Last week, Pope Francis issued a rescript requiring local bishops to get approval from Rome before giving their blessing to a diocesan religious order. Some of the pope’s critics viewed the new rule as draconian.
“Before the diocesan bishop erects – by decree – a public association of the faithful with a view to becoming an institute of consecrated life or a society of apostolic life under diocesan right, he must obtain written authorization from the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life,” the edict reads. How does this square with the pope’s call for increased synodality?
The need for the edict is rooted in the lack of accountability that sometimes occurs when a new religious order is created in a diocese, but later moves or expands beyond its original location and the confusion settles as to who exercises surveillance. Recent problems in the diocese of Frejus-Toulon in France indicate how irresponsibly granting canonical status to dubious groups can create a big mess.
And, of course, in the age of social media, the very concept of a diocesan boundary is a bit anachronistic: Consider the reach of certain organizations like EWTN and even individual priests spreading all over YouTube and Twitter!
On EWTN, Raymond Arroyo interviewed one of Francis’ harshest critics, Peter Kwasniewski, senior fellow at the St. Paul Center in Steubenville, Ohio. “This is part of a trend in recent years of the pope, on the one hand, speaking of the importance of decentralization and synodality and, on the other hand, taking increasingly important steps to centralize decisions in Rome and keep them away from the local bishops,” Kwasniewski said. He went on to quote Traditional custodiansthe dismissal by Francis of Sommerum Pontificumof Pope Benedict XVI motu owner allowing priests to perform the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Rite anywhere and anytime, as another example of this putative centralization.
Displays. It was Sommerum Pontificum which stripped the diocesan bishop of the responsibility and authority to oversee the liturgical life of his diocese with regard to the use of the Tridentine Rite. Traditional custodians restored this responsibility and authority to the local ordinary.
Kwasniewski went on to complain that “the bishops are not branch managers of Vatican, Inc.” That’s true, but that’s not really the point. The new rule recognizes that discernment is necessary. Critics may regard these organizational decisions as a political scientist examines Federalist newspapers, but synodality is not about the distribution of power. It is a question of discerning what the Church is called to do at a given time.
The tension is not only between a political or managerial framework versus an ecclesial framework, but also an understanding of building communion between churches. ‘The pope is in charge of the ‘solicitudo omnium ecclesiarum’, to take care of the state of communion of the Church, which is a Church of Churches,” theologian Massimo Faggioli explained by email. between the churches and with Rome. This is where the pope’s ministry has the right to intervene.”
This concern with forging communion faces different challenges at different times, but it is clearly the pope’s job to foster this communion.
“The fact is that Francis reversed the situation: John Paul II and Benedict XVI defended the prerogatives of local bishops against what they considered an excess of episcopal conferences, for example the “motu proprio” Apostolos Suos in 1998, in order to maintain communion in the Church,” says Faggioli.
“Now it is always the state of communion that is at stake, but the problem is different today, different from what John Paul II and Benedict XVI saw: movements and institutes that can openly challenging the unity of the Church on teaching, such as challenging Vatican II Of course, this also happens because in some parts of the world today, some local bishops sympathize with these groups and their agendas.
The concern expressed by Arroyo and Kwasniewski – that Rome is burning with the desire to meddle in the affairs of local churches – is also misplaced. “Obviously, the dicasteries of the Roman curia do not get up every day just to play with the bishops,” said a source familiar with the drafting of the document. “This arrangement [the new edict] is a pastoral response to real problems.”
Ecclesiology is rarely seen as a burning issue, but it is the underlying issue of so many issues facing the Church. The Holy Father proposed synodality as a method to reshape the Church, not in a more Rome-centered way, nor in a less Rome-centered way, but in a more Christ-centered way.
In some cases this will require holding bishops accountable and in others it may require Vatican oversight. In any case, we must all bear in mind the words of Saint Pope John XXIII in his 1959 encyclical Ad Petri Cathedral“But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be remembered with approval: in the essential, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”