Exit Signs

Benedict XVI & the Bureaucratization of the Church

On February 11, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would step down at the end of the month. His reasons? Age and infirmity. His doctors have advised him not to leave Europe. But perhaps stress contributed to his decision. These are difficult times for the Catholic Church. The sexual-abuse scandals continue taking their toll—most recently visible in the public shaming of Cardinal Roger Mahony by his successor in Los Angeles, Archbishop Jose Gomez. Parish-based protest movements have been roiling German-speaking Europe for years. And it seems that even after heroic efforts on the part of the Vatican, negotiations with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X have stalled, if not broken down. Perhaps, given these struggles, the pope felt it was the right time to resign.

Many Catholics are temped to “spiritualize” Benedict’s decision, but doing so avoids grappling with the unique features of the modern papacy. Catholicism has had a long, and often fraught, relationship with secular political power. The Catholic Church is, of course, heir of the Roman Empire, which emerged centuries after the turbulent—but long successful—marriage of ecclesial and state power held by the emperors Constantine and Theodosius (between 313 and 380). More recently, the Catholic Church showed its spiritual, cultural, and political might when John Paul II—with the help of Ronald Reagan—broke down the Berlin Wall and put an end to Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

Those examples suggest a strong dynamic of attraction-repulsion between Catholicism and imperial power. But how has the global church survived as an institution, given a social and political context that’s seen great upheaval over the past century? The age of colonial empires gave way to financial empires. A world dominated by Western powers is yielding to one increasingly oriented toward the South and East. The era of Catholicism as a state church in Europe has given way to the contemporary world of religious pluralism and freedom—and decreased Catholic practice. This is the long-term historical context of the papacy from which Benedict XVI will resign: one that became more monarchical in the nineteenth century (as a reaction against the democratization of modern political systems) and is now more centralized than ever before—despite Vatican II.

Some say Benedict’s decision is ecclesiologically important because it has “de-personalized” the office of the pope: “The office is more important than the person who serves it.” And that observation is doubtless true, but it overlooks the special features of the papacy. In the United States, there is a president and a vice president—and a Twenty-fifth Amendment, which governs the line of succession should the president become incapacitated. There’s no “operational distance” between the office of the pope and the person of the pope—at least not in recent memory. And the Vatican has no succession plans should a pope become unable to discharge his duties.

Given the nature and size of the Catholic Church, these lacunae present significant challenges. The council fathers came up with three new ways that the global church might be better governed: 1) give more power to the college of cardinals as a semi-permanent governing body; 2) create a new body consisting of the presidents of national bishops conferences; 3) institute a Synod of Bishops, according to the Eastern Orthodox model, which would have meaningful governing power. The first two options never had a chance. The Synod of Bishops seemed most the promising. But as soon as Paul VI and the Roman curia heard that council fathers were going to introduce the idea, the pope preemptively issued the motu proprio Apostolica sollicitudo (September 15, 1965), which created a purely consultative synod, with no real power.

A monarch who resigns because he is no longer physically fit for the job is also saying that he has nobody to help him. Despite the best efforts of many council fathers, responsibility for the governance of the Catholic Church still falls to one man. Leaving aside recent mixed messages coming from Rome about the sacrifice and mission of an ill pope (compare John Paul II to Benedict XVI), this resignation speaks volumes about the church’s need for more collegial governance. Not for the sake of “modernizing” or “democratizing” the church, but for the sake of protecting the Catholic Church and the bishop of Rome from the relentless bureaucratic and legal demands of institutional leadership in the twenty-first century.

Vatican II was both the beginning and the end of a centuries-long redefinition of a bishop’s role. During the second millennium, and especially over the past century, the work of a bishop became increasingly complicated, demanding the skills of a leader, of a mediator, of a media-savvy communicator, and of a CEO. The council fathers modeled their reforms on modern examples—especially the university system, from which they borrowed the idea of the retirement age of bishops (seventy-five). Indeed, bishops were the first ones affected by postconciliar reforms.

