The collegiality paradox facing Pope Francis

The collegiality paradox facing Pope Francis

Synod of Bishops

The Synod of Bishops on the Family has highlighted what I call the “paradox of collegiality” for Pope Francis.

The pope clearly wants to share his governing authority with bishops, giving them a bigger voice in decision-making in Rome and more latitude in their home dioceses. He also wants them on board as he shifts the church’s missionary approach to a more “merciful” and invitational style, less focused on doctrinal rules.

But the pope is working with a global episcopate largely put in place by his two predecessors, whose emphasis on doctrinal identity-building was very much reflected in their choice of bishops.

In the Pope John Paul II era, I was told that candidates for bishop nominations were routinely vetted regarding their views on a series of hot-button pastoral and doctrinal issues, including such things as birth control, dissent from the Magisterium, priestly celibacy, women’s ordination and the role of laity, to name a few.

It was a “litmus test” approach aimed at ensuring orthodoxy at the highest levels of the church. The Catholic Church is diverse, of course, and so are its bishops. But over a 35-year period, this policy made for a more conservative hierarchy.

The Synod on the Family has shown what happens when such a cautious and doctrinally-focused episcopate encounters a pope’s agenda for change. Many of today’s bishops are afraid that “mercy” without doctrinal backbone is a very slippery slope, especially when it comes to issues like divorce, cohabitation, gay relationships and birth control.

In a sense, I think the synod’s two sessions have been a place where these bishops can register reservations not only about specific pastoral proposals, but also about the entire “who am I to judge” approach of Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has been appointing bishops since his election in 2013, of course, and his choices appear to reflect his pastoral outlook. So how long does it take before he can really “shape” the world’s episcopate?

A long time.

In his 31 months in office, Francis has appointed 456 bishops, according to the Vatican’s statistics office. That is about 9 percent of the total number of bishops, and about 13 percent of the active (non-retired) bishops in the world.

Extrapolating those numbers, it will take the pope another seven or eight years before he will have named more than half the active bishops. I’m sure the pope realizes that, for quite some time, he will have to work with an episcopate that may at times act as a check on his innovative pastoral proposals.

Papal nominations of cardinals are important for different reasons, including an eventual conclave that can preserve a pope’s legacy and carry it forward or shift directions.

Pope Francis has already named 31 of the current 118 voting members (those under age 80) of the College of Cardinals, or 26 percent. However, because of an unusual age pattern in the college, it will likely take him another four or five years before he will have named a majority of the voting-age cardinals, i.e., more than 60 of the 120 voting-age cardinals allowed under current rules.

For those reasons, a relatively long pontificate for Francis may be important not only in building consensus on immediate issues, but also in long-term effects. As one bishop recently remarked, when he wishes Pope Francis a long life of “100 years” in the traditional Roman toast, he really means it.

6 comments (Add your own)

1. kag1982 wrote:
This really is the main knot that Pope Francis must untie. The internal forum has been used quietly to help remarried people as well as couples using birth control reconcile with the Catholic Church for decades. However, many of the JPII/ Benedict bishops and priests are sticklers for the rules rather than such pastoral mercy. It has become more common now than it was when I was growing up for co-habitating couples to be denied marriage and for bishops to use Communion as a weapon against politicians. The main irony is that Pope Francis may have to choose between his vision of a decentralized Church and his vision of a merciful Church. The two are at odds with each other.

And yes, we should all be praying for a longer than expected pontificate. If Pope Francis resigned today, the Cardinals would likely elect a very conservative type like Sarah to succeed him and undo his reforms.

Thu, October 22, 2015 @ 9:35 AM

2. Bruce. Hausfeld wrote:
may pope Francis and his church reforms. Live forever

Thu, October 22, 2015 @ 1:09 PM

3. Jerry Filteau wrote:
John, many thanks for doing the math on how the likely future of the hierarchy and a post-Francis papacy may be affected by how long Pope Francis lives. May the Spirit give Francis a long life!

As a retired religion reporter (and once your predecessor as head of the CNS Rome Bureau in the late '70s and early '80s), for at least the past two years I've been arguing that the Francis reform in the church is unlikely to survive his papacy unless he manages to reign long enough, and implement his episcopal appointment reforms and cardinal appointments accordingly, to remake the College of Cardinals and at least a substantial part of the episcopacy around the world. You've laid out the math on what that would take.

I don't doubt your hard math on episcopal and cardinalatial appts by Francis, but I would caution that perhaps many of his early appts in 2013 or 2014 did not necessarily reflect his early mandate to papal nuncios to make pastoral concerns a priority in their proposals for possible bishops.

In my years in Rome and following, it was clear to me that JP2 did not completely get a handle on candidates for selection or promotion in the U.S. episcopate (and that in several other countries) for at least three years or so after his election to the papacy (it was only around 1982 that his vision of the U.S. hierarchy began to be fully implemented).

If you allow a similar time-lag before Francis appts really reflect his pastoral priorities over the rigid doctrinal and other priorities of JP2 (and to a somewhat lesser extent, B16) in both new episcopal appts and the promotions of JP2/B16 bishops, I'd suggest that something like 7-8 years would also be the critical time frame for Francis' episcopal/archiepiscopal appts to gain full currency in the church.

All of which, frankly, discourages me. I can't see Pope Francis, now 78, living another 8-10 years. But if he does, it will almost certainly be a great boon to the church. If he doesn't, I fear about the depths of dogmatism and exclusion that the new church might descend into if the next papal election is controlled by JP2 and B16 cardinals who now "realize" that their earlier election of Bergoglio was a big mistake.

Jerry Filteau

Thu, October 22, 2015 @ 4:36 PM

4. wrote:
Bishops that actually do their their job like teaching and protecting the entire deposit of faith--how horrible! We can't have that. No, we must replace them with bishops that will toss out all that stuffy 2000 years of Catholic moral teaching and embrace the Bacchanalian values of the present world. And in the process, we can run the Church into the ground just like the mainstream Protestants have done to their churches. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing, Baby, Scripture, Tradition, the Fathers, the Creeds, the Sacraments all be damned!

Thu, October 22, 2015 @ 9:25 PM

5. John Page wrote:
Thank you, Jerry. I quite agree. I think that the idea that Pope Francis will resign, if he continues in good health, after six years, the term of a Jesuit provincial or local superior, is well-founded. He would then be eighty-three, older than John Paul I, Paul VI, John XXIII, Pius XII, Pius XI, Benedict XV, and Pius X.

Fri, October 23, 2015 @ 12:01 AM

6. John Dobson wrote:
I fear that a simple mathematic approach to the quality of bishops appointed is no guarantee of Pope Francis approach. The lived experience tells us the gene pool for such bishops is very shallow.
Also, the episcopal 'Sir Humphrey' is still alive and well and active.
Like the East German Ustasi after the unification, they could change their uniforms, but not their attitudes, so too the selectors of the old style bishops are still at work. I haven't seen much evidence of visionary pastoral bishops appointed in this country yet.
Safety and conformity is still the name of the game.
I wish Francid all the best, but I think it will be a long hard road.
The Church is now facing the greatest time of challenge since the reformation, making the concept of God real in the light of the more accurate understanding of the cosmology, and the bishops at the synod are seriously discussing whether divorcees can go to communion or not!
Back in the 1950's we used to pray at the end of Mass 'for the conversion of Russia'. Maybe we should be praying for the conversion of bishops!

Fri, October 23, 2015 @ 3:37 AM

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