A Vision of Pope Francis’ Reform

About ten years ago I was writing a novel. It was a “papal potboiler”–a thriller about “Petrus Romaus” the final pope from the so called prophecies of St Malachy. I finished the rough draft and then gave up once I realized that 1.that the papal potboiler was a ho hum sub genre of the airport novel thriller 2. that writing a novel like that was like climbing Everest, but getting it published was like climbing Everest again 3. I was no good at writing fiction.

Anyhow, my hero–the pope who followed the pope who followed John Paul II was a mysterious and humble Cardinal from South America. One of the things he did when he became Pope was that he established a new “Apostolic Council” made up of twelve eminent cardinals from around the world to help him rule the church. Amongst them he was “first among equals”. I was therefore intrigued this morning to read Sandro Magister’s article here about how Pope Francis is likely to reform the church. Hey presto! He suggests that one of the reasons Pope Francis is stressing his being the Bishop of Rome is to downplay the global dimension of the papal office and bring into play a more influential role of the already existing Synod of Bishops.

We automatically think of the “reform of the curia” as a negative purgation of the ruling structures of the church. We think heads will roll and offices closed. We think of financial and moral audits taking place and the judgment of the Lord. However, the reform of the church could be, and should be, a much smarter, much more creative and much more positive process. Reform happens best when it is teamed with renewal. Instead of just getting rid of what’s bad the good leader creates such a positive and pro active and forward moving renewal and restructuring that the corruption and old practices–the negativity and narrow mindedness simply don’t work anymore. The positive forward motion becomes irresistible and those who can’t or won’t keep up with it simply get left behind or get out.

Pope Francis could bring forward a ruling council of cardinals around the world–bringing into partnership the finest minds and best men the church has in order to reform and renew the workings of the church–not by simply cleaning house, but by re-orienting the whole thing in a new and fresh direction.

An international “Apostolic Council” with twelve men from around the world would have a grand significance, and would also be a perfect way to re-establish the pattern of the early church where the Bishop of Rome was one patriarch amongst four. Furthermore, it could be the perfect way for the Eastern  Orthodox to be re-united with the Catholic faith. Pope Francis has already referred to the Greek patriarch Bartholomew as “my brother Andrew”, and “Andrew” could very well sit at the table with the other members of the Apostolic Council, bringing on board the Eastern Orthodox.

Such a synod of bishops or “Apostolic Council” would also answer the charge that the papacy is an absolute monarchy which is really controlled by the petty and often mediocre civil servants of the curia. If there were such an “Apostolic Council” then the different curial offices might be answerable to one of the members of the Apostolic Council.

Of course all this is speculation, and what do I know about it anyway? My main point is that whatever happens, we can be assured that Pope Francis is a smart guy with firm ideas. His reform needn’t be the frightening overhaul with negative repercussions so many envision. Instead it could be a fresh start with new ideas, put into effect with strong and positive leadership for the good of the whole church.

Furthermore, the manner of reform could influence the way the leadership of the church works elsewhere. Rather than bad decisions being made by one person who controls everything, a more consultative approach to governance would trickle down to the rest of the church. The structures for this are already there within the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but too many bishops and priests still operate according to the old “military” or “monarchical” style of leadership. You know: “It’s my way or the highway.” An example of positive, consultative leadership–where the leader really does consult and refer to the experts who are there to assist him–could show the way forward, being properly consultative without being “democratic.”

This style of leadership avoids both the tyranny of the individual and the tyranny of the mob. This conciliar form of governance is also what is found in the New Testament. The Council of Jerusalem, and the first councils of the church show this form of leadership in action. It is a truly, historically Catholic approach, and one given by the Lord himself–where he presided at the Last Supper, but surrounded himself with the Apostolic Council.

Should such a scenario develop then Pope Francis will not simply be reforming the curia, but will bring a reform and renewal to the whole church.


  • Chuck

    I find this idea naieve. What are the major problems *in the hierarchy* of the Church today (at least in the West)? As a layman, from my perspective it looks like dissent. Dissent from Church teaching on the Sacraments, primarily by discouraging devotion to the Real Presence as old fashioned and sometimes by outright denial of doctrine. Dissent from Church teaching on the sexuality–either from lack of belief in some of the harder doctrines, or in lack of courage to proclaim them. (I distinctly remember the occasion when I was around 12 years old, when my mother excitedly exclaimed she had heard her very first denenciation of contraception from the pulpit since she had converted, years before I was born). Dissent from Church teaching on the Church: teaching either explicitly or by omission that it doesn’t really matter for your salvation whether you’re a Catholic or not (my sister-in-law spent her whole childhood in “Catholic” schools and a lot of her teen years going to even daily teen Masses, and didn’t even think it was a problem when she shacked up with a non-Catholic and decided to try another “faith tradition”. She had *never* been taught differently).

