Too often when someone proposes the reform of church structures, the reformer is attacked for borrowing from the secular political field, as if this were necessarily a bad thing. But throughout history the Vatican has often imitated the organization of secular political institutions. Today the governance of the church is more centralized than at any time in its history. To make the church more collegial, the Vatican should once again adopt practices of the secular political world.

When St. Peter arrived in Rome, he did not immediately appoint cardinals and set up the offices that we see in the Vatican today. He had only a secretary to help him with his correspondence. In early centuries, the bishop of Rome had helpers much like those of any other bishop: priests for house-churches, deacons for charitable assistance and catechesis, and notaries or secretaries for correspondence and record keeping.

By the fourth century, notaries were a permanent fixture in the papacy, as they were in the imperial court. As staff for the pope, these men wrote letters and kept records of correspondence and other official documents. They took minutes at the Lateran Council of 649 and prepared its acts. Because of their training and experience, they were sometimes sent by popes on diplomatic missions or to ecumenical councils in the East.

By the thirteenth century the apostolic chancellery was an important office, and the chancellor was the pope’s principal adviser and assistant, just as chancellors were the principal advisers of European monarchs. Before becoming pope, John XXII (1316–1344) had been chancellor to the French king, and he used his expertise in organizing the French chancellery to handle papal business. The chancellery was later eclipsed by the apostolic datary, then by the office of the privy seal, and finally by the secretary of state. All of these had parallels in secular society.

Likewise, the college of cardinals evolved from a group of the principal priests and deacons of Rome to a papal court that advised and elected popes. The cardinals often compared themselves to the old Roman Senate. As time went on and papal business increased, the practice of consulting the college of cardinals in consistory became common. At first the college met monthly, but by the beginning of the thirteenth century it was meeting three times a week—on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In many ways the pope and the cardinals functioned as a court, similar to the royal courts of Europe during the Middle Ages; but the fact that the cardinals elected the pope gave the college of cardinals a kind of power not enjoyed by the nobility in most nations. Later the role of cardinals was severely curtailed by increasingly powerful popes, just as the power of nobles was curtailed after the rise of “absolute” monarchs.

So the structure of the Roman curia has changed over time, and popes have frequently borrowed or adapted practices from secular government. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that changing the organization of the Vatican today by adopting practices from the contemporary political world would be in keeping with the long tradition of the church.


Centralized papacy

The contemporary papacy rules the church with powers that would be the envy of any absolute monarch: the pope holds supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority with few checks on his power. This power is especially evident in the appointment of bishops.

In the first centuries of the church, the local bishop was chosen by and from the people. Ideally, the people gathered in the cathedral, where, after praying together, they selected a holy and talented man to lead them. In practice, factions supporting opposing candidates would often clash, sometimes violently split-ting the community. The faithful did not always speak with one voice.

As time went on, the selection process evolved to include not only the people, but also the local clergy and the provincial bishops in a system of checks and balances. Pope Leo I (440–461) described the ideal by saying that no one could be a bishop unless he was elected by the clergy, accepted by his people, and consecrated by the bishops of his province. The clergy knew the candidates better than the populace and were less likely to resolve their disputes by recourse to violence. Still, as leader of the community, the bishop had to be acceptable to the people. The clergy, then, would present a candidate to the people, who would normally indicate their approval by cheering. If they booed, the clergy would have to try again. To become a bishop, the candidate had to be consecrated by the bishops of his province under the leadership of the metropolitan archbishop. If he was unacceptable because of heresy or immorality or some other fault, the bishops could refuse to ordain him.

The problem with this democratic process was that it could be circumvented by powerful nobles and kings who had no respect for democracy. They could simply impose their desires on the church through force or threats of violence. As Fulbert of Chartres wrote in 1016, “How can one speak of election where a person is imposed by the prince, so that neither clergy nor people, let alone the bishops, can envisage any other candidates?” The appointment of bishops by kings and nobles led to the corruption of the episcopacy when royal bastards and political favorites were chosen.

Papal reformers from Gregory VII on saw their role as fighting off political influence in the selection of bishops. But it should also be remembered that nobles and kings were sometimes reformers of the church. It was the German Emperor Henry III who, in the eleventh century, deposed three “popes” to begin a long line of reform popes. And it was another German king, Emperor Sigismund, who was able to end the Great Western Schism.

All of this changed in the nineteenth century, when revolutions wiped out most of the Catholic monarchs in Europe. Rather than returning the selection of bishops to the local church, popes made it their own prerogative. Unsurprisingly, this led to the appointment of bishops who were loyal to Rome and would support its preeminence in the church.

But the appointment of bishops is not the only example of the papacy’s consolidation of power. In the early centuries of the church, regional or national councils of bishops helped define doctrine, coordinated church policy, and even provided a forum for judging bishops. The bishop of Rome acted as a court of appeal when bishops and councils disagreed. National bishops’ conferences are the true successors of these councils, but the Vatican refuses to allow them the independence to act like the councils of old. Similarly, ecumenical councils once had greater independence; according to some theologians, the councils even had the authority to impeach popes.

