“You keep using that word,” says Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya to Wallace Shawn’s hapless Vizzini in Rob Reiner’s 1987 adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” I remember thinking of that scene, when Pope Francis began railing against “casuistry” and “abstract casuistry” a few years back. It was easy to deal with his lexical idiosyncrasy then, because “casuistry” means something.
“Synodality,” on the other hand, means everything. That makes it harder to nail down because it means, in essence, that “synodality” means nothing. More precisely, “synodality” means whatever Pope Francis wants it to mean.
Pope Francis says that a “healthy decentralization” of power, or at least its exercise in the Church, is part and parcel of synodality. This is in keeping with the idea that local authorities will know best what is good for their people and will have a better idea of how to get it for them. That’s fine. How it is that what he says lines up with what he does, however, is not always immediately apparent.
Two news items out of the Vatican on Wednesday will serve to illustrate the point.
One is the announcement of a change to canon law, which requires diocesan bishops to obtain “written license” from the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life – the Vatican curial department responsible for overseeing religious orders and congregations – before establishing new religious houses within their dioceses.
It may be a bit wonky, but it’s worth digging into this for just a second.
Many religious congregations have begun as institutes of diocesan right – that is, as houses or communities recognized by a local bishop, and tied to the places where they are recognized – and some of those have gone on to obtain official recognition from the pope. When that happens, they are said to be of pontifical right.
Such communities need not go on to obtain pontifical right, and frequently they don’t. Lots of religious communities fizzle. Some thrive for a season or two before wilting and withering. It’s the way of things, and is – or has been – the Church’s way of “prov[ing] everything” and keeping what proves to be good.
Sometimes, it happens that a diocesan community has a powerful if idiosyncratic founder, who attracts troubled followers and establishes unsatisfactory modes and orders of life for them. Sometimes, things start out well and go sideways. Sometimes, a mix of things to which human affairs are subject combine in a way that fosters growth – of the wrong sort, perhaps – but then, keeping these matters at the diocesan level can have a limiting effect on the damage a dysfunctional community or society can do.
In any case, bishops have pretty much always had the power to establish – to “erect” such communities on their own.
Basically, the change Pope Francis made to the law means that local bishops need to ask permission – and obtain it in writing – from a Vatican office before they exercise the powers of governance that are theirs and always have been.
In other words, it’s not like the pope taking away bishops’ driving privileges as though he were the parent and they were teenagers with too many speeding tickets, so much as would be like a President of the United States telling governors they have to obtain written permission from the Secretary of the Interior before creating a new state park.
Only, the President of the United States can’t do that.
The theologians and canon lawyers can debate whether the pope can do the thing he just did, if they want, but it doesn’t look like this is the sort of thing that is necessarily ultra vires – beyond the scope of legitimate power – however ham-fisted or ill-considered it may be.
The thing is, he just did it.
Pope Francis has been chipping away at their powers in these regards from some time, so the move is not entirely surprising. Still, it is tough to square with the notion of healthy decentralization, unless the unspoken corollary is that the healthy decentralization needs to be accompanied by a healthy centralization.
“What is healthy?” is a reasonable question, however you slice it. Having the Vatican dictate the contents of parish bulletins, for example, probably isn’t. That’s what happened when the Congregation (since restyled “Dicastery”) for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued its instruction implementing Pope Francis’s draconian crackdown on the use of older liturgical books. Even people sympathetic to Francis’s aims and willing to defend his means had a hard time with that one.
Now – News Item #2 – the Vatican has issued “suggestions” for marriage preparation. Now, marriage prep is something that could stand to be strengthened, and the document – so far released in Italian and Spanish, but coming soon in other languages – is not destitute of possibly helpful elements. It does, however, get awfully granular over its nearly one hundred pages: proposing a “catechumenate” in several stages, for persons intent on marriage, lasting more than a year before marriage and for several years after a couple is married.
Time will tell whether these suggestions will become anything more, but it is hard to imagine a bunch of curial jobbers producing anything of immediate practical usefulness. One wonders when local folks in the pastoral trenches will begin to wish the fellows in Rome will tire of helping. Pope Francis, meanwhile, is happy to give priests advice on everything from the length of their homilies to their liturgical dress. As the old saying goes, one needn’t consult a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.
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