Political models for the papacy

by Thomas Reese

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Defenders of the status quo in church governance often say, "The church is not a democracy," with the implication that the church can learn nothing from civil governments. The truth is that the church has been borrowing government structures from civil society almost from the beginning.

In fact, we know that bishops, including the bishop of Rome, were elected by the people in the early days of the church. Later in Rome, the Roman Senate was sometimes involved in selecting popes prior to the creation of the College of Cardinals.

Not surprisingly, the cardinals for many centuries saw themselves as successors to the Roman Senate, and until the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, the College of Cardinals was referred to in church law as a senate. During some periods, the cardinals were so powerful that the pope could not do anything without their approval.

The Greek and Latin origin of many church terms reveals their political origins. "Ecclesia," the Greek term we translate as "church" was a common term for an assembly, or a gathering of people in a public place. "Diocese" was a territorial division in the Roman Empire. "Curia" was the Roman Senate or where it met. "Dicastery" was a court or judgment hall.

Historically, the church changed its governance structures to match changes in civil society. Thus, by the 13th century, the Vatican had an Apostolic Chancellery, which matched the chancelleries in European countries. The chancellery handled appointments of bishops and abbots as well as bulls and rescripts. Before becoming pope, John XXII (1316-1344) had been chancellor to the French king. He used his expertise in organizing the chancellery to handle papal business.

In later papacies, the Apostolic Datary became important because this was the last stop for any document before it was signed by the pope.

The decline of the chancellery and datary corresponded to the rise of the Secretariat of State to deal with both domestic and foreign correspondence. Meanwhile there arose the position of cardinal nephew who for awhile eclipsed the chief secretary. The secretary of state was not made a cardinal until the office of cardinal nephew disappeared. For more examples, see chapter 5 of my book Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church

If thinking that church structures are unique and unchanging is naive and historically ignorant, it makes perfect sense to look at contemporary civil society to get ideas about church governance.

The Vatican already did this, slowly and reluctantly, in terms of technology like computers, faxes, and the Internet. Computers were first brought to the Vatican by young priests from Germany and the United States when they were assigned to the Vatican. When the Peter's Pence office could not get approval from the Secretariat of State to buy a fax machine, then Archbishop Theodore McCarrick bought one and gave it to the priest in charge.

Now computers and fax machines are pervasive, the Vatican has its own domain name extension (va), the pope tweets, and you can download a "Pope App" to your cell phone.

Modern business practices have finally made it to the Vatican under the papacy of Pope Francis with the reforms of the Vatican bank and Vatican finances. There has been much kicking and screaming in response to these reforms but they seem to be taking hold.

But what about political structures? Can the church learn from these?

The papacy is currently organized more like a royal court than like any modern government. Bishops and cardinals, like nobles and princes of old, help the monarch rule. Are there modern alternatives?

Here are four possible models (I am sure there are more):

First, there is the king/prime minister model. Here the king is the living symbol of unity who provides inspiration and vision while the prime minister actually gets things done. Everyone in the government reports to the prime minister. Governments with a strong two-party system like Great Britain often follow this model.

Cardinal Tarcisio​ Bertone, the secretary of state under Benedict XVI, saw himself as the prime minister under this model. Many people believe he was terrible at the job, but that does not invalidate the model.

In the secular world, this model evolved over time until the appointment of the prime minister by the crown is a pro-forma recognition of election results. Since the Vatican secretary of state is not elected, this could not happen. But if you want to have some fun, imagine an alternative universe where the secretary of state was elected by the college of bishops.

A second model may have a prime minister, but it also has a strong cabinet of ministers who have power bases independent of the prime minister. In order to get things done you need consensus within the cabinet. Governments like Israel with multiple parties often follow this model. Many Vatican officials like this model because it gives them more power and more direct access to the pope. The Vatican often operates like this under weak secretaries of state and weak popes.

A third model has a strong president elected independently from the parliament, as in the U.S. He appoints and can fire people in the cabinet. He would have a personal staff who advises him and helps supervise the cabinet. In many ways, Paul VI, who intimately knew the curia, followed this model with Archbishop Giovanni Benelli as his chief of staff, but most popes do not have the expertise or time to be such a hands-on administrator.

Fourth, governments can be divided between those that are unitary and those that are federal. In unitary governments, all power is in the national capitol, while in federal systems, power is dispersed. Giving more power to bishops' conferences follows the federal model. Treating bishops as branch managers of a multinational corporation follows the unitary model. 

In approaching church governance, everyone brings their own experience of secular governance. Europeans are much more familiar with monarchs and prime ministers. Americans, both north and south, are more familiar with presidents. Will Pope Francis bring an Argentine flavor to governance of the papacy? As a young man he was a supporter of Argentine President Juan Peron, but once in the seminary, he never voted again.

Certainly U.S. Catholics have a hard time understanding the papacy because of our own experience. For example, we would expect a new pope to fire all the department heads and bring in his own people as happens after a U.S. election. Francis has not done that. Neither did John Paul II, for whom it took seven years to replace all the top officials in the Vatican.

Our political models are not easily transferable to the church. After all, they don't work perfectly in civil society either. But they do stretch our minds when thinking about the reform of the papacy, and that is useful.

[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 treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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