From One CEO to Another

In today's Boston Globe, the former CEO of John Hancock, David D'Alessandro, in an essay "Sell art, and keep parishes open," suggests that the Vatican sell off some of its minor art collections in order to financially support places like Boston which are reeling from the costs of abuse settlements. Writing from Italy, the whole thing has a Luther-esque feel of disillusionment with the grandeur of Rome.

In the essay, D'Alessandro uses the language of "parent" companies to describe the relationship of Rome to Roman Catholic dioceses, which brings up an interesting ecclesiological issue. Any ecclesiologist worth her salt will talk about how the church is not supposed to be conceived of as a central office with "branches" in the various parts of the world; Joseph Komonchak of Catholic University has done more to contest this viewpoint than almost anyone. With a few exceptions, even those most insistent on the 1870 definition of papal "universal jurisdiction" at the First Vatican Council (rightly understood by our Orthodox and Protestant brothers and sisters to be far more dangerous, and far more incongruous with the wider Christian tradition, than the definitions of infallibility) regard universal jurisdiction as a guarantee of last resort, rather than an ideal for ecclesial governance.

And yet, as D'Alessandro's article makes clear, current Catholic praxis looks much more like that of Starbucks or WalMart. All rhetorical nods to the centrality of the local church aside, current Roman Catholic praxis, from the appointment of bishops to the setting of "the rules", as D'Alessandro phrases it, make it easier to see the papacy as an office more analogous to a CEO than to a primate -- even defining what primacy means for most Catholics. Even so-called renewal groups in the Catholic church like the local Voice of the Faithful maintain a very ultramontanist ecclesiology: I was amazed that at the first VOTF conference one of the major actions envisioned was a mass petition...to the pope. Here was the conflict of a movement towards renewal with deeply ingrained issues of identity that didn't challenge the ecclesiological presuppositions that had contributed to the crisis as much as the actual decisions of Cardinal Law and his assistants.

Now, as a Roman Catholic, I'm not dissenting from the 1870 definitions outright, because I do think that the petrine ministry involves exactly the sort of "last appeal" which the definitions envision; see Jean Tillard's The Bishop of Rome for a reading of Pastor Aeternus that many other Christians might be comfortable with, without denying the centrality of papal primacy to either the Catholic faith or current Roman Catholic ideas of identity. But it should give us pause that the identification of the pope as "CEO of the Catholic Church" comes to the pen of D'Alessandro and to the minds and experience of most Catholics so easily.

Additionally, D'Alessandro's ideas are intriguing; his tone of anger is quite honest, as is his obvious love for the church, particularly his local church of Boston, struggling under the weight of the last five years. His solution stays well within an understanding of church as Walmart, though, but that might be the wise thing to do. Is it acceptable that the Roman Catholic church maintains a praxis of centralization except in those situations where the center might be held institutionally (read: financially) responsible? Why is the language of subsidiarity, of the integrity of the local church, not invoked when bishops are appointed for a local church, but is dusted off and re-used when those same bishops make a wreck of it? Two ecclesiologies are operative here, and are being used ideologically, that is, different systems of understanding the relations between Rome and the local church are invoked depending upon which system is more convenient for the problem at hand. I might want to see more responsibility taken at the local level for the local church, both in good and bad, but D'Alessandro's proposal at least has the merit of calling the Vatican to a responsibility for the mistakes of its "franchises" consistent with its praxis. You can't have as much of a role in managing the life of the local churches as Rome currently has and then beg off responsibility for those churches in trouble by appealing to a different ecclesiology.

(And who ever said ecclesiology, or theology for that matter, was abstract or boring?!)


Nate said...

I commented on this on my own blog, if you'd like to take a look.

BaptizedPagan said...

I'm putting this comment on my blog and yours, don't know if that follows blogosphere etiquette or not...

I think your point is crucial: being decentralized doesn't mean, and can't mean, being isolated. Some free church Christians (for example, Miroslav Volf) suggest that while explicit visible unity and support is a good, in the absence of that unity an "openness" to other churches is all that could or should be required of a local church with regard to its neighbors.

The Catholic (and the Orthodox and many other Protestant) positions is different. As you point out, it has obvious biblical roots; plus, the practice of the early church functioned more like a network rather than a hub and spokes, carrying on the tradition of Paul's collection for the church at Jerusalem.

Frankly, the response of the U.S. bishops' conference to the situation here in Boston, despite the delay in reaction, has much to recommend it. Being in communion means more than simply speaking nicely about people; it also means a willingness to be involved in another person's problems and, if need be, gently correcting them...Aristotle's ideas of friendship might be a guide for evaluating how local churches are or are not working for the best of their sister churches.