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Cutting the Vatican down to size

Michael Walsh
4 April 2005

The long papacy of John Paul II has ended. How will his successor be chosen, and what light does the process cast upon the way the Roman Catholic Church is governed?

The procedure for a conclave, as the election of a new pope is called, derives in its essentials from the 13th century. When Pope Gregory IX died in 1241, the process of choosing his successor was taking so long that the cardinals were rounded up and locked into one of the papal palaces (along with Gregory’s coffin) until they had decided. It still took seventy days.

Also in openDemocracy on the Catholic church and democracy:

Neal Ascherson, “Pope John Paul II and democracy”

Austen Ivereigh, “Through the Vatican white smoke”

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The procedure was formalised by the Council of Lyons in 1274, and has more or less been followed ever since though the rigours of the council’s regulations have been considerably eased. The cardinals no longer have to live, sleep, and vote all in one room, and their rations are no longer docked if they fail to reach a quick decision. They are, however, still locked in (con clave means, literally, “with a key”), and until the late pontiff proposed they might sleep in a hotel within the Vatican City, they lived in some discomfort in whatever rooms were to hand around the Sistine Chapel. The whole process is surrounded with secrecy; John Paul II even instructed that the Sistine Chapel and the cardinals’ quarters be swept for listening devices.

As an exercise in open democracy, the conclave is clearly a non-starter. The problem is finding an alternative. To many liberal-minded Catholics, the solution is evident: the pope should be elected, but not by the cardinals. After all, one or other pope has appointed all the cardinals to their office – and John Paul II himself chose all but three of the 117 who will elect his successor. Instead of the cardinals, the argument runs, the pope should be chosen by a synod of bishops. As members of the bishops’ synod are elected – albeit by their fellow bishops – there would be at least a semblance of greater democracy, possibly even a hint of representative government.

This is a view I do not share. For all the bishops of the world, whether in a general council of the church or in the more manageable synod, to elect the pope would be rather like members of the board electing a CEO. But a CEO for the whole church is precisely not the role of a bishop of Rome. True, in some people’s understanding he may be a CEO in his own diocese, but he is not theologically CEO of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a role the popes have taken upon themselves.

The present system of election by cardinals preserves the fiction that the pope, as Bishop of Rome, is elected by members of his own diocese; thus, the cardinals all hold “titular” appointments in and around Rome. This is a 1,000-year old practice which it will be difficult to change – but it cannot really be changed until the role of the Bishop of Rome itself is drastically revised, and downgraded from that of a CEO. No matter how desirable, that is not going to happen in the near future. A campaign for greater democracy in the church should start elsewhere.

Two steps to reform

There are, I suggest, two steps that might more easily be taken. First, the process of choosing bishops in diocese other than Rome could be made more open and democratic. Canon law at present expects “soundings” to be taken, and forwarded to Rome by members of the Vatican’s diplomatic staff. Also, diocesan bishops themselves are expected regularly to suggest the names of possible future bishops to Rome. It is questionable whether Rome ought to have any say in this process at all, but that is a different issue.

I would propose that the process be made far more transparent, and that Rome be expected in normal circumstances to accept the decision arrived at in each diocese. More to the point, however, is the process of consultation itself. It ought to be wide. Papal diplomats are expected to talk to leading Catholics – and I think they do – but what group of people, in nuncios’ minds, constitute “leading Catholics”? Why not include everyone in this process?

The obvious way of doing this is by democratic election of bishops. Of course this process is not without its problems. One such democratic election in Rome – albeit in the 4th century – left over 150 people dead. That may not be typical, but the evidence, such as it is, suggests that the system did not really work too well. Maybe the situation has changed, but I doubt that the church is going to be ready for so much democracy in the near future. Possibly a more satisfactory means of encouraging greater democracy in the church, at least for now, is a process of widespread consultation followed by a decision taken, not by the nuncio or in Rome, but in a diocesan synod.

This brings me to the second step. It is the law of the church that only priests may hold juridical authority. I realise there is a theological argument why this should be so, but I don’t find it convincing: why should eucharistic leadership entail leadership in every significant area of the church’s life? I would therefore like to see diocesan synods made up of lay people as well as clergy, whose decisions should be binding (otherwise people would not take the synods seriously).

There are, admittedly, all sorts of problems with synodal government. Such problems are experienced both in the Orthodox churches and in the Church of England. But clergy in the Roman Catholic Church currently are unaccountable – except, oddly, in financial matters – to the lay people whom they exist to serve, and upon whom they very largely depend for their salaries. This situation ought not to be allowed to survive long into the next papacy.

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