Several years ago, while giving a lecture on demystifying the papacy and Vatican, I came up with a graph that I humbly called “DeVille’s Law of Papal Media Coverage”. I reproduce the masterpiece below:
My “law” has been twice confirmed in the last two weeks—first with Pope Francis making an ill-conceived and -received comparison between rabbit and human reproduction, which generated masses of coverage, of course; and then with the announcement about changes to the distribution of the pallium to metropolitan archbishops—those new metropolitan archbishops will officially be imposed with the pallium in their home diocese, not at the Vatican—which was scarcely mentioned except on a few largely Catholic blogs. You can easily imagine the conversation between the media mavens who cover the Vatican and their editors trying to see if they can gin up lots of hits and links: “What a pallium, Jane? What does it have to do with gender? Contraception? Unless it has something to do with sex, the Times isn’t covering it today. Find another story—didn’t the Mormons just say something about gay marriage?”
But what if, for Catholics at least, this is worth taking notice of? Is there anything to what seems, on the surface, to be a minor change to a rather uncommon liturgical ceremony affecting only a tiny handful of bishops once a year? In itself the gesture might seem small and its implications rather insignificant.
However, as part of a pattern, it is potentially neither small nor insignificant.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that while some variant of the pallium (modified several times, but always preserving its same basic shape in the West as well as the East, where it is referred to as an omophor—the vestment par excellence of a bishop’s authority) is itself very ancient, the ceremony of archbishops traveling to Rome to receive it is very modern. So if Pope Francis chooses to modify this ceremony, he is not exactly dismantling some ancient apostolic tradition.
Why, then, do it at all? Is there a pattern as I just mentioned, and if so, what is it?
It seems clear, two years into this papacy, that this decision is one in a series designed to decrease focus on the Roman curia and bishop. But lest people see this as one more gesture of Francis meant to “destroy the Church,” recall that this latest gesture is not entirely original to Francis. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, had long been on record, even before becoming pope, of saying that too much attention was focused on the “superstar” pope. It was Ratzinger who, forty years ago, began calling for more robust regional and local governance in the Church and a decentralization from Rome. It was Benedict who moved beatifications back to their home dioceses, leaving them in charge of the local bishop. It was Benedict who decreased—as much for reasons of age as of ecclesiology—the papal trips abroad and tried to scale back papal Masses even in Rome, moving away from a more celebrity-oriented spectacle by increasingly holding Mass in the Vatican basilica rather than in the piazza.
In a sense, then, this gesture by Francis builds upon and continues those begun by his predecessor. And this gesture, along with the others just mentioned, must be accounted as a good and healthful development if, indeed, it serves to strengthen regional governance in the Latin Church, which has always been weak in this area. The Latin Church—the pallium ceremony notwithstanding—has never really known what to do with metropolitans, though (as I have showed elsewhere in great detail) they have always played a key role in Eastern ecclesiastical structures as a necessary middle level between the sometimes narrowly local and the abstractly universal.
In the West, by contrast, the default has too often been to Rome when matters could instead be settled at the regional level. Note well: this is in no way an assurance of necessarily better or worse governance. But it does ensure that decisions affecting one region only can be decided there in most circumstances, leaving Rome as a court of final appeal if necessary but not otherwise involving Rome in the first instance. This is, in fact, how the Church’s juridical system works: diocesan tribunals make initial decisions, reviewed by a neighboring tribunal (“court of second instance”), and then if necessary the Roman Rota and Apostolic Signatura are the final place for confirming or overturning a decision.
Such a canonical system is in fact an illustration of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which is often talked about in the context of Catholic social teaching, but less so in ecclesiology. That principle states, broadly, that those closest to a problem should be the first to attempt to solve it, involving outsiders at a higher and more remote level only if the locals are incapable of a solution. There is no reason why subsidiarity should be good for a political community but not the community which is the Church.
There is, then, as a general practice no reason to involve the pope in local governance except in rare cases and as a last resort. (This includes, as I argue in my book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, the practice of locally choosing bishops by synodal election, as the Eastern Catholic Churches do.) Looking to the pope every day for some sort of utterance on any and every topic is deeply unhealthy. He is not a demiurge. He has no special insights into the mind of God or the temperature of the planet. This urge to have the pope comment on every topic is a very recent one—some would say it only begins with Leo XIII (1878-1903), though I think Pope Pius XII (pace his reputation as a conservative) was an especially unhelpful innovator here, prone to, well, pontificating to Italian midwives associations, natural gas workers’ unions, and myriad other groups. St. John Paul II carried this superfluous practice on, and as a result we have seen a massive ballooning in the number, scope, and focus of Roman documents.
Indeed, during May 1995 alone, some people set to calling themselves members of the Encyclical of the Month Club when the hefty papal texts Orientale Lumen and Ut Unum Sint, preceded by Evangelium Vitae justa few weeks before, were promulgated, to say nothing of the thousands of other homilies, letters, speeches, and messages issued that year, and every year before and since.
Nobody can keep up with this kind of output, and no pope should be expected to continue it. The very real danger, abundantly illustrated by my Law above, is that constant papal talk means that people tune out all but the most salacious stuff, and as a result the “still small voice” of God is easily lost in the din. Your average person in the pew, man on the street, or student in my classroom, knows (or thinks he knows) what the pope has said about the reproductive practices of rabbits and Catholics. But can he name all four Gospel writers, or tell you how many natures Christ has, or whether the Immaculate Conception pertains to Christ or Mary? QED.
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