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e central point

In a major speech on Saturday, Pope Francis said he intended to work for a “healthy decentralisation” of the Catholic Church. The address, which came two thirds of the way through the contentious family synod, barely registered in the secular media. But Vatican observers instantly recognised its potentially enormous significance.

To many outsiders, Catholicism seems monolithic. But those inside know it is much broader and more varied than it seems. In some respects the Church is already quite decentralised – as any body of 1.2 billion people must be. In Europe, some episcopal conferences operate with a fair degree of independence from Rome. Within some countries, individual bishops pay little heed to the decisions of their national bishops’ conferences. Within dioceses, some parishes have a tenuous relationship with their bishops. Within parishes, some parishioners act with little reference to their priests.

The Pope would, no doubt, regard this as an unhealthy decentralisation. In his speech on Saturday, marking the 50th anniversary of the creation of the synod of bishops, Francis called for a “listening Church”, in which popes, bishops, priests and lay people engage in “a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn”.

The dangers of unhealthy decentralisation are illustrated most starkly by the abuse crisis. Individual bishops and entire bishops’ conferences mishandled abuse cases abysmally, forcing Rome to intervene. Pope Francis has publicly endorsed the centralised response of his predecessor Benedict XVI.

In the wake of Vatican II, there was another area of unhealthy decentralisation: Church teaching. In the Sixties and Seventies it seemed as if Rome was no longer the undisputed guardian of the Magisterium and Catholicism was increasingly defined by the musings of

We’ll likely be discussing the relationship between Rome and local churches forever avant-garde theologians. To clear up the confusion St John Paul II commissioned the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a book that has helped many on their journey into full communion with the successor of Peter.

But there is also such a thing as unhealthy centralisation. This is what Francis sees when he looks at the Roman Curia. While the majority of Vatican employees serve the Church selflessly, a few are excessively preoccupied with power. That is why the Pope said on Saturday: “For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of the service”. His moves to reduce curial careerism can only be welcomed.

Yet the Curia is not the only structure that fosters careerism. Highly bureaucratic bishops’ conferences in parts of Europe encourage it too. That is a dilemma for Pope Francis: decentralisation might purge the Vatican of its worldliness but it could simply send it elsewhere.

The tension between the centre and the periphery is built into Catholicism. We are likely to be discussing the proper relationship between Rome and local churches until the end of time. Excessive centralisation and excessive decentralisation are evidently bad.

In the end, something matters more than either centralisation or decentralisation: communion. As Francis untiringly teaches us, it is vital that all Catholics deepen their communion with Christ. This inevitably deepens the communion between us and helps us to recognise our common mission: to take the Gospel today to where it is needed most. That is where we should be focusing our energies – and not on interminable debates.

e ghost of anti-Catholicism

Amnesty International, once synonymous with campaigning for prisoners of conscience, is running a television advert in Ireland denouncing the “cruel ghost” haunting the country, one that brings “suffering and death” to women. The film shows a ruined church enveloped in sinister mist. The ghost, we are clearly meant to conclude, is the Catholic Church.

Amnesty spokesmen would probably say that, in fact, the ghost refers to Ireland’s anti-abortion law, which it is desperate to repeal. But the Hammer Horror imagery of the advert gives the game away.

This blatantly anti-Catholic propaganda would horrify Amnesty’s founder, Peter Benenson, a Catholic convert from Judaism. We are disgusted by it but not surprised. As Dennis Sewell wrote in last week’s Catholic Herald, the world’s largest human rights organisation has “abandoned the focus on prisoners for full-spectrum Leftist activism”. Today a charity that once impartiality supported peaceful prisoners of consience now has an overtly political agenda, its most recent campaign this summer being the legalisation of prostitution. Despite this, it still benefits from the good name established by its Christian founders Beneson, Seán MacBride and Eric Baker.

Amnesty is a huge and conceited NGO, extremely well-connected and now poisonously secular in its outlook. There is no longer the slightest excuse for any Catholics, anywhere, to give it a penny of their money.


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