    I think it is abundantly clear that we have a severe problem with weak bishops–weak in the faith, or else weak in the spine. How is spreading the governing responsibility around to these guys going to help things out? The bad ones are *already* pushing the “more democracy” agenda, because that’s been the liberal line since before Vatican II!

    Remember that the Petrine ministry was instituted by Christ to ensure unity among the Church, to ensure the safety of His flock. Dissent against Divine teaching is a sin against this unity, and if it is found widespread throughout many diocese of the Church, who’s responsibility is it to end this, if not Peter’s successor?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Thanks for such an upbeat and positive contribution!

      • Chuck

        Touché, Father!

    • Joboww Johnson


      Im wondering how the “First among equals” thing reconciles with the teachings of Vatican I and the apostalic tradition that at least seems that Peter isnt just one of the Bishops, or a Bishops with a symbolic headship but the final authority with keys. Thanks for the article!

      • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

        It’s both/and not either/or

        • Joboww Johnson

          Dont get me wrong I understand the principle of both and. Im more wondering how specifically Peter is supposed to be equal to the other bishops. Thanks Father

          • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

            Someone has said the problem between the orthodox and the catholics is that the Pope is “first among equals” and the Catholics emphasize ‘first’ while the orthodox emphasize ‘equals’.

          • Chuck

            There are a couple ways the Pope is equal to the other bishops. First, as Vatican II stresses, they are *sacramentally* equal. The Pope does not have a higher degree (? not sure if that’s the right word) of sacramental consecration than other bishops, whereas the bishops *do* have a higher degree of priesthood than simple priests. So all bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, have the same fullness of sacramental priesthood.

            Likewise, all bishops who exercise authority are equal in the *source* of their authority, which is Christ Himself, through the Apostolic succession: the inheriting the commission of Christ to the Apostles by the laying on of hands of another consecrated bishop. It is *not* the case that the Pope receives his authority from Christ, and then delegates his authority out to the bishops (this *is* the relationship between bishops and their priests, however).

            So in those senses all bishops are equal. The Petrine primacy is not something that raises the Papacy into something *other* than a normal bishopric. Rather, it is an extra, added responsibility that Christ attached to Peter when he gave him the charge to confirm his brethren in the faith. That is, it is if you follow the Catholic faith. For the orthodox, there is not really this extra responsibility, (which makes the Pope truly first in authority, because *somebody* has to make everyone agree when they can’t otherwise). Rather, there is just an honor of position (which makes the Pope first in honor, like a figurehead, but not first in authority).

        • Joboww Johnson

          thank you father, much appreciated! :-)

  • Mary

    It is the only way Catholic/Protestant Church scism will be ended, or rather have a chance of ending, in my opinion, is for the pope to be a bit more bishop of rome and a bit less pompous ( as in pomp and circumstance and not a slur) The simplicity of this pope might just make this happen.

    Ofcourse, not many would really be happy with that type of world wide catholic church because every denomination would have to make changes. No Traditionalist of any denomination would be happy. That does not mean it can’t happen.

    Regarding your bout of prophcey, you are not alone. Many have had rophetic moments they did not realize at the time was prophecy, until after the fact. Look at that guy that wrote about what was basically the sinking of the titanic… (cue twight

    • John Ro

      Protestants are mission territory. The only chance for real unity is with the Orthodox and with those elements in Anglican and Lutheranism that are closer to Catholicism.

      Catholics need to stop catering to Protestants. Maybe I’m biased as a former Protestant, but so what.

  • Mary

    (Cue Twilight Zone soundtrack) ;-) sorry the above accidently posted before I finished. Anyway here is the link for the Titanic/Titan sinking… 14 years before that type of vessel was thought of or built! Now there is no way that guy could have dreamed this much up that was right, except if it were prophecy given from God. We don’t always recognize it till after the fact.

    I visually saw a house burn down and when I was questioned about my shout of shock, it went back to a regular house, not burning. I simply said…oh I guess it was the sun in my eyes, even though I knew what I saw. I didn’t want people thinking I was a nut. Oh, it burned down a few weeks later and thank God no one was hurt, though the house itself was burned to a shell. It was a half a block fom my house….creepy feeling ain’t it. :-)


  • Lola LB

    Actually, its the other way around – the Catholic Church to be re-united with the Eastern Orthodox church. First, though, there’s a long list of doctrines that have to be addressed which came into being after 1054 in the West. For that particular reason, its not gonna happen any time soon. Sorry to throw cold water on this idea, but there you are.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Thank you for such a charitable and optimistic reply. This sort of creative thinking and positive attitude is so very Eastern Orthodox!

  • Andrew O’Brien

    I don’t know much about the inner workings of Rome, but I do know that when my current Archbishop came to my Archdiocese, he gathered the Chancery employees together and explained to them the purpose of their jobs: “Your jobs exist,” he said, “so that our parishes can thrive.” With one sentence he totally reoriented the way the staff saw themselves.

    It sounds like the Vatican employees would do well to see the purpose of their jobs as supporting bishops in their duties to preach the Gospel. That’s pretty much a long way to say that I agree with you in principle (that the curia needs to be refocused) but I disagree on what this might look like in practical terms.

