The Catholic Church’s understanding of itself is as a body at once local and universal, and balancing the two is an exercise as old as the Church itself. What is properly the sphere of to the “particular Churches” — the local diocese, bishops’ conference, or continental body of bishops — and what is best decided or determined in Rome, by the Pope and his Curia?
It is a question at the heart of Francis’s reform in church governance, driven by the mandate from the cardinals who elected him, who want to see a better relationship between Rome and the local Church. And it was a question at the heart of the discussions among cardinals yesterday and today in the synod hall.
The discussion was framed in terms of subsidiarity, namely discerning what is best dealt with at a higher or more central level, and what is best dealt with locally. A strong papacy is important for supporting weak Churches or Churches under pressure from hostile states, for example (think China or Cuba), while the Church as a whole speaks far more effectively to international organisations when it speaks with a single voice. But beyond these practical considerations, the papacy exists to further the unity of the Church — a mandate that necessarily involves core doctrinal issues being determined centrally.
As Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, puts it in a recent article in Osservatore Romano, decentralization “does not mean giving more power to bishops’ conference” but allows them to “exercise the genuine responsibility they have based on their members’ episcopal power of teaching and governance, naturally always in union with the primacy of the pope and the Roman church.”
Yet what that “genuine responsibility” consists of is a question still being worked out.
Many of the cardinals here believe the problem is at least partly resolved by bringing the universal and the local Church closer together. Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi said a number of speeches had called for the Curia to have more professionals from different parts of the world, including lay people and women, working in it.
New Zealand bishop John Dew, who receives his red hat tomorrow, believes that the Vatican’s detachment from local realities can be overcome by recruiting people with pastoral experience, who can return to their local Church after some years of service.
“So one hope is that people don’t spend too long in a particular office, but that they can go home to their diocese to be really aware of what people have to deal with in life”, he told Vatican Radio.
This process has already begun: the former secretary for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, for example, has been made a diocesan bishop.
One concrete, if unspecified, suggestion is for there to be some kind of “structured collaboration” between bishops’ conferences and the Vatican, creating new mechanisms of accountability. The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, is clearly intrigued by the idea and what may come of it.
The ideas are clearly still at the discussion stage, and the burden of the commentary out of the Vatican these days is one of “downsized expectations”, as veteran vaticanista John Thavis points out.
And yet it’s easy to lose sight of just how far things have come in a very short time. Here are four ways in which the ground has already shifted dramatically:
1. Pope Francis has given the task of reforming to the Curia to a group of nine cardinals who are themselves belong in the local, rather than the curial, Church (although one of them, Cardinal Pell, has since been recruited to the Curia).
2. The fact that the College of Cardinals is discussing how reform of the Curia is, in itself, a whole new development in making the curia accountable and transparent.The College has been given a senate-like role, tasked with deliberating on major questions, which in itself dissolved much of the gap between local and universal. A significant example of this new accountability occurred this morning, when the 164 cardinals present in the synod hall were given four presentations, complete with slides, on the progress of the financial and economic reform of the Vatican. It was the first time that the College has received such a detailed report, and were able to quiz officials.
3. As John Allen argues, Francis’s choice of cardinals has broken the traditional pattern of bestowing red hats which necessarily favoured the universal over the local Church, the north over the south.
4. The Synod of Bishops has been given a hugely enhanced role in determining the future pastoral strategy of the Church. Indeed, the whole process has been of including the local Church to shape the policies which affect it — down to the local consultations now happening in advance of the final synod meeting in October. If the synod determines a clear way forward, it will be almost impossible for this or any future pope to resist its conclusions.