The reform of the Curia and the diminishing power of the bishops

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

The preamble of the Apostolic Constitution Prædicate Evangelium stresses out the servicing role of the Roman Curia to the pope as well as the bishops; for it is to them by divine institution and, thus, in an inamissible way, that is entrusted the primary responsibility of the mission and of the unity of the Church. The Curia therefore will not position itself in an intermediary degree of authority between the Pope and the Bishops, so states the document. That is the rule.

But, it is noticed that the present reform, in many of its dispositions, leads to greatly reinforce papal power. What about bishops’? Probably, time will show what exact form the “sound de-centralisation” at the service of the Church “mystery of communion” will take, whether it will go beyond or stay short of what is being advocated. “Beyond”, indeed, if for example the German Synodal Path was to become the model of what is accepted, maybe not recommended but, in any case, not condemned. “Short of”, if the administrative weight of the Curia and of the episcopal conferences prevented any significant modification. ”Short of”, also, if following a soon to come conclave and by the will of a new pope, the Curia and the Synod of the Bishops were engaged in the service of a new change of direction, like both John Paul II and Francis’ pontificates have shown.

A “synodal” logic which confirms the marginalization of diocesan bishops

Be that as it may, one thing seems to be confirmed and amplified, that is the marginalization of diocesan bishops. Discreetly. The preamble quotes in its number 6 the beginning of the Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium n.23, where it is said that “the individual bishops are the visible principle and foundation of the unity in their particular churches”, just as the Roman pontiff is for the universal Church. Then, immediately after, paraphrasing an other paragraph of the conciliar document, the text mentions as an effect of “divine Providence”, the episcopal collegial bodies, such as the “ancient patriarchal churches” and, more recently, the episcopal conferences. (n. 7) This bridge with the council must be interpreted in the light of an other interpretation made by Prædicate Evangelium in its opening. Taking on the ecclesiology of communion, it is said in n.4: “in the Church, mission is so closely linked to communion […] this life of communion gives the Church the face of synodality; that is a Church of mutual listening in which each has something to learn. The faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: each listening to the others, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the  Spirit of truth, to know what He says to the Churches.”

It seems clear that, at the episcopal level, this synodal way of thinking favors the collegial bodies represented by the Synod of the bishops – this way, in recent years the universal Church has been going from one synod to the next – and the episcopal conferences, to the detriment of the bishop as shepherd in his own right of the diocese. Certainly, it could be argued that the document Lumen gentian, previously quoted, is augmented with the second of general “principles and criteria”, ensuring the diocesan bishop the full exercise of his power, within the frame of a balanced collegiality which legitimacy cannot be denied: “This reform proposes, in the spirit of a “sound decentralization[1], to leave to the competence of the shepherd the power to resolve, in the exercise of the “own office of masters” and shepherds, the questions they know well and which do not affect the unity of doctrine, discipline and communion of the Church, by acting always with this corresponsibility which is the fruit and the expression of the Church as this specific Mysterium communionis.

Such a positive perspective, unfortunately, is less than likely. Indeed, it is necessary to compare the stated principle with the apostolic letter published in the form of a motu proprio Competentias quasdam decernere of 11 February 2022, only a few short weeks before Prædicate Evangelium. If we disregard the technical or disciplinary measures, the motu proprio mainly establishes a transfer of authority to the episcopal conferences for what regards the erection of inter-diocesan seminaries, the priestly formation and the publication of catechisms. This is all done in the name of a “sound decentralization” as well as “the shared and plural universality of the Church which integrates without uniformizing them, and which unity is guaranteed by the ministry of the bishop of Rome”. So, when in the next paragraph, the decisions of the motu proprio are also justified by the necessity of “a pastoral action of government faster and more efficacious on the part of the local authority, facilitated by his proximity with the person an the situations that need it”, we know that on this important subjects  which should involve the bishop first hand, he is not actually the local authority that is mentioned in the text.

