Decentralizing the Church?

The following review originally appeared in the March 2000 edition of Crisis Magazine.

The Reform of the Papacy: The Costly Call to Christian Unity
John R. Quinn, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 189 pages, $18.00.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

The new year brought ugly news from Beijing. Chilling what had begun to look like a thaw in Vatican-China relations, the government-controlled Chinese Catholic patriotic church ordained five bishops on the same day Pope John Paul II was ordaining twelve new bishops in Rome. The president emeritus of the top Vatican body on Church law spoke of “de facto schism,” although others said the situation fell short of that. The incident appeared to be part of a broader government crackdown on religious groups.

The events in Beijing also were a reminder of certain disturbing implications of the campaign by Catholic progressives in the West to bring about a sweeping transfer of authority from Rome to national and local churches. Getting control over the process by which bishops are chosen is among the key objectives.

Obviously, one must be very careful about suggesting parallels between what is happening in China and the program of western progressives. The progressives certainly don’t have schism in view– they speak of reforming the Church, according to their lights. Yet among the ways ecclesial communion can be fractured, two currently stand out. One is by bullying a cowed national church, as the thuggish Chinese regime does. The other lies in the progressives’ neo-Gallican program to create de facto national churches, with powerful bishops’ conferences, and dioceses that for all practical purposes pick their own bishops.

To achieve their goals, the progressives needn’t go as far as the Chinese patriotic church (or Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988) and ordain quasi-schismatic bishops. There is no reason to think they are so disposed, and it would be counterproductive anyway. The neo-Gallican situation they have in view can be achieved by step-by-step structural changes, each followed by pressure for more. We appear to be in the early stages of such a process now.

For several years, Archbishop John R. Quinn has been lionized by the Catholic left for his role in these matters. An unlikely revolutionary, he is a conscientious churchman of long experience– retired Archbishop of San Francisco, former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference– and unquestioned loyalty.

He vaulted into prominence with a lecture delivered June 29, 1996, at the Jesuit house in Oxford. Tipped off, it seems, to what was coming, the media made much of the fact that a senior American archbishop had urged a sweeping program of devolution in the Church, involving far less authority for the pope and the Roman curia and far more for bishops, the Synod of Bishops, and bishops’ conferences. Some particularly relished his biting criticism of the curia, which he accused of making itself a semi-independent power center.

The great need now, he insisted, was to put flesh on the bones of the doctrine of episcopal collegiality as it was taught by Vatican Council II. This would require working out the relationship between primacy and collegiality in practical terms; and in that regard, another ecumenical council, at an early date, would help.

It was reasonable to expect that the book Archbishop Quinn promised to write would shed significant new light on his thinking. Regrettably, it does not. The Reform of the Papacy does not advance the argument, and in some ways carries it several steps back.

That is especially true where two major issues are concerned: subsidiarity and the program of pastoral innovations that devolution is meant to serve. The archbishop said a lot about both at Oxford, but he says almost nothing about them in his book.

The ecclesiologist Joseph Komonchak wrote in 1988 that the question of subsidiarity in the Church is “not yet ripe for a solution.” It might have helped the question mature if Archbishop Quinn had developed the somewhat sketchy case for subsidiarity that he made at Oxford, where he argued that the principle– what can be done at a lower level should not be done at a higher one– not only applies in the Church but is “clearly linked to” collegiality.

Franz Cardinal Koenig, the retired archbishop of Vienna and another favorite of progressive Catholics, suggests that subsidiarity does apply in the Church but not to her spiritual dimension. That is helpful but leaves a lot unanswered. Even in the nonspiritual realm, subsidiarity can’t be an ecclesiological absolute, since other principles like solidarity and the common good must be taken into account.

Moreover, the unity of the universal Church and Petrine ministry as a service to unity are higher ecclesial values than subsidiarity. How, then, can subsidiarity be applied without imperiling unity and Petrine ministry, and when must unity and the munus (office) of Peter be upheld at subsidiarity’ s expense? It would be helpful to know what Archbishop Quinn thinks, but his book does not say.

He is silent, too, about the doctrinal and disciplinary questions whose rethinking devolution is meant to facilitate. At Oxford, he mentioned priestly celibacy, “the role of women and the ordination of women… divorce, remarriage and the reception of the sacraments,” general absolution, and liturgical inculturation. Quite a list, but it is missing from The Reform of the Papacy.

What he does say is familiar stuff: The Roman curia should be reigned in; bishops’ conferences should have more power; the world Synod of Bishops should have a deliberative role; authority to elect the pope should not be vested exclusively in the College of Cardinals but should involve others, such as presidents of bishops’ conferences and representatives of some lay groups; and the selection of bishops should be opened up, with a much larger role for the local churches and much less involvement by the pope.

In the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May All Be One), Pope John Paul II invited the consideration, for the sake of Christian unity, of possible changes in the way papal primacy is exercised. Archbishop Quinn has every right to take up this invitation, as do others. The question is serious and urgent; answering it almost certainly must involve some degree of decentralization, with increased emphasis on collegial leadership in the Church.

As the discussion proceeds, however, we need to keep in view the threats to Church unity that now exist not only in China but in the West. Progressive Catholics urging devolution don’t mean to damage ecclesial communion, but since when did people anticipate and intend all the consequences of what they do? “There is a legitimate and necessary place…for discussion of what is prudent at a given time in history,” Archbishop Quinn said at Oxford. About that, he couldn’t be more right.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...