Pope_Francis_Malacanang_7When we lived in England there was a posh saying that you. shouldn’t “sell the family silver”. It meant, that even if you were in dire straits you shouldn’t give up your family heirlooms. In Old Testament terms you should not sell your blessing for a mess of pottage.

The Pope’s recent motu proprio has caused some consternation amongst the faithful partially because it seems to be another befuddling and confusing action by Pope Francis. Those who don’t trust him are saying, “Now what’s he up to?” while those who are his fans are praising him again for being a courageous reformer. John Allen explains what’s going on here very well.

The detail is that the pope is giving local bishops more say in the translation of liturgical texts into the vernacular. That seems unremarkable enough, but Allen analyzes the move pretty shrewdly and sees this as a first step towards more de-centralization. The Holy Father wants to shift things back to the local level and pull some of the authority away from the Vatican. Some will also see this as a move to take power from Cardinal Sarah–the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments and that analysis is not unconvincing. Certainly it would fit with the present pope’s policy of marginalizing, eliminating and demoting those he perceives as his opponents.

But what interests me in this seemingly innoccuous tinkering with canon law is the principle behind it. The pope may well think this is simply a minor matter of making the liturgy more relevant and accessible to the people, but underlying this (conscious or not) is an intention to decentralize and weaken the power and authority of the papacy. This was evident from the first moment of Francis’ election. It was there in his refusal to wear more ornate papal regalia. It was there in his insistence that he was to be called “the bishop of Rome” not the Pope or anything grander than that. It was there in his refusal to live in the apostolic palace as well as his rejection of the other trappings that convey the dignity and history of the papal office.

That may all be well and good and no doubt it panders to all the non-Catholics who think the pope should sell Michelangelo’s Pieta and give the money to poor people. It is ironic that the image of  the humble pope who eschews “all that fancy stuff” is much more popular amongst rich Westerners (who are never too keen to get rid of their own fancy stuff) than among the world’s poor who like seeing a pope who looks like a pope.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis is clearly putting forward what he thinks is a better version of the papacy. Downgrading the papal dignity and shifting power and decision making to the local bishops’ conferences could be a good thing, but it could also be disastrous. One of the great strengths of the Catholic religion is its unity and universality, and the concentration of a certain amount of power in the Vatican is one of the things that helps hold it all together. In a world that is increasingly divisive and fragmented this is actually a virtue not a deficit. If the decentralization continues we may well find a church that is even more fragmented and divided than it already is

Take, for example, the different interpretations of the pope’s well meant but ambiguous document on marriage. Bishops in Malta and Argentina said it meant one thing. Bishops in Philadelphia and Nebraska and another in Argentina said it meant something else. If more and more decision making is devolved to local bishops what further confusion and chaos will occur?

Then there is the general direction this move is taking the church–to a kind of big tent Catholicism which is increasingly similar to Anglicanism. In this version of the faith there is room for everybody and no one must be excluded at all for whatever reason. Every opinion will be tolerated just as long as you stay within the tent everything will be alright. Local bishops will do what they think best. Local priests will do what they think best. Every Catholic will do what they think best.

This is called latitudinarianism, and its success relies on only one factor: total and unthinking loyalty to the person at the top. In the Church of England it all holds together because of Her Majesty the Queen. The English churchman remains in the Church of England whether he is an Anglo Catholic a Liberal or an Evangelical (who all believe radically different things) because his greatest loyalty is to England and HMQ.

For Catholics the person at the top will be the Pope and one will be able to do or say or believe most anything as long as he remains loyal to the top man.

The final irony, of course, is that this state of affairs enshrines the Pope as far more of a monarchical figure than ever before. Furthermore, the authority of such a pope will be increasingly subjective, unpredictable, ambiguous and oppressive. Not having consensus (because everybody believes something whatever he wants) such a pope will resort to arbitrary decrees and despotic pronouncements.

But then maybe I am being too alarmist over what is, of course, just a little adjustment of canon law.

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