The Catholic Thing
The Pope’s Twin Challenges Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Pope Francis has been in office for a little over a month now, but many people still wonder what kind of a pope he is – and will be. It’s not the gestures of simplicity and humility, both of which, in differing ways, have existed in the Vatican since Paul VI’s reforms. Rather, many people are asking: What he will actually do, once the honeymoon is over?

We may have gotten two crucial indicators about that question this week. He confirmed a decision made under Benedict XVI to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) – of which more below. And he also announced the formation of an advisory group of eight cardinals, from all corners of the globe, to help him figure out how to carry out reform closer to home: in the Vatican Curia.   

What should we think of these two moves, which came in rapid succession?

To put them in a larger context, we may be seeing a Church with even steadier ways of acting on the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, of course, over thirty-five years repaired some of the damage caused by people drunk on the new wine in the Council’s immediate aftermath. Both re-affirmed constant Catholic teaching. But it’s no secret that religious orders, universities, chanceries, even some bishops resisted.

This has long been a complaint of so-called “conservative” Catholics – a label applied from the outside, as if following the settled teaching of 2000 years in matters of faith and morals was merely one among many options for Catholics. But as a moderately liberal Catholic friend remarked to me the other day, even he, a former seminarian, grew alarmed at how hopes about Vatican II quickly got out of hand with, it appeared, no one able to do anything about it.

The Council’s vision was a renewed, more evangelical Church. It also encouraged a more “collegial” mode of decision-making – collegiality, properly understood, being subsidiarity applied within the Church itself.  But to move away from the more legalistic and impersonal pre-Conciliar administrative forms did not have to mean also abandoning quite clear theological and moral truths.

It’s precisely here that the recent steps by Pope Francis may be quite encouraging. On the LCWR, he chose what any good pastor – no, any sane human being – would see as necessary governance. In the United States, the mainstream press immediately turned last year’s clash into a political controversy, pitting independent women against a male hierarchy, and the preferential option for social work over an allegedly abstract religious orthodoxy.

        The Merchants Chased from the Temple by James Tissot, c. 1890

But this was the rankest nonsense. LCWR has been practicing something close to goddess worship for decades. Witness their last national conference. (I’m serious about this – spend a few minutes with the linked program.) If the leadership of a religious body cannot ask its members to practice their professed religion, why even have different faith groups? It’s declaring – as many did in the press – that social work or the shibboleth “social” justice is real religion and everything else is debatable, if not sheer nonsense, and merely an excuse for power plays.

That’s why Pope Francis’s second move is significant. Some commentators see his appointment of the eight cardinals to advise him on internal Vatican reform as an example of Conciliar “collegiality.” To me, that’s not entirely clear, though it’s a far better approach than the sweeping first-100-days housecleaning some advocated – slower but surer, and likely to produce greater consensus.

Paul VI also appointed a commission, to advise him before he wrote his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae – and then ignored its advice on contraception, as he should have. In any organization, it helps to consult broadly. But group decisions can be wish-washy or just as wrongheaded as autocratic rule. Ultimately, the boss needs to judge – especially about essential truths, which do not automatically emerge from group deliberations. Still, better to hear from others first.

The common claims that papal power is too centralized actually have a hard case to make. Other than two doctrinal declarations – about the Virgin Mary – over the past 150 years, no pope has declared anything new de fide. Those who want to change Catholicism are the ones seeking power. Orthodox Catholics, including leaders, are passing on what they received, not arrogating power and decisions to themselves.

Francis’s commission, however, introduces some degree of what you can call collegiality where it is appropriate – at the administrative level of figuring out the “how” of being an institution that conveys the Good News to the whole world. The content of the Good News – as Catholics understand it – has long been settled by a far more democratic constituency than during the period of experimentation and disorder after the Council: centuries of voices from different cultures, civilizations, and continents whose lived experience of the Gospel has been sifted, tested, and found good.

The global advisory group will add to that rich experience in continuity with what’s come before. In my view, the Church as an administrative entity is still working out its modern incarnation. In the nineteenth century, the loss of the Papal States was a gain. It freed the Church to be the Church, instead of also a political entity. Similarly, in the twentieth century, eliminating some of the monarchical trappings of the papacy, which began with Paul VI, is of great benefit. Recent popes have been able to speak more directly and personally to the world in an age when this is an urgent necessity.

