Pope’s Synodal Approach: Decentralization, Not Devolution of Doctrine

On Saturday, Pope Francis reiterated support for decision-making by bishops’ conferences, but synod fathers stress that’s not a call for pastoral innovations that could injure Church doctrine.

(photo: CNA/Daniel Ibáñez)

VATICAN CITY — A number of synod fathers have said Pope Francis’ call on Saturday for a more decentralized Church, in which bishops’ conferences could have greater decision-making powers, most probably does not mean devolving innovative pastoral practices that impinge on doctrine.

At a Vatican ceremony on Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, the Holy Father said, “We must reflect on realizing even more” through bishops’ conferences, which he called “the intermediary aspects of collegiality.” The Pope said the hope of the [Second Vatican] Council was that such bodies would help “increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality,” but this has “not yet been fully realized.”

Collegiality, a concept rehabilitated at the Council and which proponents say dates back to the early Church, refers to the divinely instituted apostolic College of Bishops, united with one another in union with the Pope in assisting with Church governance.

In his Oct. 17 speech, Francis quoted what he had previously written in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “It is not appropriate for the Pope to replace the local episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their territories,” and, “in this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy ‘decentralization.’”

Some European bishops’ conferences, especially Germany’s, would like to have more authority to decide on certain hot-button issues, such as whether to allow civilly remarried divorcees or homosexual couples to receive holy Communion.

Benedictine Abbot Jeremias Schröder, president of the Sankt Ottilien Benedictine congregation in Germany, told reporters last week at a synod press briefing that the divorce-remarriage issue is “very strongly and widely felt in Germany” and that, along with dealing with the understanding of homosexuality, which “varies from culture to culture,” it could be given to “national bishops’ conferences to search for pastoral solutions that are in tune with their specific cultural context.” 

He told the Register after the Oct. 13 press conference that he did not see either of those issues as doctrinal. Like the majority of German bishops, he believes these are merely issues of Church discipline, but critics argue that allowing such practices would be contrary to the Church’s magisterium.


Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Kurtz

Many synod fathers hold an opposing view.

Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried “belongs to the universal Church and would not be easily handled at the regional level,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston told the Register Oct. 19.

“It has to be handled through the whole Church working through Peter,” stressed Cardinal DiNardo, who is the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Similarly, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB, said in an Oct. 18 interview with Zenit news agency that “if there is a substantial issue of pastoral practice that affects our belief and our teaching, then to try to do something on a diocesan level, or even a regional level, it is going to fracture that unity.”

Archbishop Kurtz stressed that practice regarding Communion “has a universal basis to it,” before pointing to the Pope’s reforms of the annulment process as a recent example of where “there is more emphasis being given to the local bishop.”

The question of decentralization is “inevitable” for bishops’ conferences, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, told the Register Oct. 19. But while some matters will be “referred to the conferences,” he said he doubts “very much” that an issue such as holy Communion for remarried divorcees would be. “It depends on the discernment of the Pope,” he said.

Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, wrote recently that “theologies are many, but essential doctrine is not susceptible to regional differences.”

In comments to the Register Oct. 19, he stressed that “doctrine is one” and that he didn’t think the Pope was referring in his speech to “the devolution in doctrinal matters because he said, ‘Doctrine will not be touched.’” The Holy Father, he said, seemed to be speaking about matters such as procedures for annulment, where “the same criteria will be applied locally or nationally.”

“There is one faith, one Lord, one baptism,” Cardinal Pell said. “No individual bishop or conference of bishops has any authority to contradict or diminish central and official Catholic teaching.” He added that bishops can work “towards proper development of doctrine, but that work is more usually the task of theologians.”

“Catholicos is the Greek word for universal,” the Australian cardinal added. “It is not the Greek word for continental or national. There is one creed throughout the entire Church and one set of sacraments.”

Other synod fathers have voiced similar strong reservations. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said in his synod intervention Oct. 10 the Church should be “very cautious” in devolving “important disciplinary and doctrinal issues to national and regional episcopal conferences.”

