So might the Holy Father try to cut the Gordian Knot about Holy Communion for remarried divorcees by kicking the ball into the long grass of Episcopal Conferences? He has already dropped hints about elevating the doctrinal competences of such Conferences.
I find myself entirely out of sympathy with any such agenda. Partly, this is on personal and pragmatic grounds. We, in the Church of England, saw what happened when 'Provincial Autonomy' was allowed to ride rough-shod over Doctrine, Tradition, Bible ... and even the Dominical Imperative of Unity. It is a thoroughly nasty and miserable experience. Any attempt to introduce anything remotely like it, or anything that could act as a first step towards anything remotely like it, into the Catholic Church, should be resisted by any and every means of Resistance that orthodox Catholics have or can devise. As a former Anglican, I warn you: decades of internal warfare within the Church on this subject are exactly what the Church Militant can do without. For most of my priestly ministry in the Church of England, this question hung like a dark shadow over my head. Any attempt by anybody to inflict a similar wound upon the Catholic Church merits, as Cardinal Burke has intimated, Resistance in whatever forms may be necessary, and with as much vigour as God's Grace gives us.
But my main reasons for queasiness are doctrinal rather than merely practical.
As Pope Benedict XVI made clear, the Universal Church has both a temporal and an ontological priority (i.e. it came first in historical time and it comes first in the realm of Being) over the local (i.e. diocesan) Church. Setting up powerful regional bodies would have a disastrously fissiparous effect on the Church Universal. The promoter of the opposite idea, that the local Church has ontological priority, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has made no secret of the fact that he sees his theory as justifying the possibility of different Catholic Regions, as it might be Sophisticated Germany and Primitive Africa, having different disciplines even in matters where discipline and doctrine are indissolubly bound up. This is to revisit the question upon which S Thomas More chose martyrdom: whether a portion of the Church Militant has any more right to go against the the whole Church than the city of London has to go against the whole realm of England.
Secondly, such a proposal is ecclesiologically illiterate. There is one Body of Christ, One Catholic Church. It subsists in two modes. There is the Church Universal spread throughout the world. Then there is the Particular (i.e. Diocesan) Church with its Bishop, priests, deacons, people. This distinction goes back to S Paul, who uses 'Ekklesiai" in the plural to refer to the local churches, but "Ekklesia" in the singular to refer to the Universal Body of Christ which lies behind, as it were, each local church. Yet the two are one. The Catholica is in the local church, and you cannot participate in the Catholica without participating in your local Church. The Body of Christ subsists in the Particular Church.
This theological simplicity calls into question any attempt to muddy its waters, unless it is firmly understood that that any 'groupings' of dioceses are merely functional and ad hoc. Powerful regional "churches" ("the French Church"; "the African Church" ...) introduce a, to me, incomprehensible and intolerable confusion into the simple teaching of Scripture and Tradition. And they are subversive both of the unique role of the local bishop (with his curia of presbyters and deacons) and of the unique role of the Roman Pontiff (with his curia). I was very pleased when Benedict XVI dropped the title of Patriarch of the West. A real contribution to ecclesiological lucidity.
This means that the Curia Episcopalis, and the Curia Romana, are both in no way lacking in theological garments, while the Episcopal Conference with its bureaucracy, however grand, powerful, and well-paid, is an Emperor entirely without theological clothes.
Frankly, I have come to doubt whether the Holy Father quite understands the politics sometimes inherent in theological discourses. Upon coming to power, he lost no time in praising Walter Kasper; and he has repeated his praises since then. But, in the decades before the election of Pope Benedict, there had been some years of argument, in public periodicals, between Ratzinger (the Universal Church has the ontological priority) and Kasper (the Local Church is ontologically prior). Ratzinger argued with his customary gentle but compelling courtesy; Kasper in his characteristic bully-boy style.
I hope that Cardinal Bergoglio was ignorant of this background. If he was aware of it, it would show remarkably bad taste that he should have chosen, so soon after his election, to ladle such extravagant and unnecessary encomia over the head of a Kasper who had been something of a thorn in the side, theologically, of his immediate predecessor ... whom the new Pope Francis claimed to respect.
But doctrine is more important than any light all this throws upon Bergoglio's character. Talk about "Ontological Priority" can very easily sound like some sort of irrelevant academic nonsense. Rather like how many Angels can dance on the Head of a Needle. But the question of the ontological priority of the Universal or the Local Church is in no way some academic and theoretical irrelevance. Kasper, to be fair to him, would agree with this. It is a very practical question.
It is the theological basis of the question whether Germany, or wherever, can go its own way and "find its own solutions in response to the questions and problems of its own culture".
It raises the ultimate question of whether Christ is King, or whether each nation bows down before the idol of its own national Zeitgeist.
Some of this occurred on my blog some time ago; and the question of the title Patriarch of the West interested some readers. I reproduce some input by Professor Tighe upon this question, from an earlier thread.