Letter from Rome: It is going to be a rough and rocky road to healthy decentralization in the Catholic Church
What would a sound or healthy ‘decentralization’ of the Church, which the pope is trying to bring about, actually look like?
Reactions to the US bishops’ deliberations this week at their fall meeting suggest that Catholics may have drawn the conclusion, unwittingly, that decentralization may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
Those who are encouraged by Pope Francis’ emphasis on making the Church less judgmental or confrontational and more open to dialogue with the world will be deeply disappointed that so many bishops seem slow to follow his lead.
But if we take him at his word, 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”.
In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he writes: “It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’.”
The fact is, local bishops do not work for the Pope. They are not his representatives or errand boys. The Bishop of Rome is not the CEO of a multinational and the bishops are not branch managers.
Unfortunately, in the past, too many popes and too many bishops acted for too long as if this were actually the case.
Reform-minded Catholics were among the most vocal critics of this modus operandi in previous pontificates. But oddly, now that there is a pope to their liking (and what’s not to like?), many of them want every bishop around the world to suddenly act like him, have the same priorities as him and draw the same conclusions as him.
This is not a requirement for remaining in communion with the Bishop of Rome! And that’s actually a good thing, for it helps to safeguard the “reconciled diversity” or “unity in diversity” that Pope Francis, also very wisely, is trying to promote.
Still, it can be discouraging.
Buckle up, folks, it is going to be a rough and rocky road to healthy decentralization in the Catholic Church. It’s not likely to happen until the synodality that Francis is trying to instill in the Church’s way of living and being also embraces and transforms the way bishops are selected.
Even if a change in the discernment process for choosing our pastors were to be implemented in the next couple of years, it would probably take at least two more generations before we’d get an episcopate that would make decentralized government effective.
Having said that, there are some men in miters – even those with the august rank of cardinal – who should be doing everything as the pope wishes, both in style and emphasis.
And they actually do work for him. They are called apostolic delegates and Vatican officials.