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On being ambivalent about the papacy and its peculiar paradoxes

Why I wonder if the new document on “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community” will fulfill two “laws” about the papacy that have always intrigued me.

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There are two “laws” about the papacy that have always intrigued me, and both of them popped up in the news recently. Both of them have long ensured that the history of the papacy is not straightforward, but has many highways and byways, detours and ditches. The papacy (like the wider Church) is never only growing in grace or declining into decadence. It is never entirely a vehicle for power-mongering or self-aggrandizement, no matter how much some detractors may claim. Nor, lest its apologists get too cocky here, is the papacy merely an unblemished oracle of nothing but orthodox and divine truths.

In looking at the papacy, consider, first, the Law of Unintended Consequences. That occurs when something gets decided in one era, for eminently sensible and defensible reasons, and for that era much good comes of the decision. But then the inherent institutional conservatism of Rome kicks in, and a practice from one era remains on the books long after the presenting problem has passed from the scene. Sometimes the Church realizes this and eventually changes practices; but when she does not, the now-outdated practice can often go on to create new and serious problems nobody foresaw at the time of its birth.

Let me pick an easy example of this: the papal selection of virtually all bishops. This, as we know, is scarcely a century old, codified canonically in 1917. Why did it come about? Part of it was motivated by the attack on the Church in France during the time of Napoleon, and part of it was motivated by the recognition that various emperors and monarchs often appointed unworthy bishops selected for their imperial loyalty and not their theological orthodoxy. Popes from Pius VII onward began, for commendable pastoral motives, to appoint bishops outside their territories to circumvent such problems.

Today, however, as I have been arguing for more than two years, the idea that popes always appoint better men than could be chosen by even more venerable methods such as synodal election, is belied by the realities before us of bishops being disgraced both for abuse they committed and abuses they covered up. The idea that popes must appoint all bishops, which began for noble and defensible reasons, is today having the unintended consequence of sometimes giving us terrible men who should never have been ordained in the first place, and who may have been bounced from office far sooner if real local mechanisms of accountability (such as my book proposes) were in place.

There is a second “law” one sees in papal history and practice: call it (somewhat ironically) the Law of Papal Paradoxes. By that I mean that the papacy is sometimes used for good ends but in such a way as to mitigate against—or seem to be in contradiction to—itself or some other countervailing good in the Church. Let me give two contemporary examples.

The first was the decision by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 in Summorum Pontificum (which I always make my liturgy students read). I have long supported that decision, as essays on CWR over the years will show. Here, a pope who had years before, as a theologian (see, e.g., his Milestones from Ignatius Press, as well as Salt of the Earth), decried the centralized control over the liturgy in the post-conciliar years used precisely the same vehicle of the papacy to return control over liturgical decisions back to the level of the local parish and community. In other words, the organ of centralization was used to strike a blow for decentralization, achieving what you could call “liturgical subsidiarity.” I thought, and still think, it was a brilliant paradox of kenotic governance, and would gladly welcome and strongly encourage further examples of it.

Could the previous pope have done more about the state of liturgy in the Latin Church? Certainly. But his gravamen about all of Vatican II’s reforms was that the papacy had vastly exceeded its brief, inserting itself into too many parts of local churches where historically it had never been and, theologically, could hardly justify doing so. Such a papacy had inflicted “extremely serious damage” on Latin liturgy, as he memorably put it in his memoirs. He would not, therefore, use the same vehicle to inflict yet more centralized liturgical “reform of the reform” even if, I strongly suspect, his wholesome pastoral instincts were so inclined.

Now we come to a new document from Rome, titled “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church”, calling for reforms to the structuring of parishes. Like so many such documents after the papacy of Leo XIII, this one is prolix with 125 paragraphs and 182 footnotes, written in a style slightly condescending in some places, and more than slightly swollen on slogans and sophomoric insights. (Some aspiring doctoral student should write about this question: what authority, if any, do footnotes have in magisterial documents?)

Straight out the gate in reaction to this tome came Cardinal Marx of Germany who, with a name and provenance like that, is nearly guaranteed to grab headlines. And so he did with a plausible sounding complaint that made me sit upright and decide to read a Vatican document that I otherwise would have ignored: “It is a bit strange when a document comes from Rome without it ever having been discussed with us. Is this the coexistence of universal and particular Churches that one would wish? Not really,” he said.

