For those accustomed to watching Pope Francis in action, what happened on Sunday, when the pope issued a public reply to Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea over Sarah’s interpretation of the pontiff’s recent document Magnum Principium and whether it means a loss of control by the Vatican over liturgical translation (Francis insists it does), may have come as a surprise.
Sarah is the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In a commentary on Magnum Principium earlier this month, he downplayed its implications for the Vatican’s role in translation, claiming his office could still “impose” certain decisions.
Not so, Francis told Sarah: “The process of translating the relevant liturgical texts … should not lead to a spirit of ‘imposition’ on the bishops’ conferences of a translation carried out by the congregation, because that would offend the rights of bishops sanctioned in Church law,” he wrote.
Such a swift and direct reply by the pontiff may seem out of character.
This is a pope, after all, who said in a 2016 interview that he “doesn’t lose any sleep” over critics of his decisions, and has made not engaging those criticisms almost a principle of governance. Most famously, he’s never directly replied to the five critical questions, or dubia, submitted by four cardinals, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke, about his much-discussed document on the family Amoris Laetitia.
Why, then, one might wonder, was Francis so quick to answer in his own name, almost point-by-point, Sarah’s take on Magnum Principium?
There probably are at least three factors at work.
First, the cardinals who submitted the dubia on Amoris Laetitia have no official authority over either how that document will be implemented on the ground, or interpreted in Rome. None heads, for instance, the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, a department instead led by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell.
In the case of Magnum Principium, however, Sarah is the Vatican’s top liturgical official, actually running the department charged with putting the document into action. If he’s not in sync with the pope, therefore, that gap undoubtedly has to be more worrying for the pontiff, who clearly wants his new policy to be faithfully implemented.
(Of course, this is hardly the first perceived gap between Francis and Sarah, and likely will reinforce the longstanding question in some quarters of why the pope doesn’t simply make a change. Alas, trying to understand why such house-cleaning isn’t always Francis’s first instinct would take us too far afield here.)
Second, in comparing Amoris with Magnum Principium, we may be dealing with differing levels of readiness by Francis to be precise.
Amoris, with its controversial opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics after a process of discernment, involves a change to what had been the official discipline of the Church. Whether that change is an organic development of tradition or a rupture with it remains a subject of debate, but, in any case, it’s something new, and divisions over it were abundantly clear during the two Synods of Bishops the pope called in 2014 and 2015 to help shape the document.
(Allowing some divorced and remarried believers to receive Communion is “new,” that is, in the sense of being ratified in official papal teaching. Of course, in some parts of the Catholic world it’s been the quiet practice for a long time.)
Perhaps because of that, Francis may feel the Church needs some pastoral experience with the new discipline – in effect, some R&D – before he’s ready to spell out, in binding detail, all its nuances and implications.
When it comes to liturgical translation, however, Francis obviously seems to believe we’ve already had the necessary pastoral experience, and now it’s time to spell out how things are going to work from here on out.
Francis was, after all, an Argentinian bishop and later cardinal during the 1990s and 2000s, at the peak of the “liturgy wars” in the Catholic Church. Although the Spanish-speaking world was never quite as caught up in those tussles as the English- and German-speakers, he was well aware of the grumbling among bishops around the world over what they saw as an overweening concentration of power in Rome.
(I remember vividly listening to Japanese prelates, for instance, complain in the late 1990s that carefully-pondered translations were being rejected or modified by the Vatican’s liturgy congregation – where, needless to say, no one spoke Japanese, so the decisions were being driven by nameless “consulters” someplace, taking precedence over the official judgments of an entire conference of bishops.)
Francis is a deep believer in bishops’ conferences, shaped in part by his experience within the Episcopal Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean, known as CELAM. Over the years in Argentina, he also had his own brushes with what he considered an overly interventionist Vatican, with some of his own decisions subject to question or his own recommendations overturned.
Given all that, it would seem that in this case, Francis doesn’t see the need for any more R&D. For him, it’s past time to launch the new product.
Third, we may also be dealing with differing papal levels of intensity on an issue.
On Amoris, Francis repeatedly has expressed irritation with the tight focus on the Communion debate, even suggesting he dealt with it in the document only in a footnote to emphasize that he believes there are far bigger issues when it comes to the fate of the family in the early 21st century.
Here’s how he put it in a 2016 news conference:
When I called the first synod, most of the media were concerned with one question: Will the divorced and remarried be able to receive communion? Since I am not a saint, this was somewhat annoying to me, and even made me a bit sad. Because I think: those media that say all these things, don’t they realize that’s not the important issue? Don’t they realize that the family, all over the world, is in crisis? And the family is the basis of society! Don’t they realize that young people don’t want to get married? Don’t they realize that the declining birth rate in Europe is enough to make us weep? Don’t they realize that the shortage of jobs and employment opportunities is forcing fathers and mothers to take two jobs and children to grow up by themselves and not learn how to talk with their mothers and fathers? These are the big issues!
When it comes to liturgical translation and who calls the shots, however, Francis may well believe that’s not a footnote, but the main event. He clearly sees himself as a pope of Vatican II, and sees what he’s called a “healthy decentralization” in the Church as core to a proper application of the council’s legacy.
As a result, maybe Francis isn’t quite as prone to becoming annoyed when people question his decisions on that score – because, as he sees it, at least they’re not missing the point.
These three considerations may not add up to a comprehensive explanation, but perhaps they at least provide some food for thought as to why this time, Francis wasn’t only willing but actually eager to answer someone’s dubia.