Church reform requires decentralization, synodality

Pope Francis places ashes on cardinals during Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 10. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis places ashes on cardinals during Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 10. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Thomas Reese

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On the agenda of the most recent meeting of the Council of Cardinals was what might be the most important issue in the reform of the Roman Curia -- the decentralization of decision-making in the church.

The council is made up of nine cardinals, six from outside of Rome, who are advising the pope on the reform of the Vatican Curia. This was their 13th meeting since the council's creation by Pope Francis shortly after his election.

The Feb. 8-9 meeting of the council included a discussion of the Holy Father's discourse on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops (Oct. 17). This talk developed theme of "synodality," and spoke of "the need to proceed with a healthy decentralization" in the church.

The pope’s speech "constitutes an important point of reference for the work of reforming the Curia," according to Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi.

So far, the council’s discussions appear to have been mostly theoretical without any concrete proposals.

Historians point out that decision-making in the church has been greatly centralized in recent centuries, as the papacy imitated absolute monarchies and responded to the Reformation and the French Revolution. In the last 200 years, improvements in communication technology (beginning with the telegraph and railroads) have supported this thrust toward centralization.

In earlier centuries, the papacy played a much smaller role in the governance of the church. Local and regional councils or synods often met to resolve both theological and pastoral questions. They even passed judgment on their brother bishops.

Rome was very influential in Italy but not so much elsewhere. Popes became involved when disputes could not be resolved at the local level or when losers appealed to Rome, the church of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Disputes taken to Rome were important but rare.

At the Second Vatican Council, there was much discussion of collegiality and subsidiarity. Collegiality stressed the important role of bishops in the governance of the church. The principle of subsidiarity held that decisions should be made at the lowest level possible in society and the church.

Because of the council, episcopal conferences were given more authority over liturgy and other pastoral and teaching functions in the church. The council asserted that the modern episcopal conference has many similarities to the ancient patriarchates.

In the post-conciliar church, there has been much debate about the role of bishops’ conferences in the church (see Episcopal Conferences: Historical, Canonical, and Theological Studies, edited by Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Georgetown University Press, 1989).

Progressives tended to argue for more decentralization, while conservatives feared this would lead to disunity in the church. The papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI curtailed both the teaching authority of bishops’ conferences and their ability to make decisions about the pastoral life of their countries.

John Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, argues that the church should look to its early history of councils and patriarchates, which could sometimes even pass judgment on the decisions of bishops.

“In the first millennium," he points out, "regional councils were a brake on bishops who might sing extra chorum," who were out of sync with the other bishops.

"For example, if a bishop excommunicated someone, he had to bring that to the regional council so that one would not excommunicate and another admit to Communion," explains Quinn. "So there is ancient precedent for individual bishops being bound by the regional council, and this could be reaffirmed today."  

This could have dealt with the problem of some U.S. bishops denying Communion to a pro-choice politician while other bishops did not.

One of the obstacles to dealing with the sexual abuse crisis was the inability of bishops’ conferences to pass legislation binding on its members without the approval of the Vatican. Nor could conferences punish bishops who did not comply. They were powerless to police their own. The same is true with financial scandals.

Others worry about giving conferences authority over bishops.

"I would be concerned about empowering episcopal conferences with general authority over individual bishops," says Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, a canon lawyer. "The activities of episcopal conferences are often dependent on the recommendations and interventions of conference staff persons as well as the perspectives and positions of the conference officers."

"Giving conferences authority over individual bishops," she says, "could result in staff, who may or may not have the knowledge and/or experience needed, exercising 'power' over individual or provincial bishops, which would seem to be inconsistent with the nature of the authority proper to a diocesan bishop according canon law."

Of course, this is exactly the same problem we have with the current system, where in theory only the pope has authority over bishops, but in practice it is the Vatican staff that is usually intervening in the affairs of diocesan bishops.