The centralization of power in the Vatican was often a legitimate response to the political interference of kings and nobles in the life of the local church. Popes could stand up to kings better than the local church could. But now that few kings or noblemen are in a position to meddle with the church, one could argue that such centralization is no longer necessary—and that it is in fact counterproductive.


Possible reforms

If history shows that the church has always borrowed ideas and structures from civil society, then the question arises: What are some of the best practices in civil society that can help the church today? Over the past two centuries, civil society has learned that good government calls for: the elimination of a powerful nobility, adherence to the principle of subsidiarity, and creation of a system of checks and balances. I will propose six reforms I think reflect practices that have proved successful in civil society.

Make the Vatican a bureaucracy, not a court. Most countries have found that a royal court composed of a king and his nobles is not a good way to govern. The Vatican is still as much a court as a bureaucracy, with cardinals referred to as princes of the church and bishops acting like nobles. I would recommend that no Vatican bureaucrat be made a bishop or a cardinal. One of the problems with nobles and bishops is that it is difficult to fire them even when they are incompetent or when there is a change in administrations. Such a reform would also remind the Vatican bureaucracy that it is a servant of the pope and the college of bishops and not itself part of the magisterium.

Strengthen the legislative bodies in the church. At the same time that the role of the nobility in governance was declining in civil society, the role of independent legislatures was increasing. No modern political philosophy would advise a polity to depend only on the wisdom of an executive. There is universal recognition that the synod of bishops created by Paul VI has failed to rise to expectations. I would recommend that no member of the Vatican bureaucracy be a member of the synod of bishops: they could attend the synod as experts and staff, but not as voting members. All of the members of the synod should be elected by episcopal conferences; none should be appointed. The synod should also meet on a regular basis—say, once every five years—and, of course, the synod would need committees to prepare agendas and documents between meetings. There should also be an ecumenical council at least once every generation.

Convert congregations into elected synodal committees. Vatican congregations and councils are committees of cardinals and bishops appointed by the pope. Each is responsible for a special domain within the church-such as liturgy, ecumenism, evangelization, and canon law. The Vatican cardinals are the most influential members of these committees. The chairman of each committee (called a prefect for a congregation and a president for a council) is also the head of an office of the same name. These offices advise the pope and implement church policy.

One important function of any legislative body is oversight of the bureaucracy. Members of Vatican congregations and councils should therefore be elected by synods or by episcopal conferences; that way synods and conferences can act as policy-making and oversight bodies for the Vatican bureaucracy. Vatican bureaucrats should not also be members of congregations, though they could attend meetings as experts and staff.

Create an independent judiciary. One of the most important elements in a government that operates under the rule of law is an independent judiciary. To allow the executive to indict, prosecute, judge, and sentence a defendant is today considered a violation of due process. The treatment of theologians accused of dissent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is one of the scandals of the church. The potential for such scandal will remain as long as the CDF continues to act as policeman, prosecutor, judge, and jury. An independent jury, perhaps made up of retired bishops, could correct the problem.

Elect bishops. The appointment of bishops by the pope is a modern innovation that follows a corporate model, whereby the pope acts as CEO and the bishops as branch managers. While this corporate model is highly centralized, successful political models teach us that local leaders need to be chosen by local citizens. Today it might be possible, and advisable, to return to the system endorsed by Pope Leo I, so that every bishop would be elected by the local clergy, accepted by the people of his diocese, and consecrated by the bishops of his province.

Strengthen episcopal conferences by making them councils. Not everything can or should be decided by a centralized government. Catholic social teaching speaks of the importance of subsidiarity in political structures and policy: what can be done locally should be done locally. In ancient times, local and regional councils of bishops played an important part in determining church teaching and discipline. Episcopal conferences need to become episcopal councils. They need to regain their independent role in establishing church policy. They should not need to have every decision and document reviewed and ratified by the Vatican. Bishops must be trusted to know what is best for the local church.

These six reforms will not bring about the kingdom of God. No governance structure is perfect, and every reform has negative side effects. But these reforms would help the church follow the principles of collegiality and subsidiarity. It is worth remarking that most of these reforms would mean a return to earlier practices and structures of the church. Of course, spiritual reform and conversion are finally more important than structural reform, but that doesn’t mean that structural reform is unimportant.

What are the chances of such reforms actually taking place? As a social scientist, I’d have to say they’re probably close to zero. The church is now run by a self-perpetuating group of men who know such reform would diminish their power. It is also contrary to their theology of the church. But as a Catholic Christian, I still have to hope.  


A longer version of this essay will appear in Catholics and Politics (edited by Kristen Heyer, Michael Genovese, and Mark J. Rozell, Georgetown University Press).


Thomas J. Reese, SJ, former editor of America magazine, is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
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Published in the 2008-04-25 issue: View Contents
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