In his June 1908 apostolic constitution, Sapienti Consilio, Pope Pius X decreed that, as of November 3 that year, the Catholic Church in the United States would no longer be supervised by the Vatican’s missionary agency, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide). American Catholicism had grown up. The U.S. Church would now be a mission-sending Church, not “mission territory.”
This pattern has long characterized the organization of the world Church. Young local Churches begin as “mission territory,” and their bishops are chosen in consultation with what’s now called the “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples” (but which everyone in Rome still refers to by its old name, “Propaganda,” or simply “Prop”). After these young Churches demonstrate that they can stand on their own spiritually, organizationally, and financially, they cease being “mission territory” and relate to the Roman Curia as do the older local Churches; the bishops of these newly “graduated” local Churches are thus chosen in consultation with the Congregation for Bishops.
The rapid de-Christianization of Europe, however, prompts a thought-experiment: What should the Church do when this process of ecclesial maturation slips into reverse? Where do venerable but collapsing local Churches “fit” in their relationship to the Curia, the central government of the Catholic Church? If there can be a (sometimes lengthy) period of ecclesiastical apprenticeship during which a young, growing local church is supervised by Propaganda Fide, might there be a parallel arrangement for decaying older local churches, in which they’re taken into a form of ecclesiastical trusteeship aimed at rebuilding their evangelical, catechetical, and pastoral strength? And if we can imagine that (admittedly bold) move, which Roman agency should be the trustee?
For the purposes of this thought-experiment, my nominee would be the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. It seems the logical place. For John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, the Magna Carta of the New Evangelization, called for urgent evangelism among Christians who had fallen away from the practice of the faith, or had been poorly catechized, or, more likely, had suffered both maladies, the latter contributing to the former.
That seems to describe most of the Church in western Europe. So perhaps the Church’s central administration should stop relating to dying European local churches as if they weren’t dying, and recognize that they are, in fact, mission territory. But rather than putting such local churches back under the supervision of “Prop,” put them into trusteeship under the supervision of a reconstituted and re-staffed Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization—just as a failed company that goes into Chapter 11 bankruptcy is supervised by a trustee until such time as the company can stand on its own feet again.
What would happen under this “trusteeship”? Again, let’s think outside the box. The trustee agency would recommend to the pope replacements for failed bishops and nominees for empty sees, drawing candidates from around the world who had demonstrated success in enlivening a sclerotic or corrupt local Church. Pastoral life in the moribund local Church and the structures of its national bureaucracy would be examined by Catholics who are expert in making organization serve evangelization; those consulters would then make recommendations to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization for mandated reforms. There would be apostolic visitations of seminaries and houses of religious formation, led by seminary rectors and religious men and women from living and growing communities, who would recommend needed changes; the trustee agency would then mandate their implementation.
Where might this form of trusteeship be tested? How about Germany? The practice of the faith is dying there. Senior German churchmen have made clear that they believe something different from what’s in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, whether the issue is the nature of marriage, the ethics of human love, the character of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood, the authority of revelation, or the enduring effects of baptism. And what could be more appropriate on the quincentenary of the Reformation than to call German Catholicism to a thoroughgoing Catholic reform?
Perhaps this thought-experiment—putting the German Church into ecclesiastical trusteeship—isn’t the answer to the Church’s German problem. But recognizing that Germany is mission territory is the beginning of any serious analysis of a grave situation, and any serious thinking about how it might be addressed.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.