Dialing Down the Papacy


VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis called Saturday for a Catholic Church that is far more decentralized, where they laity play a greater role, bishops conferences take care of certain problems and even the papacy is rethought.

Francis issued the call during a ceremony Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, a consultative body formed during the Second Vatican Council that was intended precisely to encourage more collegiality in the running of the church by inviting bishops to offer their advice to Rome.

Over the past five decades, the synod has been little more than a talk-fest. But Francis has sought to re-energize it, and the contentious meeting under way at the Vatican, in which conservative and progressive bishops are squaring off over ministering to families, has been the result.

Francis noted that he launched the family synod process two years ago by sending out a questionnaire to Catholic families around the world asking for their input — a strong sign that ordinary lay Catholics have an important role to play in the governance of the church and spreading the faith.

“How would it have been possible to talk about the family without engaging families, listening to their joys and hopes, their pain and anxieties?” he said.

One of the main themes running through the current synod is whether individual bishops’ conferences can take on greater responsibility in charting pastoral strategies to deal with issues like ministering to gays and divorced and civilly remarried couples. Conservatives insist that only Rome can offer such doctrinal guidelines; progressives say the local churches know better what individual circumstances require.

In his speech, Francis said the church needed to reflect further on “intermediate types of collegiality” involving bishops, even going back to some aspects of the greatly decentralized church of the past.

Finally, he said a truly collegial church has implications for the papacy — and therefore relations with other Christian churches that split from Rome precisely over the primacy of the pope.

Francis has been keen to insist that he is perhaps first and foremost the bishop of Rome.

“The pope is not, all by himself, above the church but rather inside it as a baptized Catholic among other baptized Catholics, and inside the episcopal college as a bishop among bishops,” he said. At the same time, he added, the pope is called “to guide the church of Rome that presides in the love of all the churches.”

What is your perspective on this?

“The pope is not, all by himself, above the church but rather inside it as a baptized Catholic among other baptized Catholics, and inside the episcopal college as a bishop among bishops,” he said. At the same time, he added, the pope is called “to guide the church of Rome that presides in the love of all the churches.”

I like! :thumbsup:

Not exactly what ultramontanists like myself would like to hear quite frankly - I don’t believe in pastoral discretion and I think it would be a shame to leave a greater share of teaching the truth to the local Bishops, many of which have heterodoxical opinions.

And. Ditto. Twice. :thumbsup:

I also agree with this 1000%.

On the other hand, each bishop is the shepherd of the souls in his diocese. Remember that it was, at one time, a Pope who had to remind a Patriarch of Constantinople that there is no one “universal bishop” of the Church, of whom all the others are merely delegates or appendages. Every bishop holds the highest grade of Holy Orders, and while the Pope is the court of final appeal and the personification of the Church’s unity, there is no secret fourth degree of the sacrament applied to him alone.

Still, there must be unity of teaching. I think the article accidentally makes an important distinction when it talks at one point about doctrinal matters being the province of central authority while pastoral approaches can be individualized. The writer means to cast those as opposing “conservative” and “liberal” opinions, but in fact both are true because of that little change from “doctrinal” to “pastoral.”


Historically, the Pope has not always provided the sort of top-down, centralized leadership that has marked much of Western Church history. While we have documentary evidence for the recognition of a special authority held by the bishop of Rome, in the earliest times that seems to have been exercised more like the way the Supreme Court operates in the United States – someone has to bring a case before the Court, after going through the lower levels of the judiciary, rather than the Court just “reaching down” and passing judgment pre-emptively on a federal or state law. Likewise, some Popes settled disputes between bishops who wrote to them, but – possibly due to the realities of communication at the time – they did not frequently intervene without being asked. Nor, of course, did they personally approve the choice of every other bishop. It is not an essential betrayal of the Church’s nature (though we can of course differ over whether it would be wise) to return to an exercise of papal authority more in that style. And it could theoretically get at least some Orthodox and high-church Protestant groups thinking more positively about reunion.


In theory I don’t think this is a bad idea. Having Rome step back a bit from its tendency since the Council of Trent to micromanage the Church would be healthy for both Rome and the Church as a whole. This seems to jive well with what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said concerning the expectations Latins should have regarding how the Byzantines understand the papacy. Rome would do better to be a sort of court-of-last-appeals as she was in the early days of the Church. This of course wouldn’t mean that the Pope would have to relinquish the office’s divine right to immediate and universal jurisdiction should a segment of the Church go rogue.

In practice I worry that there are segments of the Church where the episcopacy is either corrupt or bordering on heterodox. This is especially the case in many parts of Western Europe and the US. Such dioceses likely need to be micromanaged a bit and I can envision a future pontiff being reluctant to step in as to not undermine what Pope Francis will have done. I guess we’ll all have to wait and see which way this turns.

“Francis noted that he launched the family synod process two years ago by sending out a questionnaire to Catholic families around the world asking for their input — a strong sign that ordinary lay Catholics have an important role to play in the governance of the church and spreading the faith.”
Well, I remember the event of the questionnaire, but I don’t recall that I or any other ordinary Catholic had any input into the responses. I guess it was mainly the chancery bureaucracy who answered the questionnaire.

I did find a copy of the questions online, and I wasn’t even happy with the questions and the way they were worded. I can’t imagine any ordinary Catholic coming up with them. So what’s changed?

Who wrote those questions, and who answered them? Who set the synod agenda? It wasn’t me or anybody I know.

Bishops and local synods should teach and pastor their flocks–that’s why they exist by the will of God. The papacy, on the other hands, exists to serve unity–when the decisions of bishops or local synods are harmful to unity, including of course the unity of faith, or where the faith or the common good of the Church requires a uniformity of discipline, then Rome should take the necessary action.

