Francis explains in Evangelii Gaudium (32) that “decentralization” implies the assignment of “genuine doctrinal authority” to episcopal conferences, something unheard of until now. To justify this drastic measure, which he describes as a “conversion of the papacy”, Francis refers in three footnotes to 1) The Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 23), 2) to Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter “Apostolos Suos – on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences” and 3) to his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint – on commitment to Ecumenism.” (95)
Quoting the latter Francis claims that John Paul asked for help in finding [emphasis added] “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”
Did John Paul II really ask for help?! He certainly did not. What he actually wrote was this: “… in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy …” In other words, the quotation as such (in inverted commas) is correct but connected with the preceding words “asked for help in finding,” utterly misleading. In this context, John Paul II is talking about “the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of Christian Communities” merely stating that he intends to pay due attention to concerns expressed by non-Catholic communities.
In the same paragraph (32), quoting Lumen Gentium (23), Francis states that like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position to “contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit.” But does this general statement necessarily corroborate the view that there is any need to change the present status of episcopal conferences? Does the assertion “episcopal conferences should be endowed with genuine doctrinal authority” logically follow from “episcopal conferences should contribute to the realization of the collegial spirit”?
Finally, Francis claims that “a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated” – thus suggesting that we are still in need of a clear definition of the authority of episcopal conferences. In support of this assumption, Francis places a reference to John Paul II’s apostolic letter Apostolos Suos which ironically provides precisely the desired clarification.
Interestingly enough, the footnote has no reference to any of the 23 paragraphs of this document. So the question remains: Did John Paul II anywhere in Apostolos Suos express support of the idea of assigning doctrinal authority to episcopal conferences? The answer is no. Did he say anything about his reasons for writing this document? He did indeed: “In strict fidelity to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, its aim is to set out the basic theological principles regarding Episcopal Conferences, and to offer the juridical synthesis indispensable for helping to establish a theologically well-grounded and juridically sound praxis for the conferences”(7).
And this is what John Paul actually does in this document, notably in paragraphs 20 and 22, where he explicitly maintains that pronouncements issued by episcopal conferences “do not have the characteristics of a universal magisterium.”
In short, Pope Francis fails to provide convincing documentation for the suggestion that his decentralization project should be in accordance with Church Tradition or with the clear teaching of John Paul II. Moreover, his use of misquotations and quotations out of context leaves us with the impression that his references have no other purpose than covering up the fact that decentralization is without support in Church teaching.
As for that, I should like to quote this thought-provoking observation made by Cardinal Pell in a homily, 24 October 2014, where he discussed the importance of the papacy, “In every country where the Communists gained power, they tried to separate the local Catholics from the Pope into national, so-called “patriotic” Churches. We know from Hitler’s table talk that if he had won the Second World War he would have set up a Pope in every Catholic country.”
However, decentralization is not an isolated item. It should be viewed as an element of the much more ambitious project of building a so-called synodal Church. So let’s now return to Pope Francis’ 17 October address to the Synod Fathers.
In this address, Pope Francis defines the synodal Church as “a Church which listens” and adds: “It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn”. Next, he draws the contours of the future synodal Church distinguishing three levels: the people of God, the pastors, and the Bishop of Rome. And finally, he reveals how decisions are going to be made in this future Church: “The Synod process begins by [emphasis added] listening to the people of God, which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office” (Lumen Gentium 12).
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Francis develops this point further stating that “in this Church, as in an inverted pyramid [emphasis added], the top is located beneath the base. Consequently, those who exercise authority are called “ministers”, because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the people of God that each bishop becomes, for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi, the vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper bent down to wash the feet of the Apostles. And in a similar perspective, the Successor of Peter is nothing else if not the servus servorum Dei.”
Convinced? I am not. The foot washing (Jn 13:1-15) is an admonition directed to the Apostles reminding them that they should always be humble servants of God: “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him” (15-16). And in the beginning of this admonition, Jesus says: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.”
So what has the foot washing got to do with an inverted pyramid? To the best of my knowledge, the foot washing is about humility and surely also about the bishops’ duty to serve the people of God – provided we are talking about their duty to proclaim the Gospel, enlighten the faithful “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mat 28:20) and thus leading them on the path to salvation. It is not, however, about inverting the hierarchy of the Church, not about “all listening to each other” or sending questionnaires to the particular Churches. It is about humbly serving the truth.
The second level in the synodal Church is about listening to the pastors (particularly the Synod Fathers) and about the pastors listening to God, “so that with him we may hear the cry of his people; to listen to his people until we are in harmony with the will to which God calls us.” Notice the claim that the condition of being in harmony with God’s will is that the hierarchy listens to the people (!). The “organs of communion” in the local Church (presbyterial council, college of consulters, chapters of canons and the pastoral council),“ we are told, “should keep connected to the “base” and start from people and their daily problems … only then “can a synodal Church begin to take shape.”
And the third level? “The Synod process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called to speak as pastor and teacher of all Christians.” Francis emphasises that in this capacity he should not speak “on the basis of his personal convictions, but as the supreme witness to the fides totius Ecclesiae,” the faith of the whole Church, or as Lumen Gentium (12) puts it, “the whole peoples' supernatural discernment in matters of faith when from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” – a condition which was not, to put it mildly, present at the recent Family Synod.
In short, the Synod process starts “from people and their daily problems”. It then passes through several “screenings” by the various “organs of communion” notably the Synod Fathers (level 2) and “culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome” (level 3).
As to level 3, Francis explicitly underlines that the Pope is “the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church.” The Synod, he claims, “always acts cum Petro et sub Petro.” But how does this agree with the idea of an inverted pyramid, with the synodal Church’s listening to the base? Or, for that matter, with the idea of decentralization?
Does any of this make sense? Only if these inconsistencies are seen as a camouflage to conceal what synodality is really about, and if the guarantees of conformity with Church teaching are actually the sugar that is supposed to make us swallow the pill.
In that case, level 1 and 2 would serve no other purpose than to legitimate the whole project making it look like a democratic process (but is the Church a democratic institution?) where decisions reflect the aspirations of the people and the will of God.
Level 1 would make it possible for the Pope to claim that his decisions, whatever they might be, were made after listening carefully to the concerns of the laity.
Level 2 would furthermore enable Francis to claim that his decisions have not been made without engaging an untold number of bureaucratic instances at all levels including the bishops participating in future synods.
Level 3 would consequently allow the Pope to conclude whatever he likes from the recommendations made at level 1 and 2.
In this future Church, the Magisterium would consequently lose its raison d’être and Tradition soon be seen as irrelevant. What happens here is that the frameworkwithin which a Pope normally exercises his authority (his duty to act in conformity with Tradition) is blown to pieces, thus in principle investing the Pope with unlimited power to change or to ignore magisterial teaching.
So, in so far as my reading of the above-mentioned documents is fairly accurate, we are facing an attempt to destroy the catholicity of the Church and to undermine its very foundations. In other words, we have a situation – a situation unprecedented in the history of the Church.
Torben Riis received his M.A. in French and Danish Language and Literature from the University of Copenhagen. Besides his teaching activities, he served as editor-in-chief of the Danish Catholic diocesan newsletter Katolsk Orientering 2005-2008. He is currently the editor of the Danish Pro-Life magazine “RFM Nyt” as well as the Danish Catholic website www.katolskmagasin.dk