The centralized administration of the Roman Catholic Church is not a theological necessity. It may be the best way of administering the Church under current circumstances; or another way may be best.
The current situation is the result of the papacy’s attempts to preserve the unity of the church which was threatened by nationalist, Protestant, and later totalitarian movements. The French revolution swept away all the old feudal structures that had limited the centralization of administration in Rome, focusing more and more attention on the person of the pope.
But a church with over a billion members is too big to be administered in every detail from Rome; in fact much is left up to the bishops and local organizations.
Bishops failed in their handling of sexual abuse, and they suffered no consequences.
John Allen and the Jesuit Hans Zollner discuss this in the context of Benedict’s reform attempts:
One of the reasons it’s tough to style Benedict as a reformer, at least in the United States, is precisely because the perception is that bishops have not been held accountable. We have a bishop in Kansas City who pled guilty to not reporting suspected child abuse, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston received a position in Rome, and now Cardinal Roger Mahony is on his way to the conclave despite having been relieved of administrative and public duties by his successor. What about accountability for bishops?
I know this is a constant question from American journalists and the public. I was there when Monsignor Scicluna responded to your question on this point at the symposium last year.
He said we need greater accountability mechanisms for bishops.
Yes, the question really is not resolved. It’s complicated to work out clear procedures, partly because civil law and church law often don’t coincide in many instances and in many countries. We’ve tried to promote understanding of this point, but I know it’s hard to do. The civil law in the United States on these issues, for instance, is not the law in other countries. What your people ask for may not be what Germans, or Italians, or Malaysians, would ask for, and so it’s hard to arrive at a common standard [of accountability] for the entire world.
Obviously, we have to think about how accountability for bishops can be put in place, clearly and recognizably. Despite its hierarchical nature, the church actually doesn’t have clear procedures for some of these issues. For instance, the role of the bishops’ conference [in enforcing accountability] is not clear, the role of the Metropolitan is not clear.
I was a bit surprised by Monsignor Scicluna’s reply to you, because he seemed to suggest that it all goes back to the pope. The poor pope can’t possibly deal with every one of these situations. There have to be intermediate steps, and these are not yet in place. That’s probably true not only of the church, but of many other institutions. Who’s responsible for a teacher who abuses a child in a school? Is it the principal, the superintendent, the regional administrator, the minister for education in that country?
Benedict did nothing to make bishops co-responsible. Perhaps he could not imagine what could be done, or the task of restructuring 5,000 bishops was beyond his strength – there would be massive opposition, bishops do not want to be held responsible.
The western church used to have a synodal structure; there could be other ways on introducing the laity into the process. One danger is that any local organizations would be subject to pressure from hostile governments, pressure which the Vatican is in a better position to resist.
There is no easy, obvious, universal solution – which doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Perhaps the next pope will begin to develop both the idea and practice of co-responsibility in the church.