Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

My battle cry for Church renewal? Debureaucratization!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 01, 2021

OK, I guess “debureaucratization” will never become an effective slogan; it hurts the eyes just to look at the word. But, to put the matter in a largish nutshell, the abandonment of the bureaucratic model of Church governance is probably the single most important path in our time to Catholic institutional renewal, and what we might also call genuine synodality. Another way to say this is that we need to put the emphasis back on personal episcopal authority and personal Christian responsibility. And to do this, one of the first tasks is to dismantle the massive national episcopal conferences, which tend to turn the Church into a bureaucracy.

To a far more limited extent, this may also be true within some dioceses, and even in Rome with respect to the governance of the whole Church. But while the Pope may often be ill-served by the Vatican’s bureaucratic appendages, these appendages largely function as an extension of the Pope’s will. They represent the office of a single person and are, in theory at least, entirely under a single person’s control. They are essentially sub-structures for the Pope’s personal governance of the Church. The same is (or should be) true of diocesan offices with respect to each bishop.

But that’s not true on the level of the national episcopal conferences. Since they represent a collectivity—all the bishops of a region—they are essentially bureaucratic super-structures which tend to guide (and contain) the individual bishops themselves. They are, in fact, entities beyond the borders of the Divine Constitution of the Church. Insofar as bishops defer to the national conference, they may not be exercising their Divinely constituted authority in and through Christ. They may be relying far too much on bureaucratic policies and recommendations, and too little on their own grace of office.

The American Example

Episcopal Conferences are a relatively recent development in the history of the Church. In our own country, the idea took its initial form in the establishment of the National Catholic War Council in 1917, organized for the purpose of providing material and spiritual support to soldiers during World War I, and it was quickly followed in 1919 by National Catholic Welfare Council to promote “social justice”, complete with an Administrative Committee to handle the Council’s business between meetings. This morphed into the National Catholic Welfare Conference in 1922 to address issues of education, immigration and social action. Since then, the permanent apparatus of a national ecclesiastical structure has grown rapidly.

When I first began writing on Catholic affairs in 1966, a new combination had just been established, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (to handle strictly ecclesiastical issues) coupled with the United States Catholic Conference (to address Catholic engagement in secular society). A lack of effective episcopal integration with this “secular arm” (the USCC) led to the current reformulation of the more unified United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The upshot, however, is that there are a great many permanent staff at work within the USCCB to develop policies and programs covering an astonishing array of concerns, seventy of which are listed on its website under USCCB Topics.

Overall, there are also numerous “offices” representing the work of thirty-five standing committees and subcommittees, chaired by bishops, with the mandate to continuously study various issues, take positions, propose actions, and draft statements. Such structures and purposes are typical of the nature and functions of national and regional episcopal conferences around the world as they have arisen in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

What’s wrong with that?

In the theory enunciated from Rome the national conferences of bishops are intended to facilitate a well-orchestrated Catholic understanding of, and response to, the problems common to each region of the world—a role that used to belong to occasional meetings (called synods) of the bishops of a particular region. The new permanent episcopal conferences, of course, are conceived in theory as organizational tools and supports for the Divine Constitution of the Church as represented primarily by the office of each individual bishop within his diocese, who retains his full ecclesiastical authority in Christ. On this understanding, it would be wrong to say that no good work is done by these offices and committees. The great problem, however, is that, as so often happens in human affairs, the tail tends to wag the dog.

The human reality is that well-funded national and regional bureaucratic establishments, with their staffs of experts, their mandate to propose positions and solutions on a bewildering array of concerns which affect an entire region, and the sheer time they have available to focus on broad regional problems, will always tend to put those who possess actual authority on hold along with just about everybody else. There is an inescapable substitution of presumed expertise for true authority, just as there is in government bureaucracies. The result in the Church can be discussed under several headings, from which I will choose only two.