It’s like what St. Gregory says in one of his letters:


Decentralization is fine if individual bishops do their jobs and, especially if they don’t, the Pope does his. It should not be an excuse to have different particular Churches professing different faiths, etc.

Purely speculative, of course, but I wonder if he means to dial down the papacy to the point the Orthodox would be willing to reunite.

Is that possible?

No, because the supremacy of the Pope as espoused currently by the Church was infallibly taught by Pope Boniface VIII and is, as such, the teaching of the Church. To lessen it to a degree that the Orthodox would find appealing would be heresy, which the Church is incapable of teaching.



Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Fr. Adrian Fortescue on the Expansion of Papal Jurisdiction

Has the papacy grown? In a sense it has, just as every dogma of the Church may be said to have grown. When a point of faith is disputed, when some new heresy arises, the Church makes her mind clear by defining more explicitly what she has always held. She forbids a false interpretation of the faith, and so she makes it more definite. Hence, vague statements, harmless before the controversy began, become impossible after the definition. But we do not admit that this development means any real addition to the faith; it is only a more explicit assertion of the old faith, necessary in view of false interpretations.

A conspicuous case of this is the declaration of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council. The Early Church recognized that the Pope has the final word in matters of faith, no less than in those of discipline, that she herself is protected by God against heresy. Put that together, and you have, implicitly, what the Council defined.

Besides this there has been real growth in the use of the Pope’s authority. Many matters, such as canonizations of saints, approval of religious orders and so on, once settled by the bishop of the diocese now go to Rome. Appeals are far more frequent and about smaller matters. Patriarchal and metropolitan authority over bishops has diminished very much. There has been a constant process of centralizing.

**This was caused in several ways. Increased facilities of communication with headquarters had something to do with it. At one time, to appeal to Rome meant a serious journey for the bearer of the letter; now it can be done electronically. Then there is the natural tendency of any society toward centralization. We can observe this almost everywhere. It becomes so much easier, shorter; it saves so much trouble to go straight to headquarters at once. Then you have the decision of the supreme authority and no possibility of further dispute.
The spectacle of the anarchy of Protestantism, a spectacle offered to us more plainly each century, has its effects on Catholics. That is what comes of “No Popery”. What Catholic, seeing the state of Protestantism today, does not thank God that he has given to us an authority to settle disputes of religion? (Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451, pp. 35-36)

I like his more balanced perspective on the papacy. We’re still coming down off of centuries where the popes and even regular clergy were almost worshiped as some kind of saintly royalty. But the authority invested in the papacy and magisterium must remain firm-or else we can end up rudderless-and even* more* division in the universal Church would result,

Except that is not what the Catholic Church now teaches, as discussed on numerous threads over in the Non-Catholic forum, in a tract by Jon Sorenson on CA, and of course in the Catechism. Now the Church teaches that Protestants and even non-Christians can be saved. Mr. Sorenson maintains that this statement has been widely misunderstood.

Perhaps it can be understood in a way acceptable to the Orthodox.

Incorrect - the Church has never wavered on the teaching that there is no salvation outside the Church, but has rather clarified what that has meant. And the Catholic Church then and now continuously teaches the truth, and this is a truth infallibly defined by the Pope - it has not and will not reverse its position on this, and it ought not to.

The key word there is “can” be saved - invincible ignorance does not invalidate the teaching of the church just because God, in his mercy, leads some non-Catholics to his side.

A piece from CA if you’d like:


The Bull lays down dogmatic propositions on the unity of the Church, the necessity of belonging to it for the attainment of eternal salvation, the position of the pope as supreme head of the Church, and the duty thence arising of submission to the pope in order to belong to the Church and thus to attain salvation. The pope further emphasizes the higher position of the spiritual in comparison with the secular order. From these premises he then draws conclusions concerning the relation between the spiritual power of the Church and secular authority. The main propositions of the Bull are the following: First, the unity of the Church and its necessity for salvation are declared and established by various passages from the Bible and by reference to the one Ark of the Flood, and to the seamless garment of Christ. The pope then affirms that, as the unity of the body of the Church so is the unity of its head established in Peter and his successors. Consequently, all who wish to belong to the fold of Christ are placed under the dominion of Peter and his successors. When, therefore, the Greeks and others say they are not subject to the authority of Peter and his successors, they thus acknowledge that they do not belong to Christ’s sheep.

It is possible but because the Catholic world has not engaged into useful dialogue with the Orthodox has put into the attitude of the average Catholic that their Church was always right. This attitude within Catholicism has given her to judge others as they do to the Orthodox. The problem with this judgment is how can you tell the Catholic Church that their judgments is incorrect. You can’t because so many in the Catholic Church believes everything Rome says and has done. If the Pope decided to change everything what will happen to the Church of Rome will have many of her people go against their own Church. That is why the Pope must move slowly to correct the many incorrections of past judgments. The people I mean the average Catholic who is loyal to the Pope might go against him if the Pope chooses to dramatically change. The Orthodox Church had received judgments of the past which they had never deserved. But the average Catholic who is loyal to the Pope do not see it this way. So the Pope must move slowly.
On the other side is the unjustified attitudes which the Orthodox Church also gives to the Church of Rome. The Othodox Church cannot claim to be the Church of Jesus Christ without including the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome must have her place within Orthodoxy just as the Orthodox Church must have her place alongside the Church of Rome. The two have had this tug of war much too long without saying to each other “I need you”. This “I need you” is going to take courageous men and women on both sides to admit this incredible truth. They belong to each other. When this will happen is when attitudes on both sides have the courage to admit the truth. It is slowly coming but there must be more to be done on both sides.

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