Alas, no governance system, either ecclesial or secular, is perfect since it has to be run by fallible and sinful human beings. Any system that gave conferences authority over bishops could include the possibility of an appeal to Rome.

But the current highly centralized system has come under heavy fire. Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, reports that practically all of the Asian episcopal conferences he consulted called for giving them greater authority over liturgical translations, which are currently micromanaged by the Vatican.

Quinn would go further. "The conferences should be able to write their own texts in their own languages," although he acknowledges that there is a value in having some eucharistic prayers that might be common for use in all countries.

Some would like to see episcopal conferences have the authority to allow a married clergy. Francis is rumored to be open to optional celibacy if episcopal conferences request it.

The appointment of bishops is another highly centralized process that has historical roots going back only a couple of centuries. Currently, the papal nuncio (the pope’s representative in the country) submits three names (a terna) to the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, which then makes recommendations to the pope.

In ancient time, the people or priests elected their bishops. There were also periods when regional councils or synods did it, as is common today in the Eastern churches.

Pope Leo the Great proposed a checks-and-balances system that required that a bishop be elected by his priests, accepted by his people, and consecrated by the bishops of the surrounding region. All three groups had to be in agreement on a candidate.

"The appointment of bishops is in dismal shape and clearly needs reform," says Quinn. "There is almost no meaningful input at the local level."

He believes that the terna submitted to the pope should come from the bishops of the ecclesiastical province. The United States is divided into 33 provinces, each presided over by an archbishop.

"If the nuncio or Rome has some objection, this should be openly discussed with the provincial bishops and the two entities should come to some resolution," explains Quinn. "In other words, appointments should not be made just by Rome and the nuncio without the primary participation and role of the regional bishops."

On the other hand, many Catholic progressives would shudder at the thought of the current flock of American bishops choosing their own successors.

"Empowering our current U.S. bishops would mean empowering a conference that is more conservative than Rome on just about every topic," cautions Professor Stephen Schneck of The Catholic University of America.

"Likewise, the current staffing at [the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] is far more conservative than it was even five years ago. At a theoretical level, empowering the conferences seems terrific. But, in practice, it could be much worse than having Francis' supporters directing things from Rome."

Francis, however, has shown that synodality is not just about who makes decisions. He has made clear to the Synod of Bishops that he will be making the final decisions, but he also emphasized a process that is highly consultative. Prior to both synods, a questionnaire was distributed in order to get input from both clergy and laity.

At the beginning of the synod, he told the bishops to speak boldly and not worry about disagreeing with him. We have yet to hear a bishop make the same speech to his diocesan pastoral council or his priests’ council.

"A commitment to synodality would require a reform of episcopal conferences not only with respect to the authority of the Curia but also, and perhaps more importantly given the U.S. situation, in relation to the sensus fidelium emerging in U.S. local churches," explains Richard Gaillardetz of Boston College.

"Episcopal conferences, in other words, must manifest and encourage synodality through ecclesial listening practices not unlike the 1980s pastoral letter process," which involved wide and transparent consultation with the laity.

"It would be a difficult and perhaps theologically dubious step to promote synodality as a work of episcopal conferences," agrees Paul Lakeland of Fairfield University, "without beginning from the grassroots and examining the place of synodality as the free exchange of ideas and opinions within any given diocese. Synodality can be a structure, but it is perhaps more importantly an attitude of mind, one which will only work if it permeates the entire body of the faithful."

"Unless you incorporate thoughtful, caring and courageous laypeople into the work of the USCCB -- those who have the ability to influence, blow the whistle, speak the truth to power while they help shape the work of the conference -- the church will remain dependent on leaders operating with little accountability or challenging diverse perspective," says Frank Butler, former president of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities).

Every governance system has its advantages and disadvantages. Centralized governments provide unity but can also become unresponsive to local needs.

The church, which for the last several centuries has swung toward the centralized model, needs to incrementally move in the other direction. But structural changes without corresponding changes in attitudes toward consulting the faithful will not respond to the needs of the 21st century.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

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