The Pope is not afraid to exercise his supreme power. But will it be enough?
The papal visit to Chile in January went up in flames. A smouldering sexual abuse crisis exploded due to a series of mistakes by Pope Francis. Since then, he has been the chief fireman, arson investigator and now architect of the rebuilding, all of which have earned him high marks for addressing the rot in the Chilean Church.
The New York Times, a reliable barometer of the secular liberal opinion which is a key supporter of Pope Francis’s pastoral strategy, castigated the Holy Father in January. In May, the editorial board was back to singing his praises.
It has been an astonishing five months. On the eve of the visit to Chile, the dominant question was why Pope Francis had gone ahead with the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros in the face of strong opposition from all sectors of Chilean society, including the most senior bishops. Now the whole Barros matter is very much secondary; Bishop Barros himself has not been seen in his diocese for nearly two months. The focus is now upon the Pope as the solution, not the problem, with the Holy Father, to switch metaphors, acting as prosecutor and judge of the entire Chilean episcopate, who offered their resignations en masse.
It is a triumph for the distinctive managerial style of Pope Francis, in which he acts as his own centre of initiative, bypassing entirely the officials of the Roman Curia. At the same time it is a risk, for in choosing to reform the Chilean Church from the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Holy Father is attempting a managerial task unprecedented task in the post-conciliar Church.
The Second Vatican Council taught clearly that “the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.”
The Pope has as much authority as any local bishop anywhere; more authority, in fact, because as supreme legislator he can amend the canon law which binds bishops. Yet the post-conciliar era has also been marked by a complementary, if not competing, ethos, that of collegiality and synodality. During the 2014 and 2015 synods Pope Francis held up Blessed Paul VI’s decision to reconvene the Synod of Bishops as a landmark development in the life of the Church.
Yet the synods themselves pointed to the tension between collegiality and papal initiative. The synods were managed with a clear eye toward advancing a particular outcome, so much so that several of the most senior cardinals – in the Roman Curia and around the world – objected to the manipulation. After the synod, the subsequent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, was not drafted over the course of a year or more in consultation with the elected synodal council, as had previously been the case. Rather it was drafted by the Pope’s inner circle at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, ready within six weeks.
Likewise, for his major initiatives on curial reform, financial reform, sexual abuse and the liturgy, Pope Francis has sidelined the competent curial offices in favour of special ad hoc commissions which report to him directly. It has enabled him to act with great speed, announcing his reforms before any bureaucratic manoeuvres can be deployed to block them. And when he has reversed the reforms after changing his mind, the same unilateral action has proven as effective in the opposite direction.
The Chilean crisis has made manifest that managerial style with the whole world watching. For two months, after receiving the report of his special investigators, all of the action has been initiated by Pope Francis. On Divine Mercy Sunday he wrote to the Chilean bishops blaming them for his “grave errors in judgment” and summoning them to Rome. He met for several days on two occasions with Chilean sexual abuse victims, making the Domus Sanctae Marthae the specific geographical centre of response. When the Chilean bishops convened in Rome, the Holy Father met them in a small hall a few steps away from his residence, rather than in any of the offices of the Roman Curia. During that meeting, Pope Francis castigated the bishops without pity, concluding the meeting by receiving all their resignations, making himself the de facto bishop of an entire country, an emergency measure that will last as long as the Holy Father desires.
An exercise of papal power so intense, fast-moving and far-reaching is without equal by any of the Holy Father’s recent predecessors. Indeed, the only comparable flexing of papal muscle would be in regard to the Knights of Malta where, in the space of about two months, Pope Francis sacked the head of the order and effectively suspended its sovereign status.
The Chilean crisis has clarified that Pope Francis is truly a man of Vatican II. He emphasises the collegial spirit of the Council, but he also favours following the letter of the documents, which made clear his supreme power. The Chilean crisis is testing now whether papal authority alone will be sufficient.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the June 8 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here