Yet the office of the bishop of Rome went unreformed. Unlike other bishops, there is no mandatory retirement age for the pope. (Members of the Roman curia have to retire at eighty.) John Paul II considered resigning, and even weighed the possibility of instituting a retirement age for popes, but chose to die in office. In this regard Pope Benedict XVI is more “conciliar” than his predecessor. Needless to say, instituting “term limits” for bishops was one of the most modern of Vatican II’s reforms. (I’m not convinced it’s been well implemented. See my first book: Il vescovo e il concilio. Modello episcopale e aggiornamento al Vaticano II, Bologna 2005.)

Benedict’s resignation sets an important precedent, but it also raises difficult questions. He plans to retire to a convent in the Vatican. How will the new pope handle having the previous pope as a neighbor? Will the next pope embrace Benedict’s interpretation of Vatican II as “discontinuity within continuity”? Will he continue Benedict’s efforts to stem the decline of European Catholicism? Will he share Benedict’s fondness for the pre–Vatican II liturgy? Finally, will the next pope close or continue negotiations with the Society of St. Pius X—a matter very close to Benedict’s heart? To a large extent, the next pope’s actions will serve as a comment on Benedict’s legacy. No one remembers the last time a pope had the chance to render judgment on his predecessor’s legacy while the man was still alive. But how Benedict’s successor discharges his office will tell us whether or not he considers the teachings of Vatican II negotiable.

About the Author

Massimo Faggioli is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas. He will move to Villanova University in the summer of 2016. His most recent book is The Rising Laity. Ecclesial Movements since Vatican II (Paulist Press, 2016).



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It would be great to be a fly on the wall during the conclave and overhear the exchange of opinions and observations from the cardinal electors. What is their real vision of the future church? Are they hopelessly divided on the real core issues? Isn't it time for Vatican III?

Pope Benedict's use of the word "renuntiare" to describe his act of resignation shows that he does not hold a monarchical view of authority in the Church.  This describes the act of handing back disposal of one's office to the superior who has the right to grant it, and this is not supposed to be something a Pope can do.  The word choice seems to signify a belief that the College of Cardinals is the true authority, not the Pope per se.  I suspect this same humility (very typical of Joseph Ratzinger, who never sought or loved power) will govern his relationship with his successor.

Pope Benedict's use of the word "renuntiare" to describe his act of resignation shows that he does not hold a monarchical view of authority in the Church.  This describes the act of handing back disposal of one's office to the superior who has the right to grant it, and this is not supposed to be something a Pope can do.  The word choice seems to signify a belief that the College of Cardinals is the true authority, not the Pope per se.  I suspect this same humility (very typical of Joseph Ratzinger, who never sought or loved power) will govern his relationship with his successor.

