Decentralization of church leadership appeared to be a dead issue under the conservative papacy of John Paul II, but there are signs that high church officials, including the pope, are open to more local control in the church.
The New York Times (Oct. 21) reports that a number of bishops, particularly those from the West and Australia and New Zealand, brought up the subject of local control at a Vatican conference last month and are receiving encouraging signals from the curia. When asked if the pope was open to decentralizing the institutional church, a high ranking Vatican official close to the pontiff, answered, “In many ways, yes.” He said that the pope was particularly prepared to consider such changes as giving the local church more say in the way that bishops were chosen (though changes affecting doctrine and morals were ruled out)
Most bishops from Latin America at the conference regularly wanted discuss more traditional matters, such as the bishop’s role as model and teacher. But reporter Melinda Henneberger concludes that “the fact that so many of the nearly 200 bishops [at the conference], most of them promoted under this pope, are advocating structural changes and receiving encouraging signals in return represents a potentially significant shift for the church.”
Meanwhile, a debate on these very issues has broken out inside the Vatican between two of the pope’s right hand men, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, watchdog on doctrine, and Walter Cardinal Kasper, newly appointed head of ecumenism. Kasper maintains that Ratzinger has misinterpreted Vatican II teachings to stress centralization over collegiality and consultation between and among bishops and the pope.