On January 6, in a move that was unnoticed by most of the world, but has sweeping implications for the Church in Rome and potentially for the global Church in the future, Pope Francis promulgated a new apostolic constitution, “In Ecclesiarum Communione” (“In the Communion of Churches”). In this document, which goes into effect at the end of the month, Pope Francis dramatically reorganizes the administration and governance of the Diocese of Rome, shifting many responsibilities to the pope and giving him more direct authority and oversight over the governance of the diocese.

Traditionally, although the pope often performs ceremonial and pastoral duties in the diocese of Rome (such as ordaining priests and visiting parishes), most of the administrative responsibilities are delegated to the Cardinal Vicar of Rome. Due to the pope’s many obligations and duties in governing and leading the universal Church, the day-to-day affairs of the local diocese are handled by the vicarate. The Cardinal Vicar is charged with overseeing all the territory of the diocese outside the Vatican City State. He lives at the Lateran Palace, alongside St. John Lateran Basilica, which is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome (not St. Peter’s, as many likely assume).

The influence of the Cardinal Vicar was especially high during the Avignon papacy, when the Cardinal Vicar managed the diocese while the pope lived and worked in France. And from September 20, 1870 until the Lateran Treaty of February 11, 1929, no pope would set foot outside Vatican City in a symbolic protest against the Italian Republic. The popes who served during this time considered themselves “Prisoner of the Vatican,” left with only a tiny patch of land to govern after the fall of the papal states. Much of the work, therefore, was left to the Cardinal Vicar.

In Ecclesiarum Communione redefines the role of the Cardinal Vicar, describing him as “auxiliary and vicar general” (Art. 10). It also insists that he must keep the pope informed about affairs within the diocese, saying, “In particular, he will not undertake important initiatives or initiatives exceeding ordinary administration without first reporting to me” (Art. 11). Many have interpreted Pope Francis’s new decree as a power grab, with some mocking his statement that his decision was a reflection of the Church’s “constitutively synodal dimension.” John Allen at Crux wrote a piece on the impact of the decision on the current Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Angelo De Donatis, who has served on behalf of the pope as the de-facto leader of the diocese of Rome since 2017. Was this change made because De Donatis had fallen out of favor with the pope? Was this all about politics?

It’s certainly possible that personal and professional considerations played a role in the diocesan restructuring. You may recall that recently the diocese was caught flat-footed and issued a very defensive response following the allegations of abuse against Fr. Marko Rupnik late last year, for example, and Francis might have decided it was time to get a better handle on the local diocese. But the text of In Ecclesiarum Communione offers a much more spiritually and ecclesially grounded justification for the reform.

In the new Constitution Pope Francis draws attention to the pope’s role as a local bishop, and asserts that as a local bishop, he “exercises his ministry first and foremost by ensuring that the people of God in the diocese entrusted to him are confirmed in faith and charity (cf. Lk 22:32). In this way he first honors the principle that each bishop, by governing well a portion of the universal Church, contributes ‘effectively to the good of the whole mystical body, which is also the body of the churches’” (Lumen Gentium 22).

He goes on to point out,

If every local church is, “each in its own territory, the new people called by God in the Holy Spirit,” I desire that the one in Rome, entrusted to my episcopal service, may shine as an example of the communion of faith and charity, fully involved in the mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God, guardian of the divine hope of welcoming all into his salvation (cf. Is 25:6 ff.).

The reasons for this come from the heart of Catholic Tradition. You might remember that when Pope Francis was elected, many took note of the fact that it was days before he referred to himself as “Pope,” opting instead for the title “Bishop of Rome.” Many criticized this, as if by calling himself the Bishop of Rome he was undercutting his role as Supreme Pontiff. They were mistaken.

According to Catholic teaching, when someone becomes Bishop of Rome, he becomes pope, including everything that goes along with it. The Bishop of Rome, merely by holding the office, is the Successor of Peter and thus the Vicar of Christ, because Christ entrusted Peter and his successors (the bishops of Rome) with this authority and responsibility. The pope has many titles, such as Supreme Pontiff, Primate of Italy, Servant of the Servants of God, and so on. But of all of his titles, “Bishop of Rome” is the only one that is essential, because the holder of that office, by definition, is the Supreme Pastor of the Catholic Church and everything that implies.

Even the title “pope” is not exclusive to the Bishop of Rome. For example, the leader of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, Egypt, is Pope Tawadros II. As the Oriental Orthodox bishop of Alexandria, he comes from a long line of leaders who have used the title “Pope,” dating from the third century or earlier. As one of the five major episcopal sees of the early Church — along with Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem – the leader of the Church in Alexandria, like the leader in Rome, was called pope, and the other three were called patriarchs. The pope of Alexandria is not a competitor with the Roman pope for authority over the universal Church, he simply bears the same honorific, which means “father” — as do many titles we give to priests, including patriarch, abbot, padre, and (obviously) father.

When one understands that the bishop of Rome is the pope, and that there is no distance between the two titles, a concept like the much-maligned “pope emeritus” makes perfect sense.

Sometimes I think Georg Gänswein and I were the only people on the planet who think “Pope Emeritus” is a perfectly appropriate title for a retired pope. Since the 1970s, following a change to church law regarding episcopal retirement, diocesan bishops typically served as leaders (or “ordinaries”) of a diocese for life. It’s hard to imagine now because it has become so common, but the idea of waiting for a bishop’s retirement after his 75th birthday (or even waiting for a cardinal to turn 80) is relatively recent.

