Reflections on Francis and the deconstruction of the 'Imperial Papacy'

Reflections on Francis and the deconstruction of the ‘Imperial Papacy’

Reflections on Francis and the deconstruction of the ‘Imperial Papacy’

Pope Francis arrives in procession to celebrate Mass in San Gelasio parish church in Ponte Mammolo neighborhood, Rome, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

In several different ways, Pope Francis appears to be shaping a less "Vatican-centric" version of Catholicism.

News Analysis

ROME – Sometimes ideas arrive fully formed, springing like Athena from the head of Zeus, but other times they’re more of a slow burn, requiring multiple pieces of the picture to fall into place before they really take shape.

I’ve been working on one of those slow burn ideas recently, to wit: As we near the five-year anniversary of Francis’s election to the papacy next month, it’s becoming steadily clearer that a core aspect of his legacy may be a deconstruction of the strong “imperial papacy” many observers believe has taken shape over the last century or so.

Some of the choices contributing to that development seem to have been quite conscious and carefully planned, others largely thrust on Francis by circumstance, but in either case the result is the same.

Several individual pieces of the picture have helped bring that idea to focus.

To begin with, I recently did a TV bit with a longstanding friend, Frank Rocca of the Wall Street Journal, who made the point that Francis has either sidelined or, at least, weakened the traditional centrality of several Vatican departments, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

During the St. Pope John Paul II and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI years, the CDF especially was a key instrument of papal authority by practicing vigilance over the doctrinal fidelity of theologians and various Catholic entities. Today, while the CDF theoretically does continue to have that watchdog function, the manner in which it’s exercised is far less obtrusive and overt.

Moreover, Francis also has reduced the profile of the CDF simply by not always taking his cues from it on key doctrinal matters, sometimes preferring instead to consult his own advisers and experts.

Rocca said out loud during our TV discussion that perhaps one effect of all this would be to weaken the Vatican going forward, making it more difficult to “roll back” Francis’s legacy even if the next conclave were to choose a strong pope determined to do so.

On another front, during this week’s “Crux of the Matter” radio show on the Catholic Channel, which airs on Sirius XM 129 Mondays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time, my colleagues Inés San Martín, Claire Giangravé and I conducted one of our “Vatican Potpourri” segments, discussing the big Vatican stories of the past week.

One of the stories on the rundown was the situation in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria, where Francis last summer essentially threatened to bring down the wrath of God on any priest who wouldn’t submit to a new bishop appointed under Benedict XVI who’s never been able to set foot in the diocese, due to opposition related to his cultural and linguistic background.

Yet on Feb. 19, Francis accepted the resignation of the very prelate, Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, whose acceptance he had previously declared a red line – in June 2017, dramatically charging that those opposed to the bishop “want to destroy the church and are committing mortal sin.”

To at least some observers, the about-face sent a signal that the priests had called Francis’s bluff, and a precedent had been set that sufficiently entrenched refusal to accept papal mandates can produce the desired result.

Both San Martín and Giangravé were way ahead of me in connecting the dots between that story and reported developments in ongoing negotiations between the Vatican and China, as part of which Francis is said to be prepared to hand over a key role in the selection of Catholic bishops to the Chinese government.

The common term is that both stories raise this question: Ultimately, who’s in charge of picking bishops? Is it the pope, a national government, a noisy crowd of protestors who just refuse to go away, or who, exactly?

In both cases, Francis seems to have accepted relinquishing some of the autonomy in episcopal selections the Vatican has striven so mightily over the last century to achieve, in pursuit of a perceived greater good – peace in the diocese in Nigeria, and closer ties with one-fifth of humanity and a global superpower in China.

Having gone down the road a bit with this idea, I also thought of Francis’s decision in September of last year to transfer control over many matters of liturgical translation from Rome, and specifically the Vatican’s congregation on liturgy, to local bishops’ conferences around the world. There, too, a slice of the authority the Vatican had accumulated, in this case largely under Popes John Paul and Benedict, was transferred to someone else.

Of course, some critics of the Francis papacy may find the idea of him as a great distributor of power elsewhere hard to accept, given their reading that he’s actually fairly authoritarian in practice — “The Dictator Pope,” in the words of one recent and highly critical treatment.

Yet there’s a difference between weakening the Vatican, or the papacy, as institutions, and the manner in which a given pope wields the authority he still holds — and even in the most wildly decentralized version of Catholicism one can imagine, that authority is going to be considerable. Francis may be stubborn at times, he may involve himself personally in the operations of Vatican departments to an unusual degree, but none of that means he’s going to leave behind a papacy institutionally more powerful than when he found it.

In theory, too, a future pope could reverse all of these choices – wresting back control over liturgical texts, scrapping the deal with China, ramming a bishop of his choosing into Ahiara, and beefing back up the role of the Vatican’s traditional heavyweight offices.

History, however, teaches that power, once abdicated, can be difficult to regain.

One could go on citing examples, such as the creation of the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers to ensure that leaders of local churches have at least as much influence on Vatican policy as Roman mandarins, and the way he’s expanded the role of the Synod of Bishops. There are also exceptions that prove the rule, such as the steady re-accumulation of power in the Secretariat of State on Francis’s watch.

None of those considerations, however, really change the big picture.

When we write up this pope’s legacy, alongside the “Pope of the Poor” and the “People’s Pope,” we may also need to make room for “Francis the Deconstructor.”

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