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Robert Mickens  |  May. 26, 2015

Many Catholics who are eager to see Pope Francis reform the Roman Curia have grown noticeably impatient with how long the project is taking. Recently, some have even begun to wonder whether the 78-year-old pope has the time, energy and necessary support to radically overhaul the church’s central bureaucracy.

Fr. Ladislas Orsy, one of Catholicism’s most important and respected canon lawyers these past several decades, has a clear mind on the issue.

He says there can be no real reform of the Roman Curia without decentralization of the church’s governing structures and its decision-making apparatus.

The Hungarian-born Jesuit was a peritus, or theological adviser, to several bishops attending the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and, even as he prepares to celebrate his 94th birthday later this summer, he continues to teach at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

During a recent visit to the U.S. capital, I spent several hours in conversation with this amazingly young nonagenarian. With his refreshingly youthful intellect, he shared some of his views and concerns about how Francis, his Jesuit confrere, has been striving to renew the church during his two years in office.

“If there is no decentralization, there will be no lasting reform of the Roman Curia,” Orsy said flatly.

He pointed out that in the last 800 years, every attempt to truly reform the church’s centralized bureaucracy has failed because power has remained too highly concentrated in Rome.

“In a global church that continues to expand way beyond Europe, this is not a sustainable governing model,” he said. He emphasized that it was also out of sync with the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which pointed to a shift away from Roman centralization and sought to retrieve and develop the ancient doctrine of episcopal collegiality based on synodality and subsidiarity.

In his many writings and public lectures, which he continues to undertake at a steady pace, Orsy has always maintained that one of the great, unfulfilled tasks following the council has been the creation or reform of structures aimed specifically at implementing its vision.

This is the task that lies before Pope Francis. And, thankfully, he is fully aware of that.

The Roman Curia is principally at the service of the bishop of Rome in his specific duties as chief pastor and primate of the universal church. It has no authority except that which the pope gives it.

But, as he says in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis does not “believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” He says it is “not advisable” that he “take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory.” If the pope does not take the bishops’ places, the offices of the Roman Curia — which are directly dependent on his authority and his alone — certainly cannot. And yet, in many ways, that is exactly what they have done for a very long time.

In Evangelii Gaudium, which he has called a sort of blueprint for his pontificate, Francis says clearly, “I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’.” In this sense, he indicates that the doctrinal role of local and regional bishops’ conferences should be developed, as should collegiality and synodality.

The best chance for carrying out a sound or healthy decentralization, it would seem, is by giving greater authority to the conferences and the Synod of Bishops. A third institution that could also be reformed with the aim of decentralizing decision-making away from Rome is the office of metropolitan archbishops. Since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), juridical authority that once was constituent of the metropolitans has all but disappeared, leaving them with the strange woolen band draped over their shoulders and precedence in liturgical processions as the only things that differentiate them from other bishops.

Enhancing the role of these three institutions, as well as utilizing the Council of Cardinals that Pope Francis established, are the best ways for reforming the Curia through the necessary decentralization that Orsy is strongly advocating.

The pope has already shown his seriousness about bolstering the synod, of which he — like patriarchs in the Eastern churches — is the head or president. This week, he again presided at the two-day meeting of the synod’s guiding council. Since Paul VI resurrected this ancient body (or at least a form of it) in 1965, no pope has ever been so directly involved in its governance.

It is indicative of how impoverished and highly centralized our ecclesiology has remained, even after Vatican II, that no one ever seriously asked why. The popes from Paul VI onward have consigned their authority over the synod to delegated presidents. Francis has continued the practice when the synod holds its general assemblies, but perhaps he should rethink that and begin exercising his presidency — without such delegates — during these gatherings, too. This would strengthen the sense of collegiality by immersing the bishop of Rome more fully into the sessions as an active participant rather than a type of hallowed figure that hovers over them. Such a shift would also lead, of necessity, to conferring decision-making authority to the synod and promoting the collegiality of all bishops acting cum et sub (with and under) the authority of the successor of Peter.

Whether Pope Francis is contemplating such a change to the Synod of Bishops is still not clear. But it is evident that he wants to change the role and methods of this collegial body. Following this week’s meetings with the synod’s council, he held private talks with the synod’s secretary general, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, and his deputy, Bishop Fabio Fabene, to further discuss this and other matters. Some of the changes in methodology are expected to be announced before October, when the synod holds its second general assembly in two years on issues pertaining to the church’s teaching and pastoral practice concerning marriage, the family, and human sexuality.

The original plan was that this second gathering would produce updated (or reinforced) guidelines in this multifaceted area. But it seems there is far too much meat on the fire and several controversial and hotly debated issues that would make it nearly impossible for the bishops to come to a consensus (as the pope is pushing for) in just three weeks of meetings.

If, as expected, no consensus is reached, Pope Francis could make another unprecedented step and extend the synod’s discussion, perhaps by convening it in general assembly again in just a few months. Or he could instruct conferences of bishops to continue the deliberations at the regional or national level. This offers him the perfect opportunity to upgrade the synod by convening it more frequently (perhaps numerous times each year), thus making it a more constitutive part of the church’s universal governing structure. It also gives him the chance to restore some of the authority that regional synods and councils once possessed, but by extending that to the episcopal conferences.

All this would not only decentralize authority in the church, it would also radically reform the Roman Curia through the erection and enhancement of structures that implement the ecclesiological vision of Vatican II. In such a scenario, the bishop of Rome would exercise his primacy in union with local bishops from around the world rather than through the powerful bureaucracy that has long been nestled in Vatican City.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]