In the years leading up to Vatican II, one of the most common complaints of bishops worldwide was the over-centralization of the Church. To many bishops it seemed that Vatican bureaucracies micromanaged the daily life of the Church. Bishops weren’t shepherds, they were just middle managers following the directions of back-office Vatican monsignors.
When asked for items for the upcoming council’s agenda, the Melkite Catholic bishops said this Vatican over-centralization was a “principal evil,” arguing that too many Catholic theologians and canonists gave “practically sovereign and completely centralized power to the Roman Curia.” Vatican II was supposed to balance out this tendency by complementing the papal primacy declared by Vatican I with the real authority of bishops in their dioceses. On paper, this happened in some respect, but in practice it has not, as can be seen most recently in a rather bizarre case coming out of the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia.
In response to last year’s papal motu proprio Traditionis Custodes restricting the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, Bishop Stephen D. Parkes of Savannah contacted the Vatican Dicastery for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments regarding the status of the TLM communities in his diocese. According to Bishop Parkes, the Dicastery responded by informing him of exactly which parishes in his diocese could celebrate the TLM and how often, as well as directing him to have all TLM’s discontinued as of May of next year.
I didn’t believe this news report when I first read it. It is just too bizarre. Is it really true that some Vatican bureaucrat specifically directed a bishop as to which parishes in that bishop’s diocese can celebrate the TLM, how often, and for how long? And that the bishop simply implemented those directions as is? Apparently so.
Before we go on, let me be clear: this article is not about the TLM or about the “liturgy wars.” With Cardinals Cupich and Gregory imposing draconian and heartless restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass, it’s clear that those debates are important, but that’s not the fundamental problem in the case of Savannah. It’s far deeper. The issue is ecclesiology: the Church’s teaching about the fundamental structure and governance of the Church itself.
We know from divine revelation that Our Lord instituted a hierarchical Church. It is led by the successors to the apostles, the bishops, who have as their head the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome. This hierarchical structure is of divine origin.
What is not of divine origin are the many and varied structures and organizations that have been created over the centuries to support that hierarchy. Diocesan chancery positions are not of divine origin. National bishops’ conferences are not of divine origin. And not one iota of the Roman Curia—not a single Vatican office other than the papacy itself—is of divine origin.
Don’t get me wrong: the Church needs certain supporting structures in order to run efficiently for the salvation of souls. But these structures are man-made and are intended to serve the divinely-instituted hierarchy, not the other way around. Further, these structures can be changed and adapted over the years as the needs of the Church develop.
The Savannah directives exemplify the kind of micromanagement we see today from the Vatican that would have stupefied many popes of the past. St. Gregory the Great, who was perhaps the greatest administrator pope in history, would have been horrified by the idea that some underling of his—or even he himself!—should be directing bishops on the administration of their dioceses. Even St. Gregory the VII, who began the process of centralization in the Church to combat deep 11th century corruption, would never have imagined this level of direct Vatican influence on individual bishops.
Bishops are called to be in union with Peter, their head. But “union with Peter” is not the same thing as being a middle manager waiting for orders each day from the boss’s assistants at headquarters. Being a bishop isn’t like being a Panera store manager asking when to switch out the seasonal smoothies. Do we think St. Thomas the Apostle checked in with St. Peter from India before making any big decisions on how to minister to his converts? Or that St. Matthew was writing to the head apostle from Ethiopia for instructions before preaching to the pagans?
How this Savannah decree came about is unclear. Bishop Parkes of Savannah could have just made these decisions on his own. That would be bad enough. It’s possible he requested direction from the Vatican only in order to deflect the blame for a decision he knew would be unpopular. Better to have a bad guy across the ocean than one down at the local chancery. Or he really might not have known what to do and wanted the Dicastery to decide for him. But regardless of why Parkes asked Rome to do his job, it reflects poorly on him. For he is essentially admitting that a monsignor sitting behind a desk in some Vatican back office knows Savannah’s sheep better than their own shepherd.
Catholics today need to take a long, hard look at the over-centralization of the Church. This does not mean we need to embrace a full-blown Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology, which is showing its own problems in recent years with various Orthodox churches in schism with each other. And we must reject the faux-“synodality” proclaimed by the Vatican, which simply gives a collegial cover to a ruthless centralization.
A robust and truly Catholic ecclesiology acknowledges bishops as true shepherds of their dioceses. As shepherds, they are not there to declare new doctrines or lead their sheep away from the traditions of the Church. They exist to serve their sheep, hand on what they’ve been given, and protect them. To do that, their focus must be constantly set upon their sheep, not on the whims of faraway bureaucrats who know little of the specific needs of their diocese.
[Image: Bishop Stephen D. Parkes of Savannah]