Until a few decades ago, rather than being thrown a retirement party and given a fancy apartment, when a bishop became old or incapacitated, they were usually assigned an adjutor bishop, who would assist in the governance of the diocese and take over when the former bishop died. One imagines that not every bishop-adjutor relationship was harmonious. In the rare cases where a reigning bishop did step down, such as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen from the Diocese of Rochester, NY, in 1969, he would be assigned a new “titular see,”[1] breaking his relationship with their former diocese. In Sheen’s case, he was “transferred” to the titular Archdiocese of Newport and promoted to archbishop.

Cardinals, meanwhile, had the right to vote in a conclave for life, prior to the reforms by Pope Paul VI. Until the first half of the 20th century, the college of cardinals was much smaller and mostly Italian, with a minority of members from other (mostly European) countries. Outside of Europe, the first cardinal from the United States was appointed in 1875, the first from Canada was in 1886, and the first modern cardinal from Africa was named in 1960.

Today, retired bishops and non-voting cardinals are common. Hardly anyone bats an eye. Retired bishops are still addressed as “Bishop,” and when they’re replaced by a new bishop, no one thinks they’re still in charge. Retired Cardinals still wear red and are addressed as “Cardinal.” No one thinks (for example) that Cardinal Wuerl still runs the Archdiocese of Washington, and because he’s over 80, they won’t let him vote in a conclave.

Even still, as “Archbishop Emeritus of Washington,” Wuerl, even though he has no power of governance, still has a spiritual connection to the archdiocese he once led. He still wears red. He is still a cardinal.

In the case of Pope Benedict, he was the retired Bishop of Rome. Bishops of Rome happen to wear white. They happen to carry the title of “Pope.” Bishops of Rome, in addition to leading the diocese, happen to be the successor of Peter and have authority over the universal Church.

When Bishops of Rome step down, like emeritus bishops anywhere else, they no longer have power of governance. And it would seem to make sense that, like any bishop emeritus, they still maintain a spiritual connection to the diocese they once led. In the case of the Bishop of Rome, however, much more comes along with the office, including the role of universal pastor of the entire Church. Why wouldn’t a former bishop of Rome keep a spiritual connection to that, also?

In light of this, the logic of using the title of “Pope Emeritus” is clearly evident. Of course we’d still refer to him as “pope.” Of course he still wears white. Of course he no longer has the authority to govern. Of course he has a spiritual connection to both Rome and the whole Church.

Further, when Archbishop Gänswein spoke of an “expanded Petrine ministry,” he said nothing wrong. These words were not intended to imply that Benedict had any authority over the governance of the Church. Benedict had no claim whatsoever on his old job. But, having been pope and Bishop of Rome, in retirement from those positions he still maintained a link to the Petrine office. “Petrine,” like “Pope,” isn’t exclusive to the Roman Pontiff.

Benedict knew this well. Traditionally, three of the five major episcopal sees were considered “Petrine” due to their connection to St. Peter: the Churches in Antioch and Rome because they were founded by Peter, and the Church in Alexandria, which was founded by his disciple St. Mark. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger authored a document on Petrine primacy, in which he referred to this: “the Catholic Church is well aware of the role of the apostolic sees in the early Church, especially those considered Petrine — Antioch and Alexandria — as reference-points of the Apostolic Tradition.” Of course, by “Petrine,” he meant that these sees had a historical connection to Peter, not that their bishops are the highest authority in the universal Church. Likewise, “Pope Emeritus” also indicates a connection to St. Peter without claiming authority over the Church.

Sadly, none of this was ever explained very well. And I think part of this is because the pope and his connection to the local Church of Rome has become obscured over time. Many of the early Church fathers looked to the local Church of Rome as the model for all other Christian Churches. And the current situation — where the Bishop of Rome is viewed exclusively as an international leader but not as the bishop of his local diocese — seems far from the traditional ideal. We can see remnants of this traditional view of the fathers quoted in the Catechism (834):

Particular Churches are fully catholic through their communion with one of them, the Church of Rome “which presides in charity.” “For with this church, by reason of its pre-eminence, the whole Church, that is the faithful everywhere, must necessarily be in accord.” Indeed, “from the incarnate Word’s descent to us, all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [at Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior’s promise, the gates of hell have never prevailed against her.”

Some might associate the “Church of Rome” with the entire Latin or Western Church subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff. But those of us outside the Diocese of Rome have our own local bishops, each with his own right to govern. He certainly must look to the pope on matters of faith and morals and must be obedient to his authority, but he is a brother bishop to the pope, and the pope is “first among equals.” And yet, unlike every other diocesan ordinary, the example that has been provided by the pope for centuries is of someone who delegates away his governing responsibilities to others — even, at one point, moving to another country altogether.

A true understanding of the importance of the Church of Rome and the governance of the local diocese seems to be at the heart of this new directive, and if so, it should be welcomed by the faithful.


[1] A titular see is a former diocese that no longer functions. Bishops who are not assigned to lead a diocese, such as auxiliary bishops, papal nuncios, and others who serve in administrative positions are each assigned a titular see.

Image: Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II in Egypt, 2017. Vatican Media.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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