This weekend Pope Francis clarified an earlier direction to Cardinal Robert Sarah about liturgical matters.

Critics are thankful that at last Pope Francis decided to clarify something…

But let us leave the snarky comments on one side and consider the matter more seriously. the Pope’s move does not necessarily need to be seen as a personal slam against Cardinal Sarah, although seeing how Pope Francis has treated other conservatively minded Cardinals, this is not a conclusion that would be completely unwarranted.

Instead we should consider the bigger picture. This should be seen as part of Pope Francis’ larger initiative to limit and downsize the authority of the Vatican and ultimately the authority of the papacy itself.

From the very beginning Pope Francis has been public in his attempts to alter the papacy. His refusal to wear the papal stole on the balcony the night of his election, his adoption of the name of the famously poor “Francis”–a name no other pope presumed to take–his rejection of a residence in the apostolic palace, and his insistence on being primarily “the bishop of Rome” all indicate more than an outward stance. They are signs that he wants to change the office of the papacy itself.

We should expect other matters to be increasingly delegated down to individual bishops’ conferences. I would not be surprised to see Pope Francis delegate more disciplinary matters for the clergy downward. We should be prepared for the Pope to allow individual bishops’ conferences to decide on the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests. I would not be surprised to see marriage discipline become increasingly delegated not only to the dioceses, but even further downward to deaneries and parishes. Expect more delegation in matters of political involvement and the interface between civil government and Catholic moral teaching–like pro life issues and same sex marriage.

There can certainly be practical advantages to delegation downward–to empowering the bishops and the people of God in their own localities. The church could respond more quickly to local needs if there were less control from Rome.

The problem, for any pope who wishes to give more power to the people, of course, is that the very people he doesn’t want to have more power may be the ones who claim it. This is the never ending naivety of liberals. They really do believe in a kind of egalitarian nirvana. They think everyone just loves their agenda and that if they only give the people more power then the whole church will become a happy place of peace and justice for everyone.

Well yes but maybe but not really.

I remember when I lived in England some kooky Catholic bishop was proposing that because of the shortage of priests that parishes should be administered by lay people. This was his sneaky way of getting liberal nuns to look after parishes because he couldn’t have the women priests he wanted. (He was actually heard to say, “If we can’t have women priests we’ll have no priests…”)


But what happened in some parishes is that the liberal nuns didn’t take over. Instead the parish was taken over by members of one of the extremely conservative ecclesial movements. The lay people took over for sure and the parish was growing and became dynamic. In another parish the charismatic Catholics took over and things started to get hopping. But when they did, suddenly that nice, tolerant, egalitarian, democratically minded bishop became the most autocratic tyrant you can imagine.

Heads started rolling.

Pope Francis may find that his attempts to shift power downward have a similar affect. The conservative prelates might step up to the plate, only too happy to take the power that is being offered and things might not go in the way Team Francis envision.

In the matter of liturgy, for example, what if the power were handed down to the bishops and Bishop Maniple decides to impose the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in all his parishes, or he says all masses have to be celebrated ad orientem and no more praise and worship, happy clappy nonsense?

Now there’s a thought.

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