Theologians like Christopher Ruddy don’t deny that the entanglement between the Vatican and Roman culture can make Church reform difficult. Still, he said the location of the universal Church’s governing authority is a spiritual and theological reality, not merely an administrative one.

“The pope is not the CEO of Catholicism, etc., who can work remotely from somewhere or who can move corporate headquarters if deemed advantageous,” The Catholic University of America theologian told the Register.

“Papal primacy,” Ruddy said, “is inherently Roman and Petrine.”

Archbishop Coyne’s remarks about possibly relocating the governance of the Church came near the end of a wide-ranging interview with a local TV station in which Hartford’s newly appointed shepherd touched on his Irish-Catholic upbringing and experiences working as a bartender prior to entering the priesthood, as well as his support for women deacons, the priority he intends to place on evangelization, and the reality that more hard decisions will have to be made regarding the future of parishes with dwindling congregations.

“We’re a missionary Church now. People don’t come to our church; they just don’t walk through the doors. In fact, in most, people are walking out of the doors,” said the former bishop of Burlington, Vermont, who will succeed Hartford Bishop Leonard Blair when he retires.

While Bishop Coyne’s suggestion of relocating the institutional Church may be implausible, it does provide a teaching moment. As Catholics, many of us simply take the pope’s residence in Rome as a given, perhaps without fully appreciating the actual reasons for it.

The short explanation is that the pope is in Rome because St. Peter established and led the local Church in Rome, and the pontiff is his successor. In fact, it is because the pope is the bishop of the local Church that Peter founded that he governs the universal Church. Peter was the first among the apostles, and his successor in Rome likewise enjoys this “Petrine primacy.”

But the pope’s status as the bishop of Rome isn’t the only reason the local Catholic Church is uniquely important in the Church and its governance.

“In the early Church, it was the Church of Rome as such which had primacy more than the bishop of Rome,” explained Ruddy. “The Roman Church was ‘first’ because it was the place where Peter and Paul — the princes of the apostles — were martyred.”

Stevenson adds that the pope’s residence in Rome, of all cities, is a fitting testament to Scripture’s emphasis that the faith is for all people. Rome, after all, was the connecting point of the known world at the time of Christ, who instructed his apostles to be his witnesses “even to the ends of the world” (Acts 28:14).

“If ‘all roads lead to Rome,’ then it is also true that all roads lead from Rome,” he said. “Even in a world that is in most ways different from that in which Luke wrote, this way of characterizing Rome continues to resonate.”

Ruddy explains that it was Pope Leo the Great, who lived in the fifth century, who “really cemented the shift to a focus on the bishop of Rome as the locus of authority.” The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) confirmed this view in its acclamation: “Peter has spoken through Leo.”

In fact, even when popes have lived and reigned outside of Rome — such as from Avignon, France, 1309-1376 — they were still the bishop of Rome. The papacy’s rootedness in the Church of Rome was further emphasized in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, which underscored that Peter’s successors are “the bishops of the holy Roman see, which he founded and consecrated with his blood.”

“That the successor of Peter should reside in Rome is not incidental to his office,” explained Stevenson. “It is a visible affirmation of the perennial validity and authority of the Petrine office.”

Critiques of Archbishop Coyne’s proposal to move the Church’s governance aren’t just theological, but also practical. For one, Ruddy notes that simply shifting the location of the Church’s governing locus won’t allow it to escape the influences and idiosyncrasies of its surroundings, because “just about every culture or organization anywhere has flaws that are resistant to change.”

“Moving the papacy and the curia to Paris or Lagos or Manila might address certain problems, but would surely generate new ones,” he said. And while there might be a temptation to think that the “grass is always greener,” Ruddy said, the historical record of popes governing outside of Rome indicates that isn’t the case.

The nearly 70 years of popes residing in Avignon, sometimes referred to as the “Babylonian captivity of the papacy,” was marked by significant influence of the French monarchs upon the governance of the universal Church. In fact, the popes’ absence from Rome and appearance of being the puppets of local authorities severely undermined respect for the Petrine office.

The crisis was so acute that St. Catherine of Siena made it her life’s mission to return the papacy to Rome — which eventually happened when Pope Gregory XI returned to Italy in 1376, largely through her persistent encouragement.

Saintly deeds aside, Ruddy said he doubts “that anyone would want to repeat that experience — not least for the way it made the pope subservient to local rulers.”

Still, Ruddy and Williamson acknowledge that the pope can theoretically live and govern from outside of Italy, but that this is an exception to the norm and only viable in cases in which he is genuinely impeded from carrying out his ministry in Rome.

For instance, Pope Pius XI considered taking refuge in Cologne, Germany, in 1870 — but only because the Italian army had taken over Rome and the papal states.

Likewise, Msgr. Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel The Lord of the World — a favorite of both Pope Francis and Benedict XVI — depicts a scenario in which the pope is leading the Catholic Church not from Rome, but from the Holy Land.

However, as readers of that work of science fiction know, the book’s pope had only decamped for Nazareth because of a worldwide persecution of Christians that had left Rome uninhabitable.

Furthermore, while Roman culture might provide challenges to reform and efficient governance, the future Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, saw it as a mark of Providence that the Church’s governance had ended up embedded in a decidedly Mediterranean cultural context.

When asked by the journalist Vittorio Messori if he would be happier if the center of the Church were instead in hyper-efficient Germany rather than the relatively more lackadaisical Rome, the Bavarian prelate allegedly responded, “Oh please, as it is, we already have a Church that is too organized! Too much organization suffocates the Spirit.”

Whatever the case, and whatever the challenges posed by ecclesial governance’s entanglement with Roman culture and customs, Ruddy said that the pope’s place is in the local Church of which he is the bishop.

“Rome has its problems, but both practical and doctrinal-dogmatic reasons make it preferable to anywhere else.”

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