  • Mary

    ;-) see what I mean? A lot of people will be opposed to any reunification of THE ONE Holy Catholic (universal) Church. And not just Eastern Orthodox either. Still that does not mean it can’t happen and it one of the things we ate supposed to be praying for isn’t it, that “we all may be one”, as our Lord said.

    FYI the Eastern Orthodox Pontiff was already good buddies with the Pope, when he was a simple bishop, or am I mixing it up(?) … I think they have been close friends for years, or so I read. That is why he attended.

    • AnneG

      There really is no Eastern Orthodox Pontiff. The Eastern Churches are each self-governing, with their own Patriarchs. Some get along with other, but some do not.

  • Mary

    What do you think of this article? http://m.christianpost.com/news/pope-francis-could-foster-ecumenism-help-decentralize-catholic-church-latino-christian-leaders-claim–92285/

    and this http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/ecumenical-patriarch-asks-pope-to-meet-next-year-in-holy-land/

    and this (other patriarchs) http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/greek-orthodox-patriarch-stages-first-visit-to-popes-inaugural-mass-in-1000-years.aspx?pageID=238&nid=43213


    It is possible that Islamic terrorists/Jihadists could force Christian Unification after all these centuries? The Enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so on….what do you think? And can a lutherin, methodist etc. ever think that way? I know the various Catholic splinters of the true cross would but what of the Protestant brothers and sisters? It grieves the Holy Spirit to have a separated church but how could these different “views” ever become one. Unless there was an agreement to disagree…

  • Nathan

    I hate to be the next commenter to be accused of negativity, but this reeks of Conciliarism which was roundly condemned by the Fifth Latern Council in the early sixteenth century. Peter’s unique role is abundantly clear in the NT, there is absolutely no basis for the idea that Peter was prima inter pares. Peter ALONE is given the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 16:19), while Satan desires to have ALL the disciples, Christ prays for Peter’s faith ALONE to hold fast, so Peter can strengthen his brother disciples (Luke 22:31), finally Peter ALONE is charged with feeding Christ’s sheep (John 21:15). The early church had four patriarchs, but the Bishop of Rome was not simply “one among four” as you claim. The earliest evidence of this is found in the Letter of (Pope) Clement who writes (with authority) to the Corinthians (who wouldn’t have been under the Roman Patriarch). Further, all Ecumenical Councils were only recognized as valid when the Pope (or his representative) approved of them, hence the Second Council of Ephesus (aka the ‘robber council’) is NOT an Ecumenical Council (which is a good thing as it clearly taught heresy). If you read the Church Fathers they say things about the Bishop of Rome, which they do not say about the other patriarchs. For example, St Ignatius of Antioch (an Eastern Father) said that the Roman Bishop held the “presidency” among all other Churches and St. Irenaeus of Lyons said “because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree” with Rome (and Rome alone). There is also examples of Popes excommunicating whole churches OUTSIDE their “territory” e.g. Pope Victor I excommunicated the churches of Asia Minor. Examples from the Fathers can easily be multiplied. You are also wrong on Vatican 2, which taught that the Pope is “the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith” and “his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable” (LG 25).

    I do hope you are not backsliding into Anglicanism on us! This is (normally) such a great blog!

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      You read far more into my post than I wrote.

      • Nathan

        Then I stand corrected from a man I respect. God bless.

  • Mary
  • Lynda

    The true crisis in the Church needs to be recognised first (as His Holiness Benedict XVI did explicitly in November) before it can be properly, honestly addressed and reparation done.

  • FW Ken

    Since Bl. John Paul II allowed for alternative administrative arrangements for exercising the Petrine ministry, who are we to say it had to stay the way it is today? It’s not like the current arrangements are solving the problems of dissent in the developed world. At the same time, there’s a lot of baby in that bathwater, so care is needed.

    It’s not clear to me exactly what the problems are with the Curia. sometimes people talk about structural problems, but sometimes they talk about personnel problems. if e are talking about lazy, corrupt, degenerate staff, that’s an easy fix. If there are systemic problems, that’s more complex.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06205058638823965743 Matt

    @ John Ro

    “Protestants are mission territory…”

    Are Protestants outside of salvation?

  • jeff

    Are you kidding father? If he beefs up the authority of the cynically political power broker blocs we call “Bishops Conferences” then we’re stuffed. If the popes hadn’t repeatedly intervened in south America then liberation theology would have triumphed there and the faith would be lost these today.

    The only thing worse than poor leadership is no leadership.

  • jeff

    Bishops already do consult: feral nuns, “Catholic” school principals and “professional catholics” who lurk around chancery offices. God spare from them!

  • AnneG

    Fr L, Do you see this Cuncil as different from the Bishops in the Curia? I can see how a broad range of advisers with knowledge and experience in a variety of fields would be helpful. How do you keep it from being another bureaucracy and one more meeting?