Teaching and governing

On the one hand, I think Hatcave prefect Marc Cardinal Ouellet is right that we need bishops not just apostolic administrators (to misappropriate the latter term)—shepherds who will be evangelists in the public square, theologians and apologists not merely canon lawyers hiding in (or, worse yet, behind) their chanceries. 1 On the other hand, however, I found myself nodding at many of the observations John Allen Jr. makes here. Allen hedges a little, but I don’t think it’s necessary: While he’s right that Catholics outside of the progressive camp might be inclined to dismiss criticisms of Benedict by a journalist who’s decidedly in it, and while they might dismiss Politi’s specific concerns, I think that the general notion of Benedict being uncomfortable with the job of governing is quite commonplace even among those who love and revere him. It’s a criticism I’ve made myself on more than one occasion, and as Allen notes, “Benedict XVI sees himself as a teaching pope, not (at least, not primarily) a governing pope.”

Well, so which is it? It seems that I’m trying to have it both ways: Can I agree with Card. Ouellet that bishops ought to be teachers and shepherds before administrators and agree with Allen (and, to an extent, Politi) that Benedict can be faulted for being a teacher and shepherd but not an administrator? The thought snaps into focus reading Elizabeth Scalia’s piece (responding in part to Allen) here. She observes that John Paul II

was happy to practice political messaging both subtle and subversive; his colossal global presence helped enlarge the very definition of a ‘governing pope.’ Not particularly interested in acting as a manager and Vatican overseer, John Paul steered the papacy toward the geopolitical stage, and it is clear from Allen’s piece that some believe a pope who lacks the interest, or the calling, toward such engagement is somehow only half on the job.

It strikes me that one could readily make the opposite argument: That Popes who lack interest or calling toward managing and overseeing the Roman Curia are only half on the job. If one had to brief the case against John Paul II, the opening argument would doubtless be his failure to act decisively in regard to the abuse crisis, which can be characterized as a failure to govern (and to govern the Church through) the Roman Curia. And almost without exception, the problems of Benedict’s papacy have roots in curial dysfunction that only the Pope can fix (for example, the disgraced bishop Richard Williamson’s lifted excommunication; a little more on that in a moment).

The Curia is supposed to be the instrument through which the Pope governs the Church; it “exists to inform and give effect to the pope’s ministry as pastor of the universal Church,” as George Weigel recently put it; John Paul II’s Constitution reforming the Curia, Pastor Bonus, put it this way: “The Roman Curia is the complex of dicasteries and institutes which help the Roman Pontiff in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office for the good and service of the whole Church and of the particular Churches.” We find no curia in scripture, only Peter. It is only because Peter cannot possibly govern a Church comprising thousands of dioceses and more than a billion faithful without help that the Curia must exist. 2 The idea of the Pontiff  expending time managing the curia therefore seems backwards and implies a level of dysfunction. But if the curia is dysfunctional enough that it requires a measure of supervision, 3 only the Pope can fix it, and while it may it require a significant investment of papal time to get it to a point where it will function without direct supervision, that investment will free up papal time later.

So let’s corral this to a point. Card. Oullet is right that bishops have to be, in a word, pastors—not simply administrators. Taking care of the administrative work and boiling it down to digestible decision points for the bishops where their intervention is necessary is the job of chanceries generally and the Roman Curia particularly. But to the extent that chanceries are bureaucracies, and especially given the concerns that I mentioned in footnote one, bishops must also be, if not competent administrators, then competent and confident leaders of administrators. And sometimes that will mean investing time to make the bureaucracy work right so that one has time to be a pastor. The reader might think I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too, so let me try it another way. What I’m saying is that if bureaucracy is unavoidable, it can either work poorly, soaking up the bishop’s time into pointless trivia while failing to put important issues before  him (googling +Williamson, for instance, and flagging the issue for Benedict’s attention, or the Kansas City fumble), or it can work relatively efficiently, freeing the bishop’s time to be spent as a pastor, and on balance, it’s worth investing a little time and effort—and swinging the ax if necessary—to make sure that it’s running efficiently. One can be a bureaucracy’s leader or its chief administrator, and a bishop will only have the time to be a pastor if he can position himself as the former.


  1. Hans Urs von Balthazar aptly observed that “Jesus always designated persons for service, not institutions. The persons of bishops belong to the fundamental structure of the church, not bureaucratic offices. There’s nothing more grotesque than to think of a Christ who would want to establish committees!” Quoted in Richard Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority 171 (1997). An organization of the Church’s size cannot avoid a level of, well, organization. Bureaucracy. But she should never be a faceless bureaucracy. Authority should always be exercised personally, and the “institutional” church should always serve as an auxiliary to the “ministerial” church, under the direction and supervision of the bishops.
  2. Cf. Thomas Reese, Inside the Vatican 140 (1996).
  3. See generally John Allen, All The Pope’s Men (2004).

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  1. The place of the Curia < MOTU PROPRIO on Friday, May 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    [...] to set his house in order so that he or his successor can set the Church in order. 5 Notes:See MP: Teaching and governing (Dec. 20, 2011), reprinted in 1 Simon Dodd, Motu Proprio Breviarium Annuum __, __ (2012). [...]