Is Pope Francis preparing for the apocalypse in the church? I hope so.


If you’re not a Vaticanist, the announcement of the Roman Curia’s reform plan on March 17 might have sounded like pretty standard Catholic gibberish. What is the Roman Curia? And why should I care about dicasteries? Does that mean I can start eating meat again on Friday? If not, why are we talking about it?

But in the midst of the release of the reform document (which was actually a big deal for many reasons), Vatican experts recognized something that could actually change things for you and me in potentially massive ways. As one theological expert who worked on the constitution put it, the Vatican seems to be saying that “the power to govern in the Church does not come from the sacrament of [Holy] Orders” but of his mission in the church. In other words, holding leadership positions in the church should not require a collar, ordaining, or being a man.

If this interpretation turns out to be correct for the Vatican, it would not only mean that most departments in the dusty but incredibly well-decorated halls of Rome can be run by women and men who are not priests, but that our local parishes and dioceses could. Your sister could possibly be in charge of the parish where I say mass; my aunt Kathleen or my uncle Stan might even end up leading the diocese one day! (And they would be awesome.)

Let us remember that almost all of our Catholic schools are run by incredibly talented women and men who are not priests, and in most cases have been for decades.

If that sounds hard to believe, let’s remember that almost all of our Catholic schools are run by incredibly talented women and men who aren’t priests, and in most cases have been for decades. The same goes for our Catholic social service agencies, our homeless shelters, and just about every other Catholic institution. Even some parishes are already led by “lay administrators” who effectively serve as pastors.

So it’s an expansion of a pre-existing idea, but on a much more radical scale. Basically, it’s like the time the internet became a thing, but for church authority – a change that could expand access to leadership so drastically that it would entirely transform our church.

Welcome to the future! Everything is finally happening!

Or so I thought, until some diocesan priest friends rolled their eyes so hard at my enthusiasm that I thought they were going to fall. “Do you really think the leaders of the church are about to hand over some of their authority?” I was asked. “What channel are you watching? »

“Well, it’s not like they’re going to have a choice, is it?” I was wondering. The thing is, there just aren’t that many priests these days.

“Yes, and how does the management react? another asked. “Are they expanding the pool of people eligible for ordination, finally opening the doors to women or married people? No. They close and consolidate parishes, which imposes even more work on us. Meanwhile, in an attempt to increase membership, they also open up the seminaries to more reactionary men who end up causing trouble.

And in Rome, even as Pope Francis has appointed more women to leadership positions in the Vatican than ever before, america Colleen Dulle points out that only one dicastery (department) currently has a non-cleric in charge, and Francis himself had to fight hard just to allow the appointment of a woman in the No. 2 role of this group. Meanwhile, the head of the Vatican’s women’s magazine has quit after she was barred from reporting on nuns in Rome who were sexually assaulted by the bishops and cardinals they worked for.

We are already in a situation where there are not enough priests, and we are seeing the impact of this on everything from pastoral work to the morale of the priests themselves.

Maybe this new reform document isn’t like the internet revolution after all. Maybe it’s like electric cars, which, believe it or not, were first introduced around 1900. Porsche had one; Thomas Edison spoke of their superiority; there were even charging stations, but they were soon abandoned in favor of the combustion-engined Model T. It doesn’t matter if an invention or innovation offers a massive improvement if no one will adopt it.

Pope Francis knows without a doubt that there is a significant portion of Church leaders who will simply reject this idea, even if their parishes and dioceses really need it. He’s had nine years of seeing them do it.

I also can’t believe that he and his advisers don’t see the writing on the wall. In many places, priesthood membership is plummeting. Nearly half of the 37,000 priests in the United States are over 70; the other half would be just over one priest per parish nationwide, except that figure includes more than 11,000 ordained religious, most of whom do not work full-time in parishes. So basically we’re already in a situation where there aren’t enough priests, and we’re seeing the impact of that on everything from pastoral care – trying to find a priest who can come and anoint your loved one can sometimes be almost impossible, even in large cities — to the morale of the priests themselves. As Ms. Dulle reported last week when discussing the reform announcement, the priest-to-parishioner ratio worldwide in 2019 was, similarly, one priest for every 3,245 Catholics.

It’s just not sustainable. We are well past the tipping point when it comes to not just priests providing pastoral leadership, but the sacraments themselves. The institution as we currently experience it simply will not be able to survive, and yet much of our leadership seems content to blame the messenger and insist on the status quo rather than confront this reality. So what to do?

Here’s a thought: What if Francis had spent the last nine years building an ark? He has used his pontificate to denounce clericalism, powerful groups within the Church that have been ignored and have drawn the eyes of the faithful to the needs of the poor and marginalized, to whom he believes our mission belongs. We read these actions as a fix for the present, but perhaps they were just as much about creating a vehicle for the church to have a future. Certainly, what he has laid out in this new document offers exactly the kind of non-clerical basis for authority that the church of the future will need to survive.

Some church leaders may mock the pope, drag their feet, and wink at each other that they will be waiting for his pontificate. But perhaps it was Francis who did the real waiting all along, ensuring the viability of the church to come as the waters continue to rise at our feet.


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