Theological spring: from Catholic to catholicWe need a radical revision of the theological premises upon which the Church is built. Theology is a necessary discipline because it describes the entire space of human existence and so defines the human condition.  At present the human world is failing to comprehend the signals it is receiving from its environment. This blindness is an immediate consequence of the Church’s devaluation of the ‘fallen’ World in which we live.Theology as practised became discredited as a science in the Galilean era. The epistemology of ancient authority began to be replaced with the epistemology of immediate experience. Galileo, with his telescopes, clocks and other instruments opened up a vast new and reliable world to human vision.The birth of science did little to deflect the trajectory of traditional theology. In modern times theology is not even listed as one of the disciplines covered by the Pontifical Academy of Science.The problem, in a nutshell, is that our current crop of theologies and religions are all mystery theologies or religions. God is beyond our ken, they say, but we (the churches) nevertheless have a mandate to speak and act for God. The overall world of theology is dominated by this outlook, as one may see by taking a census of academic theology faculties.The alternative to the mysterious God is the visible God. Instead of thinking of God as the mysterious other, existing outside the Universe but somehow controlling its every move, let us assume that God and the Universe are one entity and that all of our experience is experience of God.On this assumption, theology can become a real, evidence based science. Here we encounter a vast emotional obstacle. For many thousands of years the intelligentsia have deprecated the so called material world.  The world of reproduction, war, trade and all these practical things that the majority of ancient and modern ruling classes try to avoid, leaving them to slaves, mercenaries, servants and machines.Here we are making the material world divine, but we still have a serious intellectual obstacle. Almost all the mystics and theologians of ancient times have held that God is completely simple, pure act, pure being, something that could be approached only by the purely empty mind created by a lifetime of 'spiritual' training. Yet we are proposing this world of countless complexities as a vision of the absolutely simple divinity.The formal answer to this conundrum lies in mathematical fixed point theorems. We often use mathematical structures to model the world. The whole of our trade, banking and engineering industry could not proceed without the help if arithmetic. More generally we describe the world with mathematical functions that mimic the behaviour of the world. Galileo found that the velocity of a falling object depended on how long it has been falling, and physicists use thousands of other equations (functions) to describe other features of the observable world.A function is a mapping, and we model motion in a certain space by mapping a certain set of points onto itself, so that here becomes there and so on. Mathematics shows that under certain conditions such mappings are logically bound to have a point which is unchanged by the mapping, f(x) = x. So mathematically we should expect to find fixed points in a Universe of pure action pictured as mapping itself onto itself, because there is, by definition, nothing outside to map to.So we have two enabling conditions for the establishment of scientific theology and the birth of a theological spring. 1. Set aside the ancient beliefs and open our minds to new possibility; and 2. Mathematical fixed point theory shows is that the existence of fixed points is consistent with a God of pure dynamism. The fixed points are not outside the life of the Universe (like the Christian God) but part of the dynamics. We, insofar as we live,  are fixed points in the human subset of divine space, parts of God.The foundation of modern physics is quantum mechanics, which enables us to connect the fixed points observed in the Universe (like the frequency of a certain spectral line of a certain atom). In the last few decades, we have come to see quantum mechanics less as a 'mechanical' theory describing the collisions of little particles something like billiard balls, and more as a description of information processing, transmission and computation, The first piece of evidence is quantization itself. Although physicists ancient and modern  use continuous (geometrical) mathematics to describe the world, all observable events are discrete, non overlapping entities. Quantization arises, we guess, because the mathematical theory of communication tells us that error free communication requires quantized signals.From the communication point of view, all our observations are communications between ourselves and the Universe and the messages are encoded in particles of various complexity ranging from photons and electrons to complex structures like ourselves. I am a signal propagating from my birth to my death, one of the vast traffic in human life running on the human part of the Universal network.In this context, theology becomes the study of information flow in the divinity. It is based on the information that flows between each of us and our world. From this point of view, we are all different but nevertheless identical particles in the world, and we must structure our societies both on human equality and fair trade with one another and our global environment.A religion based on this theology does not need a remote central commanding authority. All the information needed for someone to fit in and have a good relationship with the divine whole us available locally, either by immediate experience or by messages through the network, like this little essay.

And here I thought that the Holy Spirit is the "true authority!"


For someone who didn't enjoy power, Ratzinger took to being head of the CDF like a duck takes to water.

The Holy Spirit is Author; authority has to have an institutional locus. 

But should the "institutional locus" resemble an imperial monarchy?

And does that institutional locus have to be chosen, staffed and controlled by a very small group of males?


Latest News

Benedict XVI’s centralisation slated

18 February 2013

The Bishop of Arundel and Brighton has called for a review of the "unnecessary" centralisation of power that took place during Pope Benedict XVI's papacy.

Bishop Kieran Conry told The Times that over-centralisation had taken power from local bishops and led the Church away from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He said that the new English Mass translation, introduced last year, had a negative impact on Catholics that might have been avoided if power was devolved to a local level.

He said: "There is a need for the Roman Curia, the central administration, to be reviewed. That was not one of Pope Benedict's strengths. It needs reviewing because it is not working very well. There seems to be a degree of centralisation that is not really necessary which might indicate that there is a degree of inefficiency."

The aim [of Vatican II] was that Rome should work more collaboratively with the local bishops. That has not really developed."

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