In recent weeks, many traditionalist blogs and websites have been publishing articles about the supposedly exaggerated position of the Pope in the modern Church. Rather than focusing on Pope Francis, they are arguing that we should rethink the institution of the papacy as such. In particular, they claim that bishops have been marginalized by “super-star Popes” who have taken center stage and that the Church needs to be more decentralized. Some authors have even “repented” of their own “ultramontanist” attitude toward earlier Popes.

There’s something a bit fishy about this sudden interest in decentralization. I doubt such articles would have been written if the authors appreciated the pontificate of Pope Francis. Coming from those who routinely attack the Pope, such articles seem to be merely an intellectualized justification for ongoing dissent. Still, these authors are drawing upon a certain truth. This article will examine their position in more depth and demonstrate how appealing to a more decentralized Church can’t justify the current traditionalist attitude toward Pope Francis.

The “Great Convergence”

Two articles by Michael Warren Davis provide good examples of this ongoing discussion. Davis has written some insightful pieces: for instance, the article he wrote in the run-up to Traditionis Custodes is well worth reading. He has also written some fairly bizarre articles: for instance, in an article for Crisis Magazine he argued that women’s suffrage was the “single greatest catastrophe” in the history of the United States. Whatever else may be said, Davis tends to think and write outside the box—and that’s a quality that I respect.

The two articles in question contain some good points: in particular, Davis calls on traditionalists not to become too attached to particular liturgical, artistic, and theological forms. He also avoids the strident tone many traditionalist Catholics use when criticizing Pope Francis. The overall argument of his articles, however, is seriously flawed.

In the first article, he wonders if the growing ambivalence toward the Pope among conservative Catholics might aid in healing the split between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox. He writes:

As we know, the Great Schism ultimately occurred because the East felt the Roman pontiff was usurping the authority of the local bishops. …

Many who would consider themselves “orthodox” or traditional Catholics now find themselves leveling a similar grievance against the current Roman pontiff. They believe Pope Francis is using the power of his office to disseminate error. Some have even accused him of heresy. Virtually everyone agrees that he has been too heavy-handed in his governance of the Church …

In response to the Francis papacy, many traditionally-minded Catholics have . . . begun to question the extremes of ultramontanism. It isn’t that they doubt the dogma of papal infallibility. They don’t. They simply point out that the pope has absolute authority in only two spheres: (a) he can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals, on those rare occasions when he speaks ex cathedra, and (b) he can appoint bishops. …

There’s a growing movement to “decentralize” the Church, to curtail the ultramontane excesses that have taken root in the last three centuries.

Coming to the crux of his argument, he writes:

It seems to me like we’re headed straight for a Great Convergence that will end the Great Schism of 1054. Put simply, the Orthodox need more popery and Catholics need less.

The East needs a central authority that can serve to mediate between their patriarchs, especially when it comes to the appointment of bishops. Meanwhile, the West needs to remember that our bishops do not derive their authority from the pope. They are not the Vatican’s regional managers. They are Successors to the Apostles in their own right. They have their own teaching authority. They are the shepherds of their sheep, meaning they are ultimately responsible for the fate of the souls in their dioceses.

Part of this last paragraph was retweeted by Bishop Joseph Strickland, as Davis mentions in a second article. There, Davis defends Bishop Strickland against accusations of schism, and argues that Lumen Gentium supports his decentralist position. He cites Lumen Gentium 21 to prove that bishops hold their authority in their own right:

For from the tradition, which is expressed especially in liturgical rites and in the practice of both the Church of the East and of the West, it is clear that, by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred, and the sacred character so impressed, that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person. Therefore it pertains to the bishops to admit newly elected members into the Episcopal body by means of the sacrament of Orders.

Further on in the article, Davis writes:

It’s true that bishops are subject to higher authorities, including the pope. Yet it’s possible for them to exercise their episcopal office in defiance of the papacy. The Orthodox have been doing it for a thousand years.

There are almost one thousand bishops in the East who have never been in full communion with the pope at any point in their lives. They certainly didn’t have Rome’s permission to become bishops. Yet the Orthodox have been doing the everyday work of the Church (preaching the Gospel, dispensing the Sacraments, etc.) without interruption for a thousand years.

The Orthodox position is less than ideal, as they’ll be the first to admit. They desire reunion with the West, just as we desire reunion with the East. But a millennium of openly defying the pope has not reduced the “bishop-ness” of their bishops one iota. Why? Because episcopal authority doesn’t come from the pope. It comes from Christ through Apostolic Succession—through the laying on of hands.

Davis then quotes another traditionalist bishop, bishop Athanasius Schneider, who said:

I think that popes should speak rarely, in part because the inflation of the pope’s words obscures de facto the magisterium of the bishops. By his continuous pronouncements, the pope has become the pivotal point for daily life in the Church. However, the bishops are the divinely established pastors for their flocks. In some ways, they are quite paralyzed by this papal-centrism.

