Reese Speaks "On Reforming the Vatican"

By Helen Brinich

Photograph of Fr. Reese.Fr. Reese's light touch about a serious topic was much appreciated by FutureChurch supporters. Photo by Jim Metrisin

Fr. Thomas Reese SJ was very interested in how the Vatican operates even before Church hierarchy forced his resignation as editor of the Jesuit weekly America in 2005. His 1998 book Inside the Vatican addressed the politics and organization of the Catholic Church, and did a great job of helping the average lay person understand the sometimes archaic inner workings of church political and administrative structures. Reform of these very structures was Reese’s topic when he addressed over 250 enthusiastic FutureChurch benefactors at an annual fundraising banquet held October 8 in Cleveland.

Father Reese believes that the Church can learn how to organize itself from secular institutions and proposed that the Vatican adopt the best practices of the political world to make itself more collegial. Its organization is not divinely inspired. Throughout Catholic history, the Pope adopted the practices of secular governments and power became more centralized over time. Today, the church’s governance is more centralized than ever before with the Pope holding executive, legislative and judicial power.

But it was not always so. When St. Peter arrived in Rome to be its Bishop, said Reese, he did not set up a court of bishops and cardinals. He had only a secretary to help him. By the fourth century notaries had become permanent fixtures, trained and experienced men who kept records, wrote letters, took minutes. By the thirteenth century the apostolic chancery had evolved. The chancellor was the most important adviser and assistant to the pope. From this a papal court evolved with a college of cardinals that met frequently, advised the pope and had one power not given to secular courts: the power to elect the pope.

Photograph of FutureChurch benefit volunteers Lou Keim, Ann Wacker, Carol Lavelle, and Dante Parete.Benefit volunteers (l to r) Lou Keim, Ann Wacker, Carol Lavelle and Dante Parete helped create a festive evening. Photo by Jim Metrisin

Pope Leo I (440-461) declared that no one could be a bishop unless he was elected by the clergy, accepted by the people, and consecrated by the bishops of his province. Kings and nobles circumvented this democratic process over the years by the use of force. But by the nineteenth century, most Catholic monarchs had been deposed and the papacy appointed most bishops, a modern convention..

In the early days, bishops met in regional councils to work out theology. Ecumenical councils had a lot of independence. Theologians were considered to be the Magisterium. In the past two centuries, power to decide theological issues has became far more centralizized, and today only the pope, various Vatican offices and bishops together are considered to be the Magisterium.

Reese suggested the Vatican could adopt governance structures from the civil society of today, which has eliminated the nobility, provided for a separation of powers with checks and balances and operates like a bureaucracy not a court. The following criteria would be necessary:

  1. No Vatican bureaucrat should be made a bishop or a cardinal. The bureaucracy should serve the bishops, not be part of the Magistarium.
  2. Legislative bodies in the Church should be strengthened. No member of the bureaucracy should be a member of the bishops’ synod. Synods should meet regularly.
  3. Congregations should be converted into synodal committees which could exercise oversight.
  4. There should be an independent judiciary.
  5. Bishops should be elected.
  6. Strengthen Episcopal Conferences by making them Episcopal Councils. Local churches should be trusted.

These measure would provide collegiality and subsidiarity, a return to tradition.

Photograph of FutureChurch board member Kathleen Thomas and volunteer Dante Parete.(l to r) FutureChurch board member Kathleen Thomas and Dante Parete have fun selling raffle tickets for the benefit (we're so grateful). Photo by Jim Metrisin

No governing structure is perfect, Father Reese reminded. Spiritual reform and conversion are more important than organizational reform. But organizational reform is important What are the chances of such reforms actually taking place? Said Reese: “As a social scientist, I’d have to say they’re probably close to zero. But as a Catholic Christian, I still have to hope. The Church is open to Redemption. We have faith in Christ’s victory over sin.” He concluded, “ The future of the Church is based on faith, hope and love.”

(Helen Brinich is a long time volunteer with FutureChurch)


Focus on FutureChurch

Fall 2009


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