“I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’”.

—Pope Francis

Not a few Catholics have been confused by Pope Francis´s statements about the need for decentralization in Church governance.

Some fear this approach, since they think this decentralization might also be applied to moral issues. This would be tantamount to “nationalizing” morality and relativizing truth. At every synod during this papacy, there have been targeted criticisms against the pope by those who fear the results of this ecclesial process.

I believe these fears are unfounded. The moral content of the Church’s doctrine is not at stake. Pope Francis´s decentralization does not mean decentralizing doctrine. What is being addressed is the improvement of structures and processes at the institutional level.

The International Theological Commission (ITC) says in its March 2018 Document on Synodality that,

“Synodality denotes the particular style that qualifies the life and mission of the Church, expressing her nature as the People of God journeying together and gathering in assembly, summoned by the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel … In a more specific sense, which is determined from a theological and canonical point of view, synodality denotes those structures and ecclesial processes in which the synodal nature of the Church is expressed at an institutional level, but analogously on various levels: local, regional and universal. These structures and processes are officially at the service of the Church, which must discover the way to move forward by listening to the Holy Spirit.”

The same ITC document goes on to distinguish synodality from collegiality:

While the concept of synodality refers to the involvement and participation of the whole People of God in the life and mission of the Church, the concept of collegiality defines the theological significance and the form of a) the exercise of the ministry of Bishops in the service of the local Church entrusted to the care of each of them, and b) of the communion between local Churches at the heart of the one universal Church of Christ, brought about by means of the hierarchical communion of the College of Bishops with the Bishop of Rome.

Collegiality is thus the specific form in which ecclesial synodality is manifested and made real through the ministry of Bishops on the level of communion of the local Churches in a region, and on the level of communion of all the Churches in the universal Church.”

This approach to ecclesial synodality was also expressed by Pope Francis in a 2015 speech, when citing Evangelii Gaudium 16:

“In a synodal Church, as I have said, ‘it is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.’”

My secular, professional experience in governance, risk, and compliance enables me to see and appreciate Pope Francis´s vision of promoting a sound decentralization within the Church.

This does not mean that every aspect of governance can be dealt with at a local or regional level. Some matters must be escalated to a higher level. The ITC document states that “An authentic manifestation of synodality naturally entails the exercise of the collegial ministry of the Bishops” (7). The commission reinforces the point that there has long been a precedent of this in the Church, quoting a third century canon, which stated:

“The Bishops of each nation must recognise the one who is first among them and consider him their head, doing nothing significant without his agreement … but the first among them must do nothing without the consensus of all” (27).

Pope Francis spoke in the same vein at the October 2015 ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, where he explained,

The Synod always acts cum Petro et sub Petro — indeed, not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro — is not a limitation of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. For the Pope is, by will of the Lord, “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful”. Closely related to this is the concept of “hierarchica communio” as employed by the Second Vatican Council: the Bishops are linked to the Bishop of Rome by the bond of episcopal communion (cum Petro) while, at the same time, hierarchically subject to him as head of the college (sub Petro)”

In a nutshell, when concerns can’t be dealt with at the local level by the bishops, they are escalated at the synod level. When this happens, the pope always confirms the faithful in their faith after listening to the sensus fidei and discerning collectively where the Holy Spirit blows. It is wrongheaded to accuse the pope of intending to allow the synod to be a way to spread heterodoxy. All points of view may be discussed, but in the end, the pope settles the discussion and safeguards doctrine.

Pope Francis sees the synodal process as a way to listen more clearly to the concerns and needs of the Church at large. The laity (especially women) have never been more involved in this process. Notably, Episcopalis Communio (EC), an apostolic constitution published by Pope Francis, made the laity an official part of the synod discussions. This document is part of ongoing developments in the synodal structure, something that was envisioned in earlier pontificates dating back to Vatican II. EC explains:

When instituting the Synod as a ‘special permanent council of sacred Pastors’, Paul VI knew that ‘like every human institution, [it] could be further improved with the passage of time’. Its later development has been fed on the one hand by ongoing reception of the fruitful conciliar teaching on episcopal collegiality and on the other hand by the experience of the numerous Synodal Assemblies held in Rome since 1967” (4)

If I were to back up what Paul VI said about every human institution, I would say his foresight was right. In centralized models, all decision-making is done at the top level. In decentralized ones, decision-making can be delegated throughout the organization, but the overall approval and ultimate decision-maker of the output is still done at the top. This is necessary to confirm that each decision is aligned with the organization’s mission and vision.

In decentralized models, responsibilities may be transferred from the centralized domain to the local domain. This does not mean, however, that the final approval is not given at the top level. The top-level decision-makers are still accountable for the overall, final decision. Yet a process of decentralization and delegation means matters can be decided and implemented with greater expediency and effectiveness.

Additionally, decentralization is not just about decision-making but improving processes and procedures through structural reorganizations.

As far as the Church is concerned, decentralization can be understood as a sort of a pastoral governance model. By allowing everyone to be heard, this model allows the Church to “scrutinize the signs of times” to bring to the modern world “the light kindled by the gospel” (Gaudium Et Spes 3).

Amendments to Church law governing liturgical translation can also be an example of a decentralization effort under Pope Francis. While the Holy See has the final authority and is the approver to say “yes” or “no” to a proposed translation, it is no longer part of the final stage of the translation process. They simply confirm the results at the very end. This will allow translations to be done by people who are more familiar with the vernacular languages, with greater speed and less bureaucracy, while still safeguarding orthodoxy (since the pope grants final approval).

But this decentralization does not apply to doctrine, at least not in the sense of creating “disunity” in terms of interpreting “truth.” Francis’s idea of decentralization does not mean that the truths of the faith can be changed. Employing decentralization is structural, not doctrinal. Decentralization is Francis’s preferred pastoral governance approach, because it enables him to effectively listen to the voice of the People of God and get their input and feedback. With this decentralization, Francis can place greater emphasis on synodality, discerning, accompanying, and evangelizing.

Since the First Vatican Council, there has been an increasing centralization on the figure of the pope, and not only on doctrinal matters. The Second Vatican Council called for greater collegiality but according to Pope Francis, this has not yet been fully realized. Francis intends to further clarify his ideas on this matter, since the 2022 Synod will be on precisely the topic of synodality. However, one thing is certain: If Peter sees fit to decentralize his responsibilities, he can. We believe that Truth Himself gave the keys to Peter. We have nothing to fear, as long as this decentralization is done with and under Peter.


Image by: Claire Navarro Domingues, August 2011 

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Claire Navarro is a Filipina global IT professional now living in Portugal with her husband, Pedro Gabriel.  She was active in Catholic apologetics and pro-life initiatives back in the Philippines.

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