Pope Francis, in his year-end addresses to the curia, has often tended to take the tone of what the British cabinet minister Alan Clark, in his riotous political diaries, once described as a “pre-caning homily from the headmaster.” No pope within living memory has been as critical of curial sclerosis as Francis.
But this year there are some very hopeful passages alongside the more critical ones. Francis begins very broadly by talking about how “the Church of Rome would not be truly catholic without the priceless riches of the Oriental Churches and lacking the heroic testimony of so many of our Oriental brothers and sisters who purify the Church by accepting martyrdom.” He then notes that “the relationship between Rome and the East is one of mutual spiritual and liturgical enrichment.” (In February, here on CWR, I argued for some ways in which the West could be liturgically enriched by Eastern practices: “When it comes to liturgy we’re all mutually enriching mongrels.”)
As he moves from the general to the specific, Francis introduces a novel phrase he later repeats: “diaconal primacy.” This is leadership at the service of the supreme good and supreme law, which is, as he says, the salus animarum, the salvation of souls. All structures and processes in the Church must always keep this in the forefront.
Clearly Francis wants to shake those structures up if they do not serve the overall good of the Church and of Christian unity. And one such structure is that of the Roman Curia’s involvement in the appointment of bishops. On this he says we need “further study and review of the sensitive question of the election of new Bishops and Eparchs.” I wrote an essay about this in Commonweal more than a decade ago, noting that there was nothing in the teachings or theology of Vatican I or Vatican II requiring the pope to appoint bishops—a practice that was unheard of everywhere, including most of Italy itself, until late in the 19th century. It was only officially codified in the 1917 in a new canon that the historian Eamon Duffy has called a coup d’Eglise.
Certainly no Eastern Church ever had the pope attempting systematically to appoint her bishops in the first millennium, and in the third no Eastern Orthodox Church will ever submit to such a practice. In between, of course, some Eastern Catholic churches in the second millennium have indeed had the pope and his curia involved in their episcopal elections, replacing them in fact with direct papal appointment, for which there is, again, no theological justification. The pope is thus right to go on to say, “Everything should be done with the thorough application of that authentic synodal praxis which distinguishes the Oriental Churches.” That synodal practice includes the powers of legislation as well as election, and absent such a reclamation of these powers on the part of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Orthodox, as they have made plain for decades, will continue to regard Roman rapprochement with great skepticism, rightly refusing to be ruled by the one-time imperial capital whose colonizing practices continue to manifest themselves in the Church of Rome’s curia.
Let us suppose for a moment that the Eastern Catholic Churches do manage, fully and everywhere, to reclaim their rightful prerogatives of election and legislation in their synods throughout the world. (This latter phrase is key, as current Roman practice—utterly incoherent—allows them to elect bishops for their so-called historic homelands, but nowhere else. Thus, e.g., the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church can elect bishops in and for Ukraine, but her territories in North and South America, Western Europe, and Australia all have to wait for Rome to appoint someone.) Neither set of practices could happen in isolation; both would require changes on the part of Rome, probably requiring the outright abolition of the Congregation for Oriental Churches (which has often functioned as the equivalent of the British Colonial Office), and the curtailment of the right of interference from other dicasteries, including that of Bishops, as well as the Secretariat of State, whose nuncios often play a role in picking bishops.
There would, then, have to be a decentralization of the curia concomitant with the reclamation of the electoral and legislative powers of Eastern Catholic synods. Fortunately, however, Francis knows this. He has been slowly chipping away at papal centralization for nearly five years now, often in small and largely ignored ways. Consider just a few of the more considerable examples.
13 March 2013: On the loggia he notes the task of the conclave is “to give Rome a bishop,” a word he uses six times in a short speech, never once using “pope” or “pontiff” or anything else. I was especially struck that night that he quoted St. Ignatius of Antioch (albeit obliquely) and his famous observation that it is “the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches”—the entire Church, not the pope alone.
24 November 2013: In a little-noticed paragraph (no.32) in Evangelium Gaudium, which was otherwise not really focused on ecclesiological questions in the strict sense, the pope inserted this bombshell:
I too must think about a conversion of the papacy…. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion…. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.
14 June 2014: The pope approves and orders the publication of a decree from the Oriental Congregation permitting Eastern Catholic bishops anywhere in the world to ordain married men to the priesthood. This overturned an (unjust) 1929 Vatican ruling that forbade such ordinations in North America, restricting them to the “homelands” of Eastern Catholics.
17 October 2015: In a landmark speech on the 50th anniversary of the creation of the so-called synod of bishops, set up by Pope Paul VI as a powerless and purely consultative body, the pope called for the creation of a more “synodal church,” where, he said, “it is not appropriate for the Pope to replace the local Episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their territories. In this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy ‘decentralization.’”
3 September 2017: The new motu proprio on liturgical translations, letting the various regions take primary responsibility for translating texts on the basis of their own indigenous linguistic expertise. These translations now only need a confirmatio from Rome rather than a line-by-line examination. This was followed up by a rather rare and therefore striking letter, dated 15 October 2017, of the pope to Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, telling him explicitly that contrary to what Sarah had said in introducing the motu proprio, the pope’s point was to decentralize matters out of Rome and back to the regions.
And that seems clearly to be in the pope’s mind as we arrive at the end of 2017. He knows that papal centralization is not traditional: it is really a very modern, very recent innovation, and not always a healthy, still less a necessary, one. It began in earnest under Pope Pius IX, and has gotten worse under every pope since then. (Already by 1910 it was getting so bad that the wonderfully eccentric English priest and scholar Adrian Fortescue, in a letter to a friend in 1910, asked acerbically: “Centralisation grows and goes madder every century. Even at Trent they hardly foresaw this kind of thing. Does it really mean that one cannot be a member of the Church of Christ without being, as we are, absolutely at the mercy of an Italian lunatic?”)
Decentralization by no means guarantees better governance—there are, of course, potential “lunatics” in the regions as much as in Rome. But nevertheless decentralization is much more theologically, historically, and practically defensible than the Roman centralization and personality cult of the pope we have been enduring for more than a century now. Those novelties are really indefensible. As a bonus—for those who think Francis the worst “lunatic” of all—at the rate he is going, he is making his office less and less important and giving greater responsibility back to others, where it belongs.