US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Can you really govern a billion people from Rome?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Christian Science Monitor has a startling headline for a profile of Pope Benedict XVI: "Pope Benedict XVI's 30-year campaign to reassert conservative Catholicism." Now that's a mouthful.

I find the writer's claims and conclusions a bit exaggerrated; he has one source claiming Ratzinger "has been appointing bishops for 30 years. It is now his church. The bishops today were chosen exactly because they agreed with him." I think that a bit of stretch; many bishops may agree with Ratzinger as much because he is pope than because of the soundness of his reasoning. Besides, candidates for bishop are still generally drawn from local clergy, and the pope neither before or after his election could possibly have known them all.

The mistake I think the writer makes is simply that the Vatican is at all uniform or even a competent bureaucracy. The Curia's different offices function semi-independently, which is one reason for some of the gaffes that have plagued this papacy. The right hand often does not know what the left is doing.

That said, the last line is worthy of both note and concern: " 'Even bishops now wait two weeks or more for a meeting,' says a church official who is concerned about the pope's isolation," noting that the pope sees only two church officials on a regular basis. That kind of isolation marked the end of several papacies, notably that of Paul VI, who effectively retired after the Humanae Vitae controversy, and of the late Pope John Paul II, whose health effectively prevented him from governing the church for the last decade, which left the task to the Curia, with disastrous effect notably on the liturgy (Liturgiam authenticam) and relations with world religions (Dominus Iesus, of which Ratzinger was primary author).

If B16 is really relying on his "two church officials," one of whom is certainly Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger's long-time right-hand man and the current Vatican Secretary of State, I wouldn't be surprised. I'm afraid our professor pope was never prepared for a ministry of this administrative magnitude, and his papacy is foundering because of it.

I say that with both love and respect for the pope, because I honestly feel sorry for him and feel his real talent as a scholar is being wasted. The real problem is that the Roman Catholic Church has grown so large (1.2 billion and counting) and geographically and culturally diverse that it is virtually impossible to govern from Rome, much less through a creaky medieval bureaucracy that lacks both the staff and the budget to fulfill the tasks assigned to it.

The papacy won a major victory at Vatican I, with the council's declaration that the bishop of Rome enjoys direct and universal jurisdiction throughout the church. Setting aside the question of the theological meaning of that declaration, the practical dimensions are proving far too complex.