The Decentralized Universal Catholic Church

Last April, Pope Francis released his Joy of Love, Amoris Laetitia. It is a 250 page book which tiptoes around many issues concerning love and marriage, including many that are very unpopular with the flock. It nominally affirms traditional Church teachings while seeming in fact to change them.


John Allen, the dean of American Vatican watchers and editor of the Catholic journal CRUX, recently commented on it (here). Mr. Allen did not attain his position by making waves. But occasionally he makes a few well-directed ripples. I noted (here) that his book, The Francis Miracle, fell short of adulation when it came to sex abuse. (Francis continues to perform badly in this area, though Mr. Allen has refrained from further comment.) Regarding Amoris Laetitia, Mr. Allen cites its instruction for priests to act “according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop,” and comments: “one wonders if he knew at the time just what a conflicting welter of responses that injunction would elicit.” I strongly suspect he and his staff did. They encouraged popular de facto changes in Church policy without making any de jure changes, thus allowing the Church to pretend it hasn’t changed. The Church virtually never admits it was wrong, since it claims to be divinely inspired.

Mr. Allen focuses on the issue of allowing divorced Catholics to take Communion, though there were many others he could have chosen. He comments, “Whether by design or not, what Pope Francis effectively has done is to opt for decentralization on one of the most contentious issues in Catholic life today.” The Catholic Church stresses its universality. Decentralization contradicts this. While Mr. Allen is too tactful say this himself, he quotes Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria: “Are you going to tell me that we can have a national bishops’ conference in one country that would approve something which, in another conference, would be seen as sin? Is sin going to change according to national borders? We’d become national churches.”

It is curious that Mr. Allen focused on divorce. The prohibition against divorce comes directly from Jesus, unlike most Church rules. You’d think it would be among the last rules they'd change. But it’s become quite unpopular. This is hardly the first time the Church has overridden Jesus’ teaching.

The requirement of priestly celibacy is another story entirely. The only priests that Jesus and the apostles knew were married with children. In Jesus’ day, only certain pagan priests took an oath of celibacy. Furthermore, only after the First and Second Lateran Councils in 1123 and 1139 did the Church officially require priests to be celibate. This should have been much easier to change. But it is less of an issue with the flock, who are also its sponsors.

In fact, many priests in Africa openly live with women, and the Church simply looks the other way. The Church has already rejected the requirement of celibacy, but only on a very selective basis. Bishop Milingo of Zambia even got married, and the Church ignored it. Only years later, after he tried to make official policy changes, was he stripped of his priesthood.

Think how many children might have been spared if the celibacy requirement had been more widely ignored.

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