First, episcopal authority: With a vast apparatus available to the bishops for the study and development of policies and resources, along with the inevitable but incorrect sense that the Conference somehow operates on a higher (or at least an essential coordinating) level, most bishops will keep their hands and voices away from anything that is being “handled” at the Conference level, allowing the very existence of the Conference to excuse them from taking the firm positions and actions on Catholic problems which their authority not only enables but requires them to take. The foot-dragging on the vital question of “Eucharistic coherence” is a perfect example, though one in which a small number of stronger bishops have at least urged on with rhetoric. That they have not moved forward with action, however, is highly significant in this context.

Second, the role of the laity: We must remember that episcopal conferences typically devote themselves to two kinds of issues. One kind deals with specifically ecclesiastical questions and problems, things like the liturgy, sacramental issues, catechesis, governance of the clergy, optimum diocesan and parish structures and procedures, and the like—issues related, if you will, to the proper functioning of bishops, priests, deacons and religious as they carry out their specifically ecclesiastical duties. The other kind relate, in effect, to the Catholic moral vision as applied to the larger social order, that is, the whole range of Catholic political, social, economic, and environmental action. It is just here that the presence and action of episcopal conferences usurps the proper role of the laity in effecting positive change within the larger culture as a whole, enabling many people to pretend that this role is effectively managed by the Conference, and discouraging the engagement of others who sense that their own responsibility has been pre-empted and diluted by the policies and statements of the Conference.


Under these two headings alone, we see a vast scope for harm both to authentic episcopal leadership and authentic lay responsibility, precisely as these are understood within the Divine Constitution of the Church herself. This does not mean that no good is done; what it generally means is that the cost of that good is often intolerably high. Worse still, it tends inexorably toward a rapid dilution of a proper understanding of and emphasis on the roles and duties of the various persons, with their manifold vocations, who make up the body of Christ. Lay action in society, you see, is not supposed to be specifically directed by episcopal agents, and cannot be maximally fruitful when it is.

The hierarchical model of the Church—its Divine Constitution as established by Christ Himself—is refreshingly simple. With essentially no supernatural tendency to bureaucracy, the Church is so constituted that the pope, bishops and priests ensure the transmission of both sacramental grace and the truths of the Faith within the Church herself, while the laity, through their inescapable presence as leaven through the whole world, act creatively to shape all of human culture in accordance with the light of Christ. I concede that “debureaucratization” does not make a good slogan, but it does bring into focus the important question of fundamental Christian responsibility.

Finally, since synodality is literally the order of the day, let me emphasize that the current quest for “synodality” will fail completely if it is not rooted in a responsibility that is as profoundly Christian as it is vocational, and as profoundly vocational as it is personal. Insofar as the quest leads to more broad statements and more cultural platitudes, more bureaucratic structures and more committee posturing, Catholics who are willing to sacrifice for the Gospel will continue to be frustrated, the genius of Catholicism will fade into distant memory, and the Church will continue her long and disastrous decline.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 02, 2021 11:13 AM ET USA

    I would add that suppression of truly "vibrant" (thanks, Phil) fruits of the Holy Ghost, such as parishes, oratories, and other communities that worship according to the formerly-known-as "extraordinary expression", is an offense against the Holy Ghost, whose promptings are being rejected. "By their fruits you will know them." Make an accounting of the fruits of the Catholic Church today to assess whether they are predominantly aligned with God's will or contrary to it. Retreat is the new rule.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Oct. 02, 2021 10:43 AM ET USA

    And, the sheer existence of a bureaucracy, which needs to be staffed, invites the same problems we see in the political bureaucracy. There is no shortage of wanna be clerics in the lay population who want to be close to, and influential with the highest ranking clergy that they can. The gravest issue is that this laity at all levels in the Church want the Church to be a social welfare organization to the detriment of it's personal sacramental mission. Your commentary is spot on.

  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - Oct. 01, 2021 7:28 PM ET USA

    Dr. Minus, thank you very much for this article. Even though I’m a cradle Catholic and senior citizen, I had no idea this has been happening. We’ve seen how ineffective (and worse) bureaucracy makes secular governments. It seems even more problematic to have it in the Church.