William Ward – he of The Ideal of a Christian Church, a youthful work that so enraged Oxford as to have him stripped of his degrees; he who announced his conversion and his engagement on the same day – was so Ultramontane as to opine that, once Papal Infallibility was declared, he looked forward to reading a new dogmatic definition each morning in The Times. Thankfully, it appears that Pope Francis does not share so sanguine a view of Papal power, but regards such a naive notion as complete overreach:
Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.
— Evangelii Gaudium, 16.
This is the sort of sentiment held by every sound occupant of the See of Peter, and with which every true Catholic, not to say Traditionalist, should agree. Legal positivism is not a Christian philosophical standpoint, and the Pope is not a machine for the manufacture of dogma: he is to safeguard the deposit of faith, as its servant and not its master, let alone its maker!
Furthermore, the creeping centralisation of all dogmatic authority in Rome is actually a sad reflection on the increasing weakness of the varied episcopal, provincial and synodical authorities over the centuries: these having failed to do their duty, Rome has had to assume them. In Patristics one quotes from many and varied Fathers and councils, many of the former not being Popes, but local bishops, many of the latter being not ecumenical but local synods. Why no more? Is it because of their low quality, not to say tendency to heterodoxy, that we put no great store in the pronouncements of mere bishops, and why provincial synods no longer meet to deal with doctrinal issues, but instead live on in bureaucratic organs called episcopal conferences, which are no more than, indeed perhaps less than, the sum of their parts?
But stay: Pope Francis wants to reinvigorate the ancient and Catholic system, a very manifestation of subsidiary, that Catholic principle beloved of Bl John Paul II:
It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”.
— Evangelii Gaudium, 16.
The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.
— Evangelii Gaudium, 32.
Certainly the Curia is not known for its promptitude, and decentralization in a true and Catholic spirit of unity in one Faith is much to be desired, cæteris paribus; but I make bold to assert that there is an important difference between a true and proper local synod or council of bishops, and an episcopal conference: the latter is too often sunk in mundane discussions, rather than, say, as the synods and councils of old, trying cases of heresy, issuing doctrinal teachings on issues other than social justice, and promulgating binding canons for the churches (that is, dioceses) concerned.
I am sure that Pope Francis is not here trying to circumvent the rulings of his esteemed predecessor on the nature and scope of the authority of episcopal conferences, but rather is indicating the need to revive the ancient and too-long-neglected forms that worked so well in ages past, while adapting them in prudent fashion, making use of currently-existing forms.
But the real need, of course, is for a new crop of bishops like unto the sainted bishops of old, who were unafraid to believe and teach the Catholic Faith, and did not smilingly wink at dissent and ineluctable decline, but instead went out and converted the nations to Christ. As St Paul remarked, Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.