In the second article, Davis returns to a theme covered in the first: Pope Francis himself is interested in a more decentralized Church. If that’s the case, why should statements like those of bishops Strickland and Schneider be considered beyond the pale? He also claims that ecclesial centralization really means control by Vatican bureaucracy rather than by the Pope, and insinuates that this state of affairs throws doubt on the legitimacy of papal encyclicals and directives. Davis concludes his second article with the following challenge to “ultramontanists”:

Here is my question for the ultramontanists: does Petrine supremacy mean that the pope can take power away from the world’s bishops and give it to this small group of (highly corrupt, insular, self-serving) Italian priests? Is that what Our Lord meant when He gave Cephas the keys to Heaven? And if I question the current order of things, does that make me a schismatic?

Maybe so. But I like what Cardinal Newman said better:

The Church is the Mother of high and low, of the rulers as well as of the ruled. Securus judicat orbis terrarium. If she declares by her various voices that the Pope is infallible in certain matters, in those matters infallible he is. What Bishops and people say all over the earth, that is the truth, whatever complaint we may have against certain ecclesiastical proceedings. Let us not oppose ourselves to the universal voice.

Vatican II

Lumen Gentium does emphasize the fact that bishops are not merely lackeys of the Pope. They are the successors of the Apostles and should be seen as such. As far as that goes, Davis is quite correct. In fact, Lumen Gentium says that the faithful are to accept the teaching of the bishops and adhere to it with a religious assent. (L.G. 25)

The papal minimalism endorsed by Davis, however, is contradicted by what Lumen Gentium goes on to say in the next sentence:

This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.

It is true, as Davis says, that the Pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. Lumen Gentium, however, specifies that Catholics must offer religious submission of mind and will to all of his “authentic magisterium,” which includes encyclicals and other documents. The document does not envision a Pope who merely appoints bishops and promulgates the extremely infrequent doctrinal definition.

Contrary to Davis (and other writers, including George Weigel) the fact that Vatican functionaries draft papal documents does not make them less authoritative. Unless one were to argue that the Pope was actually ignorant of what he was signing, the fact that he has signed a document makes it part of his teaching magisterium. And personally, I think documents such as Fratelli Tutti and Laudato Si are obviously the work of Pope Francis; they match his style.

Papal minimalists, however, claim that this is all part of the hyper-papalism that they condemn in the modern Church. With this argument in mind, we can turn to an examination of their proposed alternative to hyper-papalism.

A Decentralized Church

I actually agree with Davis that the Church is too centralized. For a long time, bishops were treated as if they were merely functionaries of the Vatican. This wasn’t good for the Church.

It is important to note, however, that the Church was much more centralized before Vatican II. In the first half of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for the Vatican to intervene directly in relatively trivial matters. For instance, in a ridiculous extreme of centralized oversight, particular works of religious art were sometimes condemned by the Vatican officials. Today, by contrast, conservatives often lament the fact that Catholic dissidents remain unpunished by the Church. Pope Francis seems bent on letting people “make a mess.” Such tolerance is shown across the board, whatever traditionalists may argue to the contrary. Just imagine what would have happened to Archbishop Vigano if he’d lived a few centuries ago!

This trend toward greater decentralization is particularly notable in the liturgical life of the modern Church. Today the liturgy is celebrated in the vernacular and is influenced by the diversity of cultures around the globe. Traditionalists, however, generally oppose this kind of decentralization. Many traditionalists would prefer a return to Latin and to the Tridentine liturgy: in other words, they would prefer the imposition of a Roman liturgy on the rest of the Church. It is unclear how a genuine desire for decentralization could be compatible with such liturgical imperialism.

In fact, the “papal-centralism” of the modern Church is more a matter of attitudes than of positive law. Rome simply bulks large in the popular Catholic imagination. This seems inevitable in a world of instantaneous communication technology. No matter what we might wish, local bishops will never be able to compete with the Vatican in attracting attention. The diocese has nothing to match the grandeur of St. Peters, the thrill of a conclave, the enthusiasm of a World Youth Day celebration. At the same time, while the Pope may steal all the attention, it isn’t as if Catholics are that good at actually listening to him. Particularly in the USA, we have a long history of ignoring papal pronouncements. I think that’s a bad thing, but it makes me wonder whether denunciations of papal imperialism are really what is needed at the current moment.

Nor is it obvious how such decentralization would work in practice. It may be true, as Davis says, that modern technology made a papal-centric Church possible. But doesn’t it also make a centralized Church desirable, at least to a certain extent? As it is, the contradictory pronouncements of individual bishops are creating news headlines and Twitter fodder. Do we really want there to be radically different practices and rules in each of the 15 dioceses of Texas? Is it really a good thing that we currently (even in a supposedly “ultramontanist” Church) have different Holy Days of Obligation and different ages for Confirmation and different approaches to worthiness for receiving Communion and different requirements for fast and abstinence on different sides of arbitrarily-drawn county lines? Would more of this sort of thing really make the Church stronger in a high-mobility, high-tech world? To have a decentralized and localist Church, we would first need a decentralized and localist world. Michael Warren Davis and I are in hearty agreement about the desirability of such a world; but until it comes to pass, the Church will and should remain somewhat centralized.