I am on record, in my two books and in many essays, calling for reconfiguring of parishes, dioceses, regions, and the papacy. So, at first glance I was somewhat sympathetic to this complaint about a papal document coming out of the blue and bypassing bishops. But upon further reflection I am wondering if this is not another example of the law of paradoxes at work, not unlike what we saw with Summorum Pontificum.

Is this a gambit by Francis to recognize, albeit somewhat obliquely, that the real focus of Catholicism now is, and increasingly can only be, the parish community, and not on prelates in dioceses (or popes in Rome)? Is he actually, paradoxically, advancing one more instance of the decentralization than his predecessor—who wrote a lot about it—was able to pull off? Is this a backhand to the bishops to say that since they only seem to “reform” parishes by high-handedly merging them and selling off properties to pay for the massive debts caused by their own cover-ups of abuse then he, the pope, is going to exercise his “solicitude for all the churches” (cf., 2 Cor. 11:28) in ways they will not?

Two paragraphs, at least, seem to suggest so. In paragraph 36, we have the kind of language almost never seen in papal documents: “In order to avoid trauma and hurt in the process of restructuring a Parish or, at times, diocesan communities, it is imperative that it be carried out with flexibility and gradualism.” (On a related note, see my January 2020 essay “Abuse, Trauma, and the Body of Christ”.) More bluntly still, in 37, it says any reforms must not be “imposed from above in such a way as to exclude the People of God.” Yet in my limited experience of parish closure mergers, and in hearing about the same from others in Canada and the US (at both Latin and Eastern parishes) that is very often exactly how it is done. I know of at least two utterly brutal parish reorganizations where the bishop had the locks changed hours after Sunday liturgies were over without even telling the pastor—never mind the people!—and the whole parish forcibly annexed by a neighboring parish and the property on the market within a week. The bishop pocketed the entire proceeds.

Later in the document, the pope is showing himself again (as he has in earlier documents, including Laudato Si) an enemy of homogenous uniformity that tramples on the uniqueness of each local community, saying that it is flatly “contrary to canonical norms to issue a single provision aimed at producing a reorganization of a general character, either of the entire Diocese, a part of it, or of a group of Parishes, by means of a singular administrative act, general decree or particular law” (no.49). The image that comes to mind here is that of the bishop as craftsman, carefully assessing each situation, and not a hatchet man bluntly hacking everybody down to the same size. Do we have any episcopal craftsmen today?

In the end I remain, as I do about all such documents, deeply ambivalent for this one—in a fashion at once unsurprising but depressing—gives “the laity” a scant two paragraphs (85-86) that repeat pious platitudes while ensuring all the power remains in the hands of clergy, as paragraph 113 notes when it reiterates that a parish council—whose very existence remains completely subject to clerical whim—has no determinative power, only “consultative.” Until and unless that changes, as I argued in my recent book, no churchman is really serious about reform.

What is further striking about this document is that it almost entirely ignores the diocese, which exists here (42-45) in only the vaguest ways of very little significance; a fortiori, any idea of belonging to a regional (or as we say in the East metropolitical or patriarchal) structure is non-existent, along with any focus on the papacy, too.

In the end, then, this document might eventually have the unintended consequence of reinforcing what I have seen for the last two years at least: a de facto congregationalist ecclesiology that seems to be gaining an increasing foothold among many Catholics for very understandable, if concerning, reasons. If my Hispanic or African-American or Byzantine parish gives me community and the sacraments, what do I care about some bishop whom I rarely, if ever, see, who knows nothing about me and who only stares down at me on a screen once a year during his “annual appeal” video? If this same bishop has presided over forced closings of beloved parishes and schools, over sex abuse cases and other wickedness, why wouldn’t I ignore him, and the man in Rome who inflicted him on us without our input?

Thus we come to wonder—it is too soon to know—if this document will not eventually exemplify both of my laws. It may yet reveal a paradoxical and unintended outcome whereby the man on the papal throne has written something that will help to dethrone his position in the Catholic imaginary.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. An interesting take on the new document. Should parishes be more legally independent from bishops and the diocese? Yes. Is that enough? Probably not; parish renewal will ultimately require a reconsideration of the theology of Holy Orders, in particular the distinction between the episcopate and the presbyterate. It will also require a reconsideration of the nature of the authority of the episcopate/presbyterate and a real grappling with the problem of clericalism (which is one factor behind the loss of men from churches).

  2. > It may yet reveal a paradoxical and >unintended outcome whereby the man on >the papal throne has written something >that will help to dethrone his position >in the Catholic imaginary.

    I am struck by the use of the word “dethrone”. Could the resignation of a Pope be another act of “dethroning” the papacy”?

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