No 'Vice Popes' Taking Over

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

No 'Vice Popes' Taking Over


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


Recent weeks have seen yet another round of speculation about "who's in charge" in the Vatican. A Nov. 5 piece in The Washington Post, picking up on a cover story in L'Espresso by Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister, pointed to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's top doctrinal official, as an increasingly important behind-the-scenes force (as well as potentially the next pope). Meanwhile, Roman gossip continues to tap Archbishop Stanislaw Dzwisz, Pope John Paul II's private secretary, as virtually a "vice pope."

Because this sort of guessing game can easily veer into fantasy, it's important to recall some basics.

First, no one, not even the pope, is ever "in charge" in the sense of making all the decisions in the Catholic church. The worldwide membership of the Catholic church is around 1.1 billion, while the total work force of the Roman curia is 2,6.59, according to the 2003 Annuario Pontificio. That's a ratio of one official in Rome for every 413,689 Catholics' in the world. To get some sense of proportion, this figure is 'roughly equivalent to the size of many American congressional districts. Imagine if a member of Congress had to handle the affairs of that district alone--no staff, no advisors, no district offices.

Simply put, the Roman curia has neither the personnel nor the infrastructure to provide anything other than a very thin veneer of global coordination; it could not routinely micromanage the church, even if it wished.

Despite its reputation as rigidly hierarchical, Roman Catholicism is remarkably decentralized. The vast majority of decisions that shape the daily lives of Catholics are made at the local level, from parish budgets to school curricula: Hence when the pope weakens, it does not automatically mean a slowdown in most areas of church life, and does not create the need for "vice popes" in Rome. That doesn't mean, however, that the current situation is not without its dangers.

Second, even inside the Vatican, the pope is not "in charge" in the sense of making all the decisions. The Vatican has a president/prime minister structure, in which the pope is the head of state, but much of the day-to-day work of running the church is carried out by the secretary of state, currently Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Once again, this means that when the pope is ill or otherwise occupied, the machinery of government continues to clank along.

It's a structural reality of the Vatican that no one fills the pope's shoes when he isn't wearing them. By design, there is no "vice pope" who steps in and exercises the full range of papal powers. Instead, as the pope weakens, his authority is spread around among a variety of officials in different areas of competence. To ask "who's in charge" is therefore meaningless as stated; it's necessary to specify "in charge of what?."

As John Paul weakens, there is a natural desire to protect him from unnecessary burdens. Hence, matters that might once have been referred to the pope are today being resolved at the level of individual departments. …

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