Listening to the Voices of the Local Church

Listening to the Voices of the Local Church


This piece, as well as the accompanying post from Fr. Peter Galadza,  launch the new Faculty of Theology blog, a chance to hear from the experts on the topics of the day. Dr. Michael Attridge is an associate professor at the Faculty of Theology, where he teaches systematic theology, Christology and issues relating to Vatican II. He serves as the Faculty’s Director of Academic Programs.


Recently, Pope Francis issued a letter Motu Proprio entitled “Magnum Principium”, which relates to the Catholic Church’s liturgy. For those who are wondering, this kind of document is issued by a pope’s own initiative and it changes canon law (Canon 838). This motu proprio, issued last month, is interesting because it now requires those in Rome in charge of translating  liturgical texts into local languages to listen to the suggestions of bishops’ conferences throughout world. Previously, these conferences were allowed to undertake translations, but their work was always subject to the review and approval by Rome. Now, Rome will be required to listen to the conferences and to “recognize the adaptations approved by” them. In other words, the conferences can now propose language and, with the force of law behind them, expect that that language will be accepted.

All of this is quite interesting, but my area of theology is not liturgy or liturgical history; it’s ecclesiology – that is, the theology of Church,  historical theology, and the Second Vatican Council. In this respect, I’m intrigued by something else that this document signifies, and especially for what it indicates about Francis’ papacy.

One of the most important developments at Vatican II was the rediscovery of the importance of the local church, which we would think of as a diocese. For centuries, when official Catholic theology spoke of the Church most often it was not in reference to the diocese, but to the larger concept of the Church universal, that is, spread throughout the world with the Pope as its head. The Council, however, retrieved the theology of the local church, which was much better known in the earliest centuries of Christianity. It didn’t say that the local church was the only thing that mattered, it simply emphasized that the local church 11sn’t just a piece of the larger universal Church, but is, in a true sense, a Church

In the 50 years since the end of Vatican II, there has been a drift in the direction of official Catholic theology to once again emphasize the universality of the Church instead of its particularity. So why does this local/universal issue matter? It matters because it relates to where decisions are made that impact the lives of individual Catholics around the world. Those who emphasize universality are concerned with the unity of the Church, which seems more easily safeguarded when authority is centralized. Those who emphasize particularity are concerned with recognizing the value of the multiple ways in which faith comes to be expressed in different peoples and cultures and languages throughout the world. Since the beginning of his papacy, Francis has appeared to be redirecting us once again towards the local church. He is interested the lives and conditions of individual believers and to the places where they find themselves. An early indication of this  arose when he was elected Pope. In his speech, he spoke first to the local people of Rome, as their bishop, and asked them for their prayers. It was only afterwards, that he addressed the Church universal as its Pope. Further, much of his papal ministry has been focused on recognizing the situation and struggles of individual people, whether in the streets of Rome, the shores of Lampedusa, or at the US-Mexican border. But these examples, as with many others are symbolic, not doctrinal. The motu proprio last month, insofar as it alters canon law, now codifies this decentralizing shift. It’s significant, ecclesiologically, not just liturgically, and is worth noting.