The Incoherence of Traditionalist Appeals to Decentralism

Whatever the relative merits of localism in the Church, appeals to a decentralized Church won’t get radical traditionalists anywhere. The only “traditional” alternative to a Vatican-centered Church is a bishop-centered Church. Such a Church would have two aspects: a focus on the voice of the Church as a whole, particularly as seen in Synods and Councils, and a focus on the jurisdiction and teaching of the local bishops.

Newman’s “universal voice of the Church,” however, is against the radical Traditionalist. The “universal voice of the Church” is the Second Vatican Council, support for Pope Francis, and general satisfaction with the reformed liturgy. If Vatican III was called tomorrow, does anyone think that the assembled bishops would vote to support the positions of Bishop Schneider?

Similarly, most radical traditionalists are dissatisfied with their own local bishops. It is important to emphasize that decentralism would only be workable if Catholics developed a greater reliance on their own bishops. Radical traditionalists, however, are not known for such reliance. This is the irony at the heart of their recent appeals to a decentralized Church. They argue that the Pope should say little. They decry his “globetrotting” ways. But they are all ears whenever the auxiliary bishop of Astana in Kazakhstan issues a pronouncement to the universal Church! Davis quoted Bishop Schneider as an authority even as he calls for a diminishment of papal power. If it is wrong for the Pope to usurp the teaching and governing role of local bishops, then surely the auxiliary bishop of Astana in Kazakhstan should remain quietly at home. Instead, we see Bishop Schneider traveling on speaking tours, issuing statements, criticizing the Pope, and offering to sign vaccine exemption statements for Catholics around the world.

Bishops Schneider is merely one of a whole host of traditionalist figures, clerical and lay, who act with all the arrogance attributed to the Pope while having none of the ecclesial justifications for doing so. Archbishop Vigano is a former nuncio with no jurisdiction, currently living in an undisclosed location; yet he constantly issues statements and pronouncements, and is bold enough to condemn the Second Vatican Council as heretical. Cardinal Burke is currently a relatively insignificant member of the Curial bureaucracy that Davis claims to dislike; yet his opinions are widely treated as authoritative by traditionalists. Bishop Strickland is the leader of a small diocese in Texas; yet he isn’t hesitant to wade into the affairs of other dioceses, notably by championing priests who are at odds with their own bishops. If it comes down to choosing between a globe-trotting papacy and a host of globe-trotting traditionalists, I think I’ll stick with the Pope. Until the radical traditionalists take their own advice and stop trying to set up a parallel magisterium, their opinions on Church decentralization can be safely ignored.

In a world of Catholic celebrities and disputatious bishops, we need a Pope who maintains a public profile and can counterbalance everyone else. Otherwise, the Catholic Church would end up looking like the Orthodox. As Davis admits in his article, the position of the Orthodox is “less than ideal.” That is rather a dramatic understatement. At the present, geopolitics in Eastern Europe have led to yet another split among the orthodox Churches. Not to mention the fact that the Orthodox are rather strange allies for radical traditionalists. Such traditionalists accuse Pope Francis of undermining the indissolubility of marriage—but the Orthodox, free from the shackles of “Roman imperialism,” have long allowed for second marriages.

Unity

The Church absolutely must be unified, no matter whether it is centralized or decentralized. On the night before he died, Christ prayed that we might “all be one.” Such unity requires unity with the local bishop, rather than choosing to follow Catholic celebrities—even if those celebrities are bishops. St. Ignatius of Antioch had harsh words for those who refused to follow the teachings and practice of their bishop. At the same time, individual bishops can and do fall into error. St. Irenaeus developed the concept of unity by emphasizing that local churches must be in unity with the church of Rome.

Such unity can not be a merely legal matter, as Pope Francis pointed out in the letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes. Rather, one must be united to the Church “with the heart.” Such unity does not rule out a healthy measure of decentralization. Such decentralization, however, cannot justify traditionalist opposition to the Pope. When Bishop Schneider, for instance, claims that Vatican II contains dangerous “doctrinal ambiguities” and accuses Pope Francis of “defending idolatry,” he is not acting in unity with the Pope. This lack of unity means that he is no longer a trustworthy teacher of the Catholic Faith. The local bishop can demand respect and religious assent from his flock only if he himself gives assent to the teaching of the Pope, who is the rock of unity upon which Christ founded the Church.


Image: The Donation of Rome/Sala di Costantino, Musei Vaticani; July 2019. Photo by Slices of Light ✴ █▀ ▀ ▀: https://flic.kr/p/2iMEism. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

Authoritarian popes or rebellious bishops?
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