In a typical Fr. Reese. S.J. article in Commonweal on "Reforming the Vatican" he starts of with the fact that the structures of the Church have developed over time and I guess from his analysis all in the wrong direction.
The contemporary papacy rules the church with powers that would be the envy of any absolute monarch: the pope holds supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority with few checks on his power. This power is especially evident in the appointment of bishops.
Though one of those checks being Papal Infallibility and the promise of the Holy Spirit that the gates of Hell will never prevail against the Church. That is a pretty good check and balance that even morally evil popes never changed Church teaching.
He then goes on to talk about the history of how Bishops were selected from when the faithful in the early centuries were chosen via general acclaim and the various systems that included control by nobles and kings up to the present day. He does give a fairly good historical overview of this.
All of this changed in the nineteenth century, when revolutions wiped out most of the Catholic monarchs in Europe. Rather than returning the selection of bishops to the local church, popes made it their own prerogative. Unsurprisingly, this led to the appointment of bishops who were loyal to Rome and would support its preeminence in the church.
Wow this leads to the appointment of Bishops loyal to the Church and who actually believed in the role of the Pope! Well this would be nice if it actually always happened. But the Pope relies on the recommendations of the local Church and the Papal Nuncio and is not infallible in this regards.
But the appointment of bishops is not the only example of the papacy’s consolidation of power. In the early centuries of the church, regional or national councils of bishops helped define doctrine, coordinated church policy, and even provided a forum for judging bishops. The bishop of Rome acted as a court of appeal when bishops and councils disagreed.
For liberals everything is always about power, nothing can be done because it might be more prudent or efficient. The Bishop of Rome though has never acted as a court of appeal. Always the Pope made the final decisions as to what was approved and not approved in a council. They did not simply appeal to him upon conflicts since even unanimous decisions would have to be signed off by the Pope.
National bishops’ conferences are the true successors of these councils, but the Vatican refuses to allow them the independence to act like the councils of old. Similarly, ecumenical councils once had greater independence; according to some theologians, the councils even had the authority to impeach popes.
Say what? But I guess whenever you are about to say something really stupid you start off the sentence with "according to some theologians" and I guess this is a form of plausible deniability. There is just so much mistaken in what he says on both impeaching the pope and bishops conferences being the true successors to councils. There is no absolute requirement for a local bishop conferences. I believe then-Cardinal Ratzinger has even said that they have no theological basis for existence. They are simply a prudential structure that has been setup for administrative reasons to serve the Church. It is strange how many progressives will attack the authority of the pope which certainly is backed up by scripture and Apostolic Tradition and of course dogmatic teaching and yet will praise bishop conferences which have no real authority other than what the individual bishops as a whole give it. This type of statement would claim that a local bishops conference can decide doctrinal questions and I guess different local bishop conferences could come up with contrary answers. The local conferences in no way will ever be the successor of a true ecumenical council and the real councils were never independent from the pope in the first place.
The centralization of power in the Vatican was often a legitimate response to the political interference of kings and nobles in the life of the local church. Popes could stand up to kings better than the local church could. But now that few kings or noblemen are in a position to meddle with the church, one could argue that such centralization is no longer necessary—and that it is in fact counterproductive.
He doesn’t explain exactly how this is counterproductive. The Pope as the ultimate decider of episcopal ordinations is also a corrective to a diocese that has gone off the rails. We don’t want to see places like the Diocese of Rochester and others to perpetuate themselves with like minded bishops. To have various diocese perpetuating their own form of Catholicism in whatever form it might take would be counterproductive. That the modern approach was not used in the early church and beyond is simply because they did not have the forms of timely communication that we are now use to.
Now we come to his reforms:
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.
The problem here is that he is starting with too broad a generalization of how curial officials act and the idea that non-Bishops in these positions would make a major difference. That because they are called princes of the Church that they necessarily act like that. Last I checked we all suffer from original sin. Truly he has a point about having a greater difficult in firing incompetent Bishops and Cardinals in the curia, but is this really a major problem that we need to eliminate cardinals and bishops from the equation? The trend of having more lay people serving in the curia is a growing one and a positive one and surely having a mix of clergy and lay people in the curia is the better solution.
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.