The bishop, an assisted “Chief shepherd

Certainly, we can’t take away from him the fact that he is the rightful shepherd of the people entrusted to him and, thus, that he possesses certain powers. But, this exercise of power can be assisted in such a way so that he relinquishes this power in the hands of collegial authorities. If a bishop refused to do so, he would become suspect. One of the “principles and criteria” of Prædicate Evangelium allows a lingering menace over such potentially independent bishops: the “service of the Curia to the mission of the Bishops and to the communio is also proposed through the performance, in a fraternal spirit, of tasks of vigilance, support and increase of the affective and effective mutual communion of the Successor of Peter with the Bishops.” (n. 3)

It didn’t need this reform of the Curia for these independent bishops to be already looked at with a suspicious eye and sometimes with dreadful consequences. In a manner very much contemporary to the documents we have been considering – and this is striking -, Mgr Hector Aguer, Archbishop Emeritus of La Plata, has publicly expressed how moved he was upon the removal of Mgr Fernandez Torres, at the beginning of March 2022, from his seat of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. If the motives behind this decision remain secret, we do know though that it was suggested that Mgr. Fernandez Torres resigns, which he eventually refused to do. It seems his lack of collegial spirit in various circumstances is what appeared to be the issue: on mandatory vaccins, on the motu proprio Traditionis custodes or, also, on his desire to keep a diocesan seminary. In any case, Mgr Aguer protested, in an article with a very descriptive title – “Episcopal Conference? Freedom for the bishops!”-, published on the information website InfoCatólica, dated 22 April 2022, not only about the dismissal, but also against the type of self-imposed collegiality which now will stand no exception. Obviously, he is not the first one nor the only one to make these series of criticism: centralized organisation modeled on secular parliaments, interplay of the commissions, interplay of majorities and minorities, regime of sheeplike legalism and of imperative moralism in regards to keeping with unity, pastoral tropism, themes and calendar influenced by current events and lobbying groups. This is a grave accusation, and the author of such critics realizes that; but to him it is unthinkable that a diocesan bishop would not have the first and last word in matters as fundamental as liturgy and priestly formation, what the Law of the Church actually recognizes. In theory… But, in this case, the cleric who was dismissed was bishop of a diocese – and well known by the Archbishop Emeritus – where priests are noted for their piety and where priestly vocations abound… Is this, in the end, the issue some have raised against him?

Canceled non-collegial bishops

Dismissed: according to Mgr Aguer, the word isn’t strong enough. Mgr Fernandez Torres has been “canceled”. If the pope doesn’t have to justify his actions, the declaration of the episcopal conference of Puerto Rico has, with its sibyllin and abrupt style, has lacked the most basic charity, thrown suspicions of grave actions on their confrere, and simply erased him from the ecclesiastic scene. Mgr Aguer then refers back to an article he wrote quite recently (title “To the cancel priests”, and dated 16 March 2022), in which he wrote against a decade long phenomenon, the cancelling of priests by the Church, which is worrisome because of its rising amplitude and how damaging it has been.

Isn’t this, in regards to the method, what also happened to the former Archbishop of Paris, Mgr Aupetit? Didn’t the pope himself agreed that his “resignation » was the bitter fruit of a series of rumors relayed complaisantly or purposely by the media?

Isn’t this what also was attempted, and still is, against the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Woelki, with a powerful campaign by the media denouncing the administration of child abuse cases involving clerics? If we note that this thematic – though terrible in itself – is the paraclet of a fight by the German Synodal Path against what it calls clericalism, allowing activists to break all doctrinal, ecclesial, disciplinary locks, one after the other; if we note that the Cardinal is a strong opponent to these activists and that those who attack him (for example the feminist movement Maria 2.0) are those who are maneuvering the authorities of the Synod, then we can seriously wonder the real intentions of those protesting Woelki. In March 2022, the Archbishop presented for the second time his resignation to the pope who, to this day, has not responded.

The brutal wokism which we mentioned before is making its way into the Church, and the synodality which denies secretly the Chief shepherds of the particular Churches their right to exercise fully and freely their mission, don’t actually have at their source a common project; but – and it is seen in secular society – the second is to the condition of the first one; and we can think that, contrary to the peace and the unity they claim, the disappearance of the traditional mediations only leads to coteries and violence.

Father Jean-Marie Perrot

[1] Quoted from Evangelii gaudium n.16, which we would like to quote more extensively: Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”.