Two key concepts in the renewal of the Catholic Church that Pope Francis is undertaking are decentralization and peripheries. Both appear in the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” the programmatic document for his pontificate. In that magisterial text he talks about “the need to promote a sound decentralization‘’ in the church (No. 16) and “to obey the call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel” (No. 20).
Since becoming pope, Francis has given substance to both concepts. He has promoted decentralization, together with synodality, by giving a greater role to the Synod of Bishops. His own active participation in the synod’s council goes in the same direction. Decentralization is also at the heart of his decree that the pallium be given to metropolitan archbishops in their home dioceses, not in Rome. And it is the rationale for his decisions to canonize Joseph Vaz in Sri Lanka and Junípero Serra in the United States, rather than in the Vatican.
The concept of peripheries comes to center stage whenever Francis has to make decisions about foreign trips. He gives priority to situations of conflict, poverty or natural disaster or to places where Christians are in a minority and it is vitally important to foster friendship and dialogue with other religions. Hence his decisions to visit the Holy Land, Turkey, Korea, Albania, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and the city of Sarajevo.
The concept of peripheries has also been a decisive factor in Francis’ selection of new cardinals, enabling him to reach communities that are experiencing poverty, conflict and tensions or that have never before received a red hat, including Myanmar, Tonga, Haiti and Burkina Faso.
While the peripheries concept strongly influences Francis’ decisions regarding foreign trips and new cardinals, the concept of decentralization has yet to have a similar substantial impact on church life worldwide, though this could change significantly within five years.
There are, in fact, several areas where Francis could promote decentralization. Right now he is reforming the Roman Curia; the crucial question here is which issues need to come to Rome for decision and which could or should be left to the local churches. This has been a bone of contention between Rome and local churches in the past, but if resolved in a way that reflects Francis’ vision, it could bring significant changes in church governance.
Senior levels of the Roman Curia have been consulted on this fundamental issue, but I am not aware of any such soundings of bishops’ conferences. The question could surface at the consistory of cardinals from Feb. 12 to 13, which Francis convened to brief the cardinals on the reform of the Curia.
A second, more specific area where decentralization could take place is in the process for marriage annulments. This would involve giving authority to the local church to resolve cases. The issue was raised at the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the Family and will return at next October’s synod. Francis has established a commission to study this question. One can expect movement here.
These two examples are only part of the broader question of decentralization and collegiality that Francis raised in “The Joy of the Gospel,” where he says, “The papacy and the central structures of the universal church need to hear the call to pastoral conversion” (No. 32).
Recalling that the Second Vatican Council stated that “like the ancient patriarch churches, episcopal conferences are in a position ‘to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit,’” Francis observed that “this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subject of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.”
Pope Francis intends to give such juridical status to episcopal conferences. He is convinced that “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church’s life and her missionary outreach” (No. 32). This decision could cause a seismic shift in the governance of the Catholic Church and bring dividends in the ecumenical field.