Ken Kollman on Church Centralization
Date: February 1st, 2015

Why do institutions that begin as federations, with power located in (semi-)autonomous units, have a tendency to concentrate power in a central executive authority over time?  Prof. Ken Kollman, professor of political science at the University of Michigan and author of Perils of Centralization, discusses his theory of institutional centralization, which he has applied to such entities as the United States, the European Union, and General Motors.  For our purposes, though, we concentrate on his theory’s application to the Roman Catholic Church over the past century and a half.

Our conversation begins with a discussion of how Prof. Kollman became interested in this project and how it came to include the Catholic Church as an important case study.  He mentions having examined a number of different cases including the Roman Empire and the Iroquois Nation, but explains how he came to concentrate on the US, EU, GM, and the Catholic Church.  Tony praises Ken’s examination of the Catholic Church using the tools of political science given that few scholars apply those theoretical and conceptual tools to one of the world’s oldest governing institution.  We ruminate about the comparisons of apples and oranges a bit.  Ken also provides a bit of a confessional background regarding his own Catholic faith and his brother’s choice to become a priest.

Ken then lays out his general theory of executive centralization.  He starts with federated units and then shows how an overarching governing institution designed to coordinate some of these lower-level and autonomous units begins to build a bureaucracy, absorbs the power to define authoritative relationships and decision-making, and then amasses resources that makes it difficult to wrest authority back from this central executive.  Ken leads us through five stages of this process beginning with the assent given by the authorities at lower levels to have more decision-making occur at a higher level.  This leads to a situation of representative centralization wherein local level authorities have some say in decisions at the center and the center begins to become the locus of greater decision-making.  The third (and critical) phase is that of partisanship.  This is not about an ideological partisanship based upon world views, but instead is a sorting out process where subunit representatives who have authority at the federal level develop a set of interests that are apart from the interests of those at the local level.  Tony brings up the issue of career trajectories of individuals within organizations.  As some lower-level authorities may aspire to higher-level office at some point, they have an incentive to allow greater concentration of power at the upper level.  Ken agrees that this is an important part of the dynamic process.  This all leads to the fourth and fifth stages of executive centralization and “lock-in,” wherein the central executive gains the ability to define the terms of authoritative relationships and through the agglomeration of resources makes it difficult for the process of centralization to be reversed.  While decentralization is not impossible at this time, Ken likens the end process to gravity wherein it does take considerable effort to escape the pull.  We also talk about the role that various crises play in catalyzing this process.

We then turn to the case of the Roman Catholic Church.  Tony notes how well Ken’s theory fits with the Church during its first four centuries, particularly around the time of the Edict of Milan and the First Council of Nicaea.  Ken mentions how Church history also shows these ebbs and flows over the course of the medieval era as well.  Nonetheless, Prof. Kollman’s research attention hones in on the latter half of the 19th century forward.  Following he Wars of the Italian States and the rapid decrease in secular ruling authority exercised by the Vatican, we follow how ecclesiastical authority is increasingly centralized in the papacy and Curia.  Ken points out the critical importance of Vatican Council I and how the need to come to terms with increasing modernization and liberal political tendencies in Europe led to more authority being invested in the Curia.  Not surprisingly, this is the era where papal infallibility is promoted as an idea of governance.  We move throughout history and examine whether Vatican Council II represented a reversal of papal authority.  While in many ways an opening to the modern world, we learn that although John XXIII may have been favorable to decentralization within the Church, Paul VI came under pressure from a series of conservative bishops to preserve the central authority of the papacy.  This fits well with the notion of “partisanship” and the career interests of those who have risen in the ranks of the religious hierarchy.

We finish off with some thoughts about whether, and how, decentralization might take place.  Tony brings up various movements such as Opus Dei and liberation theology that appear to seek greater autonomy at local levels.  He also details the story of Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian who was censured by the Vatican for his radical views on church decentralization.  Ken ruminates about the possibility that Pope Francis will change the direction of institutional centralization.  While pointing out that Francis has been trying to clean up some problems within the Curia, he does not expect to see much of a decentralization of authority any time soon.  Recorded: January 21, 2015.


Prof. Ken Kollman’s bio at the political science department at the University of Michigan.

Center for Political Studies (University of Michigan).

Perils of Centralization: Lessons from Church, State, and Corporation, by Ken Kollman.

The American Political System, by Ken Kollman.

Outside Lobbying: Public Opinion and Interest Group Strategies, by Ken Kollman.

The Formation of National Party Systems, by Pradeep Chhibber and Ken Kollman.


R.R. Reno on Pop(e) Francis.

James Felak on Picking Pontiffs and Pope Francis.

James Felak on Vatican Council II.

James Felak on Pope Pius XII, the Wartime Pontiff.

James Felak on Pope John Paul II and Communism.

Sarah Bond on the Church and Funerals in Late Antiquity.

Tim Kelleher on the Nicene Creed.

James Papandrea on the Early Church Fathers and Patristic Exegesis.

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