Decentralising Church is no panacea

‘Shambolic governance’ has turned this synod into what ‘resembles a medieval papal court’, writes Editor Michael Kelly

There is still enormous confusion surrounding the workings of the Synod of Bishops currently underway in Rome. Even the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi has been unsure at press conferences about whether or not the three-week long meeting will result in Pope Francis issuing a document, the synod issuing a document or nothing at all.

Critics of the Pope (and their number is growing) say the confusion is part of a shambolic governance of the synod process that began last year with many people thinking the synod was called to change Church teaching on issues affecting marriage and the family. 

Defenders of the process, on the other hand, insist that it is a dialogue of discernment, and, as such, a certain amount of confusion is to be expected.

One senior Vatican official I spoke to was scathing about the process. He said that the synod had been so badly organised that it had given the impression that no-one knew what the purpose of the meeting was. However, another bishop who is close to Pope Francis told me that the impression of chaos was simply because people didn’t understand what the Pope was trying to achieve in terms of breathing life in to the collegial nature of what a synod is supposed to be: that is, the bishops of the world sharing the governance of the Church with and under the Pope.

The synod has been marked by intrigue that more resembles a medieval papal court than the modern-day Vatican.


The Italian press has reported that 13 cardinals signed a letter to the Pope warning that the synod lacks “openness and genuine collegiality”. 

However, many of the alleged signatories have since denied they were part of such a letter. Nonetheless, there appears to be genuine concern amongst many synod fathers, with Cardinal Thomas Collins expressing his frustration at what, in his view, appears to be a meeting at which 300 people are editing a document.

One proposal that is gaining traction in Rome is the idea that more authority should be decentralised from Rome to the local bishops’ conferences in each country. It’s not a bad idea in principle, but may naively assume that bishops’ conferences function very well.

There’s no doubt that the Vatican’s unwieldy structures are in need of reform. 

It’s also true that there needs to be a rebalancing to give life to the fact that the Pope and the bishops govern the Church with the aid of the Vatican as it can sometimes appear that the Vatican governs the Church with help from the Pope and the bishops. 

However, localism is no panacea. Theologians sometimes wonder why Fr Joseph Ratzinger, initially a great fan of bishops’ conferences, became increasingly hostile to them in later life. I don’t think there’s any great mystery: he had spent decades working closely with bishops’ conferences and had seen how unproductive and sometimes dysfunctional they can become.

To take the sole issue of clerical sexual abuse, bishops’ conferences failed miserably to tackle the issue for decades. When bishops did collectively address the issue, it was often piecemeal and half-hearted. 

I’ve lost count of the number of documents, norms, guidelines etc., the Irish Bishops’ Conference issued on the issue of abuse before finally getting to grips with the issue.

Bishops’ conferences have also – largely – failed when it comes to issues of doctrine. One of the problems identified by the Apostolic Visitation of the Church in Ireland is what the visitors described as the widespread tendency for priests to hold opinions at variance with Church teaching. Yet, when I asked Cardinal Seán Brady about this at the press conference launching the findings of the visitation, he expressed puzzlement at this finding.

When a ‘talking head’ cleric takes to the airwaves to spout hare-brain nonsense at odds with Catholicism, it shouldn’t be Rome that has to intervene, but the local bishops. However, the failure to act has meant that Rome has sometimes been forced to wade in.

What localism would mean, in effect, is that many bishops would ignore the more unpalatable teachings of Christ and the Church would be reduced to being a bewildered contestant in a popularity contest: getting the occasional pat on the head from newspaper columnists who have no intention of darkening the door of a Church.

Tragically, the Anglican Communion has done us Catholics a favour by abandoning and minimising controversial aspects of Christianity in order to be relevant. The result? The number of Britons describing themselves as Anglican has halved in 30 years from 40% to 20%. Catholics fell by 1% to 9%.