And in an Oct. 16 commentary published in The Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “What is at issue is the application of Church teaching. In the case of divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, that means whether they should be admitted to Communion, under what conditions and who should decide those conditions — the local bishop, bishops’ conferences or Rome? Many bishops feel that the last thing the Church needs is fragmentation of practice on a matter of substance.”


Cautionary Voices

Others have noted that the Pope has talked about this issue before, so it’s unclear what, if anything, is new in his remarks on Saturday. Instead, there is a sense of “wait and see.”

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted the need for some decentralization. The Church, he said, had become “over-centralized in Rome and overly focused on the person of the Holy Father” in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Having moved so far in one direction over those two centuries, there seems to now be a “general openness” towards decentralization, and it is “well within the realm of legitimate possibility for the Church to move in that direction,” he said. Cardinal DiNardo also said he wasn’t “prima facie totally opposed” to such changes if, for example, they involved aspects of the liturgy, although he might have “some specific concerns.”

But Shaw noted that while a need exists for some decentralization, it’s important to “move slowly and cautiously.” He warned that a “radical model” of devolution would more closely resemble the Anglican Communion, which now appears to be on the brink of formal disintegration. For Catholics, he said, that would “not be an appropriate model to follow” and warned that it’s “easy to go too far, even with the best of intentions.”

“Once you take a wrong step in this area, you’ve gone into very, very dangerous territory — dangerous in the sense of imperiling the fundamental unity of the Church, which must be preserved at all costs,” Shaw said. Holy Communion for remarried divorcees, he said, would be a “step too far, definitely.”

Those who argue such doctrinal matters can be left to bishops base their argument on the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on episcopal collegiality, arguing that this implied bishops’ conferences have some sort of teaching authority. This is “allegedly bolstered” by the claim that the universal Church “is formed from the local Churches,” George Weigel wrote Oct. 10 in his column “Letters From the Synod.”

But, Weigel warned, handing the question of Communion for remarried divorcees to a more local level of decision-making would “radically deconstruct the Church’s sacramental theology and theology of grace,” leading to “sacrilege in one part of the world Church (Poland, for example) and a font of grace in another part of the world Church (Germany, for example).”

Other arguments also mitigate against such a development, he said, including the fact that the Church is not a federation of local Churches, and that collegiality, as envisioned at the Second Vatican Council, did not give bishops’ conferences teaching authority “in between” that of the Pope and local bishops — a point that was further underscored by Pope St. John Paul II’s 1998 apostolic letter, Apostolos Suos.


The Days Ahead

Archbishop Coleridge, who believes a pastoral approach to remarried divorcees must be examined on a case-by-case basis with “genuine pastoral dialogue and discernment,” told reporters at the Holy See’s Oct. 19 press briefing that the synod fathers collectively are strongly opposed to endorsing German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s call for a “penitential path” that would allow reception of Communion by some divorced-remarried Catholics.

The archbishop noted that, in an earlier synodal interview with Crux, he had estimated the synod fathers were about 65%-35% against such a change. But over the course of discussions in his own small group, he said, there had been “little enthusiasm for the so-called ‘penitential path,” adding that he had a “strong hunch” that overall support at the synod was “very modest indeed and that the numbers might have even dwindled as the synod unfolded.”

But Archishop Coleridge also suggested in his Crux interview that stronger support appears to exist for granting bishops’ conferences a measure of latitude on determining local pastoral practices with respect to reception of Communion. The split on that idea, he suggested, was closer to 50/50. The Australian archbishop did not offer an opinion at the Oct. 19 press briefing about whether that percentage has shifted with respect to the German bishops’ position, that they should be granted latitude to chart their own course on the matter.

However, the powerful pushback this week against such a position by many synod fathers — and perhaps even more significantly, the Pope’s Oct. 6 comments that Catholic doctrine on marriage was “not called into question” at the previous synod and that Church doctrine is “still valid” — indicate that, like the Cardinal Kasper proposal itself, decentralization that might serve to undermine doctrine is also failing to attract broad support.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.