Collegiality, decentralisation and subsidiarity: Francis' dramatic push

Much has been said and written about the new wave of inclusiveness being promoted by the Bishop of Rome, with the ongoing Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, currently underway in Rome, discussing some thorny issues regarding the family.

Oct 17, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
Much has been said and written about the new wave of inclusiveness being promoted by the Bishop of Rome, with the ongoing Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, currently underway in Rome, discussing some thorny issues regarding the family.

We have heard how Francis wants more estranged and alienated Christians to come home to the Church, which should be a place of welcome in the spirit of compassion, mercy and love. This approach will promote greater inclusiveness, no doubt.

But behind the focus on the family, something else, significant, is taking place, and inclusivism has taken on a broader hue.

The process of arriving at the Extraordinary Synod began with a questionnaire which was sent out last year across the world, to solicit views from the bottom-up, on what people think of Church rules and practices. (A group of friends and I in Penang, far, far away from Rome, also participated in filling up the questionnaire.)

Jesus did not want the faithful to be overly burdened by the law; rather He came to set people free and to lighten the yoke on their shoulders. So, Francis has correctly sought the views from the ground on some of the issues that were burdening the faithful, and these are the topics that the bishops would discuss at the Extraordinary Synod.

More than that, Francis has freed the bishops and urged them to speak their minds. He wants the voices of the faithful and their bishops, whether critical or otherwise, to be heard.

Now, this is no arbitrary decision on Francis’ part. In doing so, he is going back to the roots of Christianity when the principle of collegiality was observed, right from the council of Jerusalem.

In fact, from the fourth century to the 16th century, there were many more ecumenical councils of the Universal Church. But since then, we have only had two: Vatican I (1869) and Vatican II (1962) as the Church became more and more centralised in the hands of the papacy, especially after Vatican I.

We have see, since Francis’ installation as Bishop of Rome, that he has adopted a simpler style of dressing. More than that, he appears to be more comfortable with the designation Bishop of Rome, while shunning away from some of the fancier titles.

These are more than just symbolic gestures of humility and modesty, a move towards less ostentatiousness. It appears that Francis, known for conveying powerful messages through the use of striking gestures, is trying to reduce the imbalance, the gulf, of power and influence between the Bishop of Rome and the collegiality of bishops in the Universal Church.

In this, the Bishop of Rome seems to be harking back to, and harnessing, the Spirit of Vatican II, which reiterated the concept of collegiality:

“The bishops, by virtue of their sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head of the college and its other members, are constituted as members of the Episcopal body. The order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles. (The Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, 1965).

So, it is clear that Francis has embarked on the road to decentralisation in the management of the Church, which was first witnessed when he selected a council of cardinals representing broad geographical regions to advise him on the direction of the Universal Church.

In fact, the centralisation of the management of the Global Church had grown so much that it placed an impossible burden on his predecessor, who had to come to terms with the corrupt dealings, money laundering and sex scandals that blew up simultaneously, even in the heart of the heavily centralised Vatican. This was ironic, as Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) had been an early advocate of collegiality to strengthen episcopal power in the days of Vatican II.

Now, we seem to be on track towards some decentralisation. Decentralisation is actually closely connected with the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic Social Teaching, which originated within the Church.

Basically, subsidiarity means that social problems are handled more effectively at the level (usually local level) that is most consistent with arriving at the best solution. It is only when it cannot be handled at the local level that a higher, more central authority should come in to resolve it. Such local decision-making would encourage public participation from the ground up and empower more people.

In some ways, this principle is supposed to underpin how the European Union is supposed to function and influence the relationship between its central authority and member states (though whether it works in practice is another matter). The principle also has some bearing to the concept of federalism and decentralisation.

In the case of Malaysia, we have a heavily centralised federal system. Over the last few decades especially, not only has more power been centralised in the hands of the centre (Putrajaya) but also in the hands of the Executive (Cabinet) and the prime minister’s office (as evidenced by the large budget it has).

Might not some decentralisation in the case of Malaysia also lead to more effective and participatory decision-making? For instance, it was a mistake to do away with local council elections. This put more power in the hands of political party bosses (in the selection and appointment of councillors) and the respective mayors, while reducing the channels of participatory decision making and the avenues for the expression of grievances from the public. Another example: should bus routes be approved at Putrajaya or would they be more effectively decided at the local level?

All said, the fascinating push towards collegiality and decentralisation within the Church has lessons that extend far beyond the confines of the Catholic Church. If it succeeds in transforming the regional and local churches, and empowering the bishops and the ordinary faithful, it will have many lessons for those who wish for greater participation from the ground up in more areas of public life.

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