Ross Douthat’s article on Pope Francis reflects the smarts, insights, and courage that characterizes almost everything the columnist writes. His conclusion about a potential disruption of the church by the current pope is again refreshing, especially coming from a conservative, since most converts and apologists hum merrily the tune of “nothing changes, we have the magisterium.” Douthat recognizes that this ecclesiology makes it almost impossible for conservatives to stop a progressive-led disruption:
In the age of Francis, this progressive faith seems to rest on two assumptions. The first is that the changes conservatives are resisting are, in fact, necessary for missionary work in the post-sexual-revolution age, and that once they’re accomplished, the subsequent renewal will justify the means. The second is that because conservative Catholics are so invested in papal authority, a revolution from above can carry all before it: the conservatives’ very theology makes it impossible for them to effectively resist a liberalizing pope, and anyway they have no other place to go.
But the first assumption now has a certain amount of evidence against it, given how many of the Protestant churches that have already liberalized on sexual issues—again, often dividing in the process—are presently aging toward a comfortable extinction. (As is, of course, the Catholic Church in Germany, ground zero for Walter Kasper’s vision of reform.)
Contemporary progressive Catholicism has been stamped by the experience of the Second Vatican Council, when what was then a vital American Catholicism could be invoked as evidence that the Church should make its peace with liberalism as it was understood in 1960. But liberalism in 2015 means something rather different, and attempts to accommodate Christianity to its tenets have rarely produced the expected flourishing and growth. Instead, liberal Christianity’s recent victories have very often been associated with the decline or dissolution of its institutional expressions.
Which leaves the second assumption for liberals to fall back on—a kind of progressive ultramontanism, which assumes that papal power can remake the Church without dividing it, and that when Rome speaks, even disappointed conservatives will ultimately concede that the case is closed.
Aside from Douthat’s insights into the dynamics of the Francis papacy, his article also reveals the fundamental problem with episcopal church government. Most of the article is a review of three biographies in which Douthat tries to discern from the tea leaves of Francis’ life the direction of his papacy:
Yet several crucial issues—some raised explicitly by Ivereigh, some implicit in all three biographies—set Francis’s background and worldview apart. They help explain why his pontificate looks much more friendly to progressive strands within Catholicism than anyone expected from the successor to the previous two popes.
First, Jorge Bergoglio had a very different experience of globalization than Karol Wojtyła (who would become Pope John Paul II) and Joseph Ratzinger did in Europe, one shaped by disappointments particular to his country. For most of his life, his native Argentina was an economic loser, persistently underperforming and corruption-wracked. During the 1980s, inequality and the poverty rate increased in tandem; in the late ’90s and early 2000s, while Bergoglio was archbishop, Argentina endured a downturn and a depression. Where his predecessors’ skepticism of capitalism and consumerism was mainly intellectual and theoretical, for Bergoglio the critique became something more visceral and personal.
Second, in the course of his political experience in Argentina, he encountered very different balances of power—between the left and the right, between Church and state, and within global Catholicism—than either of the previous two popes confronted. As much as Bergoglio clashed with Marxist-influenced Jesuits, the Marxists in Argentina weren’t running the state (as they were in John Paul’s Poland, and in the eastern bloc of Benedict’s native Germany). They were being murdered by it. Likewise, the fact that the Church in Argentina was compromised during the Dirty War had theological implications: it meant that for Bergoglio, more-intense forms of traditionalist Catholicism were associated with fascism in a very specific, immediate way. And coming from the Church’s geographical periphery himself, Bergoglio had reasons to sympathize with the progressive argument that John Paul had centralized too much power in the Vatican, and that local churches needed more freedom to evolve.
Third, while highly intellectual in his own distinctive way, Francis is clearly a less systematic thinker than either of his predecessors, and especially than the academic-minded Benedict.
Douthat may not mean it this way, but why is it unfair to surmise that in the case of a bishop (even the one in Rome), the personal is truly political. Was this the way it was supposed to be, especially when the bishops were supposed to follow apostolic teaching? Where are the teaching of Scripture, the dogma of the church, or sacramental observance as decisive for Francis’ ministry? Why would his own personal experience be more important for setting the papacy’s agenda than the received traditions of the church?
The advantage of Presbyterianism, aside from its commitment to the antiquity of the prophets and the apostles, is that the rule by committee prevents any single bishop (read overseer or presbyter) from having his biography determine the assemblies or ministry of the church (unless you’re in the PCA in NYC). That may not be enough to crack the logic of Bryan’s noggin or turn Loser Ken’s head from all those trophies, but it’s something.
Even Michael Sean Winters thinks the bishops need more accountability (and who can blame him after what’s happened in Kansas City, but don’t forget about Pope Francis’ approval of what’s happening in Chile):
There are structural changes the Church can make that would serve to provide greater accountability. For much of the Church’s history, the decisions of a bishop could be appealed to his metropolitan archbishop, and the decisions of the metropolitans could be appealed to another metropolitan or to a national or regional body of metropolitans. The system was undone not by any decision the Church made but by the disruption in the Church’s life caused by Napoleon. In those tumultuous years, appeals to Rome became the norm. Today, the only vestige of the earlier system is that a bishop’s judicial decisions can be appealed to the metropolitan, and the decisions of a marriage tribunal are automatically reviewed by the metropolitan tribunal. But, only about ten percent of any bishop’s decisions are judicial. The other 90% are administrative, and if any appeal is sought from those, the appeal must be sent to Rome.
Just as the Holy Father has introduced a new body, the Council of Cardinals, to advise him, the Church could bring back the earlier system of appeal to metropolitans for all administrative decisions. How would that change things? If a bishop knew his decisions were open to expedited review by someone nearby, he might be more inclined to try and work things out amicably within his own diocese, or to consult with the other bishops about an especially problematic situation, in advance. It would not guarantee there would be no mistakes, but it would start to put flesh on the idea of episcopal collegiality articulated at Vatican II.
Hey, Mike, this is the kind of review that happens every single month when a consistory or session meets, or every four months when classis or presbytery meets, or every year when Synod or General Assembly meets. Face it, Reformed Protestantism put the reform in Reformation.