The challenge for Francis will be two-fold. He’s already made the office of Servant of the Servants of God more visible to a world that doesn’t understand Christian humility. But that humble service must also be joined with strong pastoral governance. He may do right to stay out of the Apostolic Palace and run things from elsewhere. Time will tell. But run things he must, not only to deal with wayward outfits like the LCWR, but to be a real servant to God’s people.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by petebrown, April 16, 2013
"The common claims that papal power is too centralized actually have a hard case to make. Other than two doctrinal declarations – about the Virgin Mary – over the past 150 years, no pope has declared anything new de fide."

Right Bob, and you probably know the story but even in those two cases the Pope actually commissioned a survey of dioceses around the world to see if people really did have faith in the proposed dogmas. When the response was overwhelmingly positive, that was taken as a sign from the Holy Spirit that the dogma could be proclaimed.

Thanks for an interesting piece.

written by Manfred, April 17, 2013
Thank you for the piece, Robert. Collegiality: I was an adult during the Council and the way this term was understood was, as Abp. Gerety put it, I am the Pope in Newark, NJ. The bishop of Rome is one of many equals who acts as an older brother. We were told the Church was "circular" and no longer a "pyramid" with the Pope at the apex. This helps to explain why Weakland, Bernardin, Wuerl, Hunthausen, Gumbleton, Clark, Hubbard, Mahony, et al were never removed but simply allowed to retire when they chose with the laity irreparably suffering from the damage each of these caused. Would the last fifty years of Church history be that much different if there had been NO POPE? The traditional groups, as much as they are despised by many,are all that is keepoing the Faith alive.
"I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it."

John Henry Newman
written by Robert Royal, April 17, 2013
Manfred, you are right about the distorted view of collegiality. But it's an odd view to think that without John Paul II and Benedict XVI the world would not have been much different. Would we still have the Soviet Union? Or not have the Extraordinary Form? just to take a couple of examples off the top of my head. I've heard, too, that there were bad bishops who stayed in place - and bad popes -- while the hierarchical view was at its height.
written by Manfred, April 17, 2013
Robert: Thank you for your reply. I can't answer your point on whether John Paul II played a critical role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I understand that economics and the Reagan era played a large part in that collapse. The Extraordinary Form. Perhaps if there had not been the Council, the E.F. would never have been (de facto) abrogated. The reason I quoted Newman above-would it not be nice to have Popes about whom one could make those statements? By the way, I'll defer to you as to whether Humanae Vitae was De Fide, but even Hans Keung admitted it was ex cathedra. Knowing the history, that encyclical reflected the Holy Spirit more than it reflected Paul VI. (Does anyone think after two generations of contracepting, Catholics are going to give up that practice?)
written by Maggie-Louise, April 17, 2013
Manfred just listed a rogues' gallery of Archbishops in need of evangelization. Perhaps we laity, who are being ejected from our pews to evangelize the world (IOWs, convincing millions that they didn't really see Archbishop Dolan having a good laugh with Obama, our abortion/mandate president, or Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden receiving the Body of Christ from those same hand)--perhaps we should make these rogues the object of our evangelization. After we have converted the hierarchy into faithful, orthodox, believing Catholics, we could evangelize our neighbors, instead of having to make excuses to them for our bishops and archbishops. And now, in the wake of terror, we have to explain the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston fawning over that abortion, health-care mandate, same-sex marriage-demanding president.

That was one of the nice things about Pope Benedict. He didn't require our explanations and excuses.

So, how can we begin this bottom-up evangelization when we can't get past the guards at the door?
written by Pam H., April 18, 2013
@Manfred: "Does anyone think after two generations of contracepting, Catholics are going to give up that practice?" Yes, they will - one by one. Conversions are most typically individual. If the Church clearly and widely insists that contraception is wrong, the men and women who practice it will have to choose between conversion or leaving the Church.
written by Matthew, April 19, 2013
The word "collegiality" is not mentioned in a single document of the Second Vatican Council. Reacting to constant cries for "collegiality" among the more liberal bishops, Card. Ottaviani pointed out that the Bible only records one example of the apostles acting collegially - at the Garden of Gethsemane when "They all fled."
written by eddie too, April 22, 2013
perhaps we should as the old indian saying goes, walk a mile in the cardinals' shoes before commenting so negatively upon them?

it does seem to me quite presumptuous to go around gratuitously and publicly denouncing bishops and caridnals of the Church.

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