Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What the Church Can Learn (Part III)

 Below is an article, Reforming the Vatican, written by Tom Reese and published in Commonweal in April 25, 2008, describing what is necessary for Vatican Reform.

April 25, 2008
Thomas J. Reese

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.

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