Francis' radical reform club

“Revolution does not easily come to mind when we think of the papacy.” Those words appeared in the opening lines of a book that Archbishop Emeritus John R. Quinn of San Francisco published in 1999. The Reform of the Papacy: the costly call to Christian unity was a response of the former president of the US bishops’ conference to John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, in which the late Pope asked Christian leaders to help him find a new “way of exercising (papal) primacy”, writes Robert Mickens in The Tablet.

Archbishop Quinn said that, similar to the Second Vatican Council, the encyclical was a “revolution”. As he writes in the book, “For the first time it is the Pope himself who raises and legitimises the question of reform and change in the papal office in the Church.” But nearly two decades later, no such reform or change has been seriously discussed in Rome, let alone put into motion.

Pope Francis may have just changed that. In an announcement last week that should not have come as a complete surprise, the new Pope sparked fresh hope that reforming the way in which the Bishop of Rome exercises his global ministry was now back on the agenda.

“The Holy Father Francis, taking up a suggestion that emerged during the general congregations preceding the conclave, has established a group of [eight] cardinals to advise him in the government of the Universal Church and to study a plan for revising the apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus,” said a communiqué on Saturday from the Vatican.

Most commentators interpreted this almost exclusively as the Pope’s response to the VatiLeaks scandal – the launching of an operation to “clean up” the corruption, careerism and inefficiency that the leaks highlighted in the Church’s central bureaucracy.

The pundits even suggested that what prompted him to take such action was a large, top-secret report drawn up by three elderly cardinals who ­investigated the scandal. Only Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, have seen the classified dossier.

However, this seems to be a simplistic reading of the new initiative and one that overlooks its more radical or, as Archbishop Quinn would say, “revolutionary” intention; that is, fundamentally to change the way the Universal Church is governed. More profound thinkers have read the Pope’s creation of a group of advisers as a bold new step towards fully implementing a model of ecclesial government evoked by the Second Vatican Council – one that is less centralised, more collegial and based on the principles of ­subsidiarity. 

“What Pope Francis has announced is the most important step in the history of the Church of the last 10 centuries and in the 50-year period of reception of Vatican II,” said the noted church historian Alberto Melloni. Writing in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, he said the Pope had “created a synodal organ of bishops that must experiment with the exercise of the consilium”. In other words, shared governance of the Church between the Bishop of Rome and all the world’s bishops.

FULL STORY Francis' radical reform club (Tablet)

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