The collegiality paradox facing Pope Francis
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
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.