Rome must abandon its centralising and authoritarian tendencies
Having dealt with ‘Papal Infallibility’, mandatory clerical celibacy, and the possibility of the mutability of canon law with regard to lady cardinals, today His Grace – temporarily occupying the Chair of St Peter – turns to the need for the Roman Catholic Church to reform its model of governance.
'In exercising supreme, full, and immediate power in the universal Church, the Roman pontiff makes use of the departments of the Roman Curia which, therefore, perform their duties in his name and with his authority for the good of the churches and in the service of the sacred pastors' (Decree concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus).Which is all well and good when the Pontiff and his Curia are of one mind – theologically, ecclesiologocally and spiritually. But there is more than a little opportunity in this bureaucratic authoritarianism for obstruction, obfuscation, ‘up-focused’ functionalism and theological activism. The Secretariat of State has the power and authority to act and speak with all the authority of the Pope himself. And one cardinal ultimately sits aloft 12 Councils, nine Congregrations, seven Pontifical Commissions, five Pontifical Academies, four Offices, three Tribunals, one Synod, and the Swiss Guard.
The cardinal who presides over this vast machinery is something of a bishop-bureaucrat chimera; a cross somewhere between vice-pope and Sir Humphrey. The Italian (and papabile) Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi recently denounced the ‘divisions, dissent, careerism, jealousies’ that afflict the Vatican bureaucracy. Pope Benedict XVI also alluded to the Vatican’s dysfunction, deploring how the church is often ‘defiled’ by attacks and divisions and urging its members to overcome ‘pride and egoism’. In his final comments to the Curia, he lamented the ‘evil, suffering and corruption’ that has defaced the Bride of Christ.
The Roman Curia is simply no longer fit for purpose: the proposition that 30-or-so cardinals can centrally govern 1.2 billion people is no longer credible, especially when the majority of them are Italian. The Curia is far more Roman than it is Catholic, and tends to form a kind of union bloc-vote when it comes to electing the next pope. It is simply the nature of bureaucracies to be self-serving and self-preserving. It stands to reason that they will favour one of their own, or at least someone they know to be favourably disposed to the preservation of their administrative power – a little like Ed Miliband being the favoured choice of the trade unions.
In this age of Twitter, Blogger, Linked-In, Facebook and incessant media scrutiny, it is not beneficial to perpetuate a centralised system which so often gives the impression of operating with a fax machine and a dial-up modem on an Amstrad. The medium is the message.
And while His Grace is reforming the centralised bureaucracy, he might as well address the question of centralised power in general, for it is axiomatic that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Those who rule the Roman Catholic Church – the Pope and his bishops – must become more collegial in the way they govern. The Pope, as a kind of god-king, may be a symbol of temporal unity, but he cannot effectively rule his vast church without real association with the bishops, and that involves devolved power-sharing. Indeed, the sheer number of scandals in recent years, not least ‘Vatileaks’, establishes the need for such a reformation: power has been abused because the structure of checks and balances is manifestly deficient.
The curious thing is that the Roman Catholic Church has the solution and antidote to its centralising and authoritarian tendencies within its own traditions of teaching.
‘Subsidiarity’ supposedly ensures that power is not unhealthily concentrated: it requires that power be devolved to the lowest or least-centralised authority, nearer to the people most affected by laws or precepts, in order that matters may be addressed most effectively. The concept is papal in origin (from the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, 1931). It is not only concerned with devolved freedoms and competences, but with power dispersal and greater accountability. Why not detach the Curia from Rome? Why not disperse and localise bureaucracy in centres all over the world? Why would a church that calls itself 'Catholic' not seek to be truly global?
Subsidiarity, collegiality and accountability must become the Vatican’s renewed trinity of efficient and responsive governance. Without this root-and-branch reform, the institution will appear increasingly anachronistic and wither in bureaucratic dysfunction.