Since time immemorial, the dominant principle of organization in the Catholic Church has been geographical – the pastor rules his parish and the bishop his diocese, both of which are defined by territory. Bishops’ conferences and federations of those conferences are organized nationally and continentally. Even religious orders, which deliberately exist outside the diocesan structure, usually are organized into territorial provinces.
Yet increasingly, we live in a world in which geography, if not quite irrelevant, is at least relative. In the second half of the 20th century, accelerating mobility and ease of travel ate away at geography’s hold on social life, and, in the 21st century, the emergence of digital culture has further weakened it.
Over the centuries, Catholicism has generated new pastoral models to respond to just such changing conditions. The birth of the great monastic communities came out of the disintegration of the Roman empire, just as the mendicant orders in the 12th and 13th centuries aimed to evangelize the new urban centers, and many missionary communities were a response to the Age of Discovery.
Today, most experts would say there’s a similar need to generate new models to respond to a less territorially defined social situation. The personal prelature is such an instrument, but its potential application has been frozen in place for decades for reasons having more to do with politics than pastoral logic.