A reforming pope’s dilemma: Using the center to deliver decentralization

A reforming pope’s dilemma: Using the center to deliver decentralization

Pope Francis celebrates Mass on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Sunday, June 6, 2021. (Credit: Giuseppe Lami/Pool via AP.)

The more a given pope sees himself as a reformer, the more inclined he often is to act like an old-school absolute monarch to advance that agenda.

News Analysis

ROME – Before St. John Paul II, the old joke used to go that being pope meant never having to say you’re sorry. Since John Paul actually apologized for various failures and sins of the church well in excess of 100 times, that bit of papal humor no longer really applied.

However, here’s another old papal saw that’s still highly relevant: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The thought comes to mind in light of news that the Vatican under Pope Francis, for the very first time in history, is carrying out a financial audit of the Diocese of Rome. A pope, of course, is the Bishop of Rome, and theoretically always has the right to inspect the books of his own diocese, but heretofore it’s been considered good manners for a pope to defer such matters to his chosen Vicar of Rome and the local leadership under him.

Such a hands-off approach has been seen as consistent with the values of collegiality and decentralization associated with the Second Vatican Council, values which Pope Francis has extolled repeatedly, including calling for a “healthy decentralization” in the Church during a 2015 ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops.

Yet in most respects, this has been anything but a decentralizing papacy. Instead, we’ve seen sweeping assertions of papal authority and central control on multiple fronts, especially when it comes to clerical sexual abuse and finances.

All of which illustrates a keen irony about the papacy: The more a given pope sees himself as a reformer, the more inclined he is to act like an old-school absolute monarch to advance that agenda.

It’s worth recalling that the Second Vatican Council itself, the event with which a decentralized vision of the Church is most often associated, was not a collegial act. It wasn’t like the bishops of the world or the lay faithful were clamoring for a new council in the late 1950s – St. John XXIII simply decided one was needed, and summoned it against the advice of many of his own senior aides in the Vatican.

In the present case, the first-ever audit of the Diocese of Rome by the Vatican’s Auditor General began in April. It’s not been officially announced, but it was reported by Aci Prensa and picked up by various Italian news outlets.

In some ways, it’s almost a bigger job than auditing the Vatican itself, given that the Diocese of Rome encompasses 330 working parishes, more than 500 individual churches, as well as upwards of 100 lay associations and 1,000 clergy. There are also more ecclesiastical entities than anyone can reasonably count, some of which are clearly part of the diocese, some not, and some have a sort of ambiguous status that makes it hard to know who’s actually responsible.

The audit comes at a propitious time, given that many offices within the Diocese of Rome recently adopted new financial procedures governing the administration of human resources, real estate holdings, and financial investments, as well as a series of special projects related to the Jubilee Year to be celebrated in 2025.

(The next “ordinary” jubilee year, which falls every 25 years, presumably will take place in a post-COVID world in which travel is more or less back to normal, and the diocese expects a significant influx of pilgrims in Rome.)

Clearly, the idea behind the audit is that Pope Francis can hardly expect his financial reforms to be taken seriously around the Catholic world if he’s not seen to be practicing them in his own diocese. In that sense it’s a legitimate, perhaps even essential, assertion of authority, but it’s an assertion of authority nevertheless.

Indeed, for a pope who decries “legalism” and derides “doctors of the law” as the essence of an excessively rule-bound Christianity, no pope in recent memory has been more aggressive about issuing new law. He’s already issued more motu proprio amending church law in under nine years than St. John Paul II did in almost 27, and the Vatican recently released a sweeping overhaul of the penal section of the Code of Canon Law, among other things stripping away the discretion bishops enjoy after Vatican II as to how, and whether, to apply the penalties it envisions for various crimes.

One telling moment in this regard came in September 2015, when the second installment of the highly contentious Synod of Bishops on the family was due to meet in Rome. During the first edition in 2014, the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics was much discussed, with some bishops proposing reforms to the annulment process as an alternative. The pope simply took that option off the table a month before the show started, decreeing his own slate of annulment reforms unilaterally rather than waiting for the synod to issue recommendations.

In the end, for better or worse, the difference between Catholicism and other major religious traditions is that in the Catholic Church, there’s a clear answer to the question, “Who’s in charge?”

That’s always been true, and it’s arguably even more so in the Pope Francis era, the classic example of a de-centralizer who’s not bashful about wielding the full powers of the center.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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