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catholic dialogue

By Isabella Moyer


Subsidiarity in the church not always a good thing

11/18/2015Dennis Gruending

My last column focused on Pope Francis’ call for a synodal church, a church of “walking together — laity, pastors, the bishop of Rome.” Francis’ reform vision also includes a more decentralized church. A synodal, decentralized church is a church of collegiality and subsidiarity.

A decentralized church is not always a good thing. What if your local church is ruled by iron-handed episcopal edicts, focused on creating a purer church? What if your bishop spends more time delivering judgmental diatribes than compassionate messages of gospel love and hope? Would you want your bishop to have even more decision-making power in your diocese?

Diversity among our bishops is no surprise. It is also no surprise that some bishops have strong views around certain issues.

Sometimes, though, strong views produce a “Lone Ranger” mentality. This can result in a one-man crusade out of synch with the work of the pope and other bishops.

Collegiality and subsidiarity became a rallying cry during the Second Vatican Council. Collegiality called for a greater sharing in the leadership of the church among the bishops in union with the pope. Subsidiarity acknowledged that decisions should not be imposed from above if they can be made effectively and wisely at a more immediate or local level.

Sadly, the church became increasingly centralized during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Synods discouraged open dialogue and became exercises for bishops to show their allegiance to the pope.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took on the air of the old inquisitions, focusing on silencing questioners and banishing theologians.

Liturgical decisions, such as the stilted and awkward English re-write of the Roman Missal, were imposed from on high with no regard of local cultures and language.

Today’s social media makes silencing of dialogue increasingly difficult. We no longer expect the church to look the same in all corners of the world. Local churches, while observing and listening to the needs of their people, should have the right to interpret and implement certain church regulations and customs within their cultures. It is time for greater subsidiarity in our church, balanced with collegiality.

Collegiality does not mean mind-numbing uniformity of thought. Healthy difference in thought, and respectful dialogue around that difference, allows us to be open to growth and a deeper understanding of our faith. Collegiality insures that we are all journeying in the same direction, even if our paths are not the same. Most bishops understand and live this collegial spirit.

Collegial bishops are not threatened by diversity or open dialogue. Collegial bishops are the pastoral men who, like Francis, come with the “smell of the sheep” on them and know the needs of those they serve. Collegial bishops seldom seek the spotlight. In the recent synod, some of the most inspiring and promising voices for the church came from lesser-known bishops.

“Lone Ranger” leaders prefer to “go it alone,” regardless of what the pope is saying or their fellow bishops are doing. Some relish and seek the limelight. The words and actions of these bishops often make headlines precisely because they appear at odds with the larger church. Here are some examples.

Instead of following Pope Francis’ model of focusing on the essentials of the faith, the kerygma, “culture warrior” bishops continue to obsess on issues of sexuality.

While the pope calls for a poorer, simpler church, the “bishop blings” of the world continue to pour money into episcopal mansions and grandiose buildings.

Despite calls for a more compassionate and inclusive church, some bishops use reprehensible language to demonize homosexuality and gender ideology.

Instead of opening doors, wall-building bishops force Catholic employees to sign unreasonable morality contracts. Others pronounce automatic excommunications for Catholics associated with reform movements in the church, or even for voting for a specific candidate or party.

These are just a few examples of bishops whose words and actions have made headlines, divided communities, and turned many away from the church. Instead of a collegial spirit, these bishops regard their diocese as their own personal fiefdom to be ruled according to their will. And, it is the People of God who suffer.

Dialogue, mercy, compassion, and inclusivity should be marks of the universal church, and not dependent on the man who is currently occupying the cathedra of the diocese. Decentralization, or subsidiarity, will work only if all the bishops share a similar vision of the church.

Speaking to a gathering of the Italian church in Florence, Pope Francis said, “We are not living an era of changes but a change of era.” His greatest challenge may be in changing the minds and hearts of some of his bishops.

Moyer blogs at and also writes for the National Catholic Reporter blog, NCR Today. She lives in Gimli, Man., with her husband David. They have five adult children and four grandchildren.