By Robert Mickens, Letter from Rome, in Commonweal, 2017
Some five years ago I was invited to speak at the City Club of Cleveland, Ohio.
“Since 1912, the City Club has served as one of the (United States’) oldest, non-partisan and continuously operating free speech forums,” says the organization’s website.
The topic of my talk was the Vatican implosion and, as a result, the long and gradual collapse of the Catholic Church’s monarchical structure of governance and ministry.
I argued that as the last absolute monarchy in the West (and most anywhere else in the world), the organization of the Roman Church has become an anachronism. It made sense when monarchies were a fundamental feature of human society. But no longer.
This outdated model of the Catholic Church’s structure no longer incarnates the reality of the lived experience of believers, the staggering majority of whom live in societies that are becoming more and more, and to varying degrees, participatory and representative democracies.
A Church where the most important decisions are made almost exclusively by a celibate male clergy, and where bishops are held to little or no accountability, is unsustainable in a world where patriarchal and monarchical societies—begrudgingly, but steadily—are ceding rights and duties to those who are not part of the nobility, the clergy, or one specific gender.
My talk in November 2012 came during the height of the so-called VatiLeaks Scandal. For more than a year the leaking of sensitive Vatican documents and the private papers of Benedict XVI had caused deep embarrassment to the still-reigning German pope and his top aides, especially Tarcisio Bertone SDB, the Cardinal Secretary of State at the time. It was a mess. Today one could look back and say: “Sure, it was easy back then for someone to spout off about a supposed Vatican implosion.”
Indeed, some people have since told me that the election of Pope Francis has revealed that my analysis was way off base.
But nearly half a decade later, I’m convinced that the thesis argued on that November morning in Cleveland still holds. Because it was not based on what did or did not transpire in Benedict’s pontificate.
Even despite the kairos—the special, providential moment—that the overwhelming number of Catholics believe we’re experiencing after the election of the first-ever Jesuit pope, the Church continues to implode. In fact, in some ways Francis seems to be deliberately hastening its inevitable collapse by implementing the principles and methods outlined in Evangelii gaudium (EG), his vision and blueprint for Church renewal and reform.
Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about the demise of the Catholic Church. God is not dead and the Holy Spirit will never leave Christ’s faithful people. This we all believe.
No, it’s about the crumbling of the present governing and organizational structure that mirrors certain features of the Roman Empire more than it reflects the organizational model of ecclesial life that is found in the New Testament or was experienced in the first couple of centuries of the Christian Church.
Francis is effectively laying the foundation for the “deconstruction” of the current model by patiently planting the seeds for the Church’s structural conversion by “baptizing” and employing four, key sociological principles (EG 222-237):
- Time is greater than space
- Unity prevails over conflict
- Realities are more important than ideas
- The whole is greater than the parts
Ultimately the pope’s goal is to make the structures and mentality of the Church more reflective of the Gospel and person of Jesus Christ, and to liberate it from a codified system of rules and philosophical ideas still deeply wedded to the culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world.
Through the process of synodality, he is opening up spaces for dialogue and discussion that involve all the Holy People of God and not just the male clerics. He is not democratizing the Church, but he is creating a large and indispensable forum for all voices to be heard through the classic, but too often forgotten, process of discernment.
It is still a fledgling—and for many, frightening—process that was revived with preparations for the last two gatherings of the Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family where all Catholics were given an opportunity to make their views known to the Church’s pastors.
The process of discernment has been further expanded in the run-up to the next session of the Synod, which will be convened in the autumn of 2018 to reflect on young people, vocations and faith. The pope ordered that a survey be made available on-line where all young people—even non-Catholics—can share their hopes and concerns.
Francis has also begun laying the foundations for Church decentralization by restoring to local bishops or regional episcopal conferences their rightful authority that, over the centuries, had been taken from them and given to offices in the Roman Curia.
For example, he’s done this by streamlining the marriage annulment process and giving almost exclusive judicial authority to individual diocesan bishops.
And it is reported that the pope is also considering calling a special Synod assembly exclusively for the bishops in the Amazon region, which will allow them to discern pastoral (and doctrinal) solutions to urgent problems particular to their part of the world.
One of them, though this is not just an issue for the Amazon, is the acute lack of ordained priests. Francis has indicated that he would grant the bishops authority to ordain married men to the priesthood (that is, restore the more ancient tradition of married clergy) if they should discern this is the way forward. This, in turn, could give courage to bishops of other regions to seriously consider a similar move.
It seems more and more clear that the pope favors the possibility of married priests, at least under certain circumstances. One thing is for certain: he believes it is a decision the bishops (at least of a particular region) should make, not just he and his collaborators in Rome.
A key development along this path came in mid-June at the latest round of talks on Vatican reform that Francis held with his advisory Council of Cardinals (C9).
It was announced that the C9 proposed the possibility of allowing national bishops’ conferences the authority, now held by the Congregation for the Clergy, to decide whether or not to ordain an unmarried or widowed permanent deacon to the priesthood or to allow a widowed deacon to remarry.
The proposal is the first step towards opening up a small space for bishops of a nation or region to decide, without the need for Vatican approval, on the dispensation of certain current restrictions on priestly ordination. It will take time, but it is a beginning that could lead to further development. The principle is there.
And if the whole is greater than its parts, the Church will not splinter if one section of it should decide to revive the ancient tradition of married priests—or to ordain women deacons or find other pastoral/doctrinal solutions to particular problems. The most important issue is that these “creative” solutions, as the pope likes to call them, do not stray from the kerygma: the essential kernel of the Christian faith.
Ironically, the greatest evidence that the Church continues to implode is the silent and not-so-silent opposition to Francis’s vision for reform that is found among the clergy, “both high and low,” as a recent article in L’Osservatore Romano stated so clearly. This is ironic because the priests and bishops that oppose the Jesuit pope’s call for pastoral change and conversion believe they are the bulwark of the Church’s stability.
They believe that they, and they alone, can stop the pieces and chunks of this anachronistic structure from caving in simply by a strict and rigid adherence to moralizing norms and liturgical rubrics, an obsession to control and rule Christ’s faithful and an insistence that only the ordained can decide the ordering of ecclesial life. They, too, are hastening the implosion. After all, it’s a long game. And, in the end, time is greater than space.