Pope Francis and the Way to Change

Much has been written in the last two month about the need for change in the Vatican. The consensus is not about change in doctrine, but the Vatican bureaucracy itself. The Wikileaks scandal was just one among many situations in which it seemed that an entrenched bureaucracy is in need of reform. Archbishop Vigano‘s leaked accusations spoke of a network of corruption, nepotism and cronyism. Time for a change.

Bloggers speculated about who Pope Francis would appoint to various posts to carry out the clean-up. Those writers revealed the old mind-set that presumes the Pope will always work through a strongly centralized system, the exact pattern that draws criticism and is seen as the source of the problem. Although he might appoint strong leaders for the clean up, this approach would not change the actual structure that allowed the network of power relationships to build up. It would do nothing to prevent the problem from returning — and the second version might be worse than the first.

Pope Francis’ decision to convene a kitchen cabinet — a small group of cardinals from around the globe, most seen as leaders of regional bishops’ conference but without strong ties to the Vatican bureaucracy — has been called a “step towards collegiality” as promoted by Vatican II. Perhaps he recognizes that he cannot use the methods and structures of the previous two papacies to cure the ills and dismantle the unhealthy relationships that were able to grow within that system.

I see a second dynamic at work —

a step towards subsidiarity, the pattern where those who have authority move the responsibility and the decision-making closer to the people who are affected. I’ve wondered how Pope Francis will approach the sex abuse scandals. There were calls for him to swiftly take action about various cases — and there might be justice in that, but nothing that would change the structure. If this is a papacy focused on a culture of subsidiarity, the Church — bishops, local pastors, and all of the People of God — will be surprised to find ourselves facing questions that we previously were asking.

I do not think Pope Francis is going to be feeble in using his authority. But, as he does often in his daily homilies, after spelling out the basic principles, he’s probably going to say, “What’s keeping you? Go out an do what needs to be done.” Centralized authority puts trust and responsibility in just a few hands, who can make it go ill or well. Organizations seem to move towards centralized authority because it seems efficient and reduces the risk that someone will go off course — but this can also stagnate and die. Subsidiarity puts trust and responsibility on a broader range of people who will try more things and take more risks. There are usually some visible failures — but it is also the only way to find dynamically new relationships.

To paraphrase Muste’s famous saying, “There is no way to change: change is the way.”


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