I think the idea of timed synods is mistaken. Nothing is worse than meetings timed on a schedule that have nothing to do with need. We are having a meeting because it is Tuesday. The Synod of Bishops is at the service of the Pope and called when he thinks something requires this collaboration. The reality is that since the Second Vatican II council 21 special and general assemblies have been called and general assembles are occurring roughly every four to five years already. I get the idea that he just doesn’t like how the synods have turned out because they have not created the changes in doctrine and practice he desires. I also wonder why he thinks being a member of the curia and a synod would be a conflict in the first place? They are not in opposition to each other unless you think that the role of the synods is to mainly change the curia and this is seen as a loss of power. The idea of timed ecumenical councils is even worse. Do we put the Holy Spirit on a calendar?
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.
Not sure exactly what a "elected synodal committee" are and who they would be elected by. Though generally I guess it flows from the idea that Vatican cardinals are the cause of problems and this is consistent with the rest of his reforms.
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.
First off how in the world could individual conferences perform these elections? I guess you could have something like a football draft where each conference takes turns with an appointment. Conferences could trade picks since this model is all about power and influence. Time and time again he forgets that there is oversight and it is called the pope. But the purpose of Fr. Reese’s reforms are about moving responsibility from the pope and distributing it. That the papacy should be all about the pope being in union with the bishops and not the fact that the teaching magisterium consists of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. Time and time again I get the idea that progressive really don’t believe in papal infallibility and that if they could just get their own guy in there everything would change. The fact that doctrine doesn’t change within the Church is due to stubborn popes and not the protection of the Holy Spirit seems to be their view.
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.
Anybody that actually looks at the record of the CDF in regards to the treatment of dissenting theologian will find a record of very slow deliberations and less than a handful of actual excommunications. Some would think that the scandal of the CDF is how slow they react and how rare any punitive action is. I happen to think that the CDF is doing this functioning quite correctly in giving every opportunity for these theologians to explain themselves adequately. Can he give one example of a theologian that has had some punitary action given that did not deserve it? What he really wants is that no theologian be disciplined as long as they espouse a faddish heresy to his liking. I doubt if he is much upset with the actions by the CDF in regards to Archbishop Lefebvre. He also does not explain how this "independent jury" would be so different and what the actual problems are with the CDF. I guess the CDF is the boogeyman for some and you just have to reference it and it is understood to be evil.
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.
This model works much better in the early Church when communities are much smaller and just being members of the Church could get them martyred. Cafeteria Catholicism was not very prevalent then. Today it does not seem very practical and exactly what would this mechanism for acceptance be? Would they take a poll or vote on it? Would Catholics who thinks they can be a good Catholic and miss Mass regularly be acceptable voters? If the selected bishop actually teaches the hard sayings of Christ is he going to get accepted in a culture such of ours? With the current model of input by the local Church, papal nuncio, and final decision by the Pope really gives us the best model for now and increases the connection between the local Church and the Pope. Somehow the checks and balances he wants don’t apply when it comes to the selection of bishops. Though I don’t know why I am spending time fisking this article. If someone sees the Pope as CEO and bishops as branch managers they really need to go back and take Church ecclesiology 101. There is a reason we call the Pope Holy Father and not Holy CEO. Why we see bishops as shepherds and not branch managers. The CEO/branch manager understanding of the Church could hardly be more wrong.
Hey how about the laity getting to vote on the next Jesuit General or perhaps the editorial boards at America and Commonweal Magazines? Power to the people!
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.
Unless that bishop is the Pope I guess. Bishops do have a lot of autonomy in how they best spread the Gospel and a lot of leeway within their own diocese regarding their flock. They just don’t have the authority to "teach another Gospel." Again we see the suggestion of having what would be hundreds of councils as if this idea shouldn’t be mocked for its stupidity especially in regards to determining Church teaching. That you could go from country to country and have Church teaching change. Local and regional councils were never independent from the authority of the Pope and if you wanted to go by this model we would all be Aryans today or whatever heresy that would have replaced it. If Bishops must be trusted to know what is best for the local Church than we can eliminate bishop conferences.
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.
Yes it is all about power. People serve in the curia only for power. No other motives possible. Protecting the faith from error, the liturgy from abuse, and all the other roles performed are all just about power. But he is right that his reform won’t be implemented because of their theology of the Church. Fr. Reese’s ecclesiology is much different with no role for the papacy other than as a figurehead that should rubber stamp anything coming across his desk. I wonder if he considers Apostolic succession as a "self-perpetuating group of men."