ROME – Late this week, news broke of a fairly dramatic papal intervention in an important archdiocese in India. Through the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches, Pope Francis has essentially decapitated the sitting cardinal there and imposed his own administrator, charging him with getting to the bottom of a mushrooming financial scandal and also dealing with toxic divisions among the clergy.
The language used in the instructions sent to the new administrator are remarkable in their brute force: Cardinal George Alencherry, accused of orchestrating land deals that led to the loss of over $10 million, “should absolutely not be involved in the decisions” regarding his own archdiocese.
That flexing of papal muscle is merely the most recent instance in which Francis has reached down and made his presence felt in a local church somewhere in the world.
Earlier this year, Francis appointed a new bishop for the troubled Nigerian diocese of Ahiara, to take over from a bishop named in 2012 by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI who was never able to set foot in the diocese because he wasn’t from the same linguistic and cultural group as the majority of the Catholic population.
That decision came after Francis demanded that every priest in the diocese write to personally apologize for their defiance, and he threatened them with suspension if they failed to comply.
As is well known, Francis has also taken the situation in the Latin American nation of Chile into his own hands, where a widening clerical sexual abuse scandal has become unavoidable for the pontiff. He’s met with two groups of victims from Chile and priests who work with them, and last month he summoned all the bishops of the country to Rome for an extraordinary three-day summit.
That session ended with all the Chilean bishops submitting their resignation en masse. Since then, Francis has accepted three of the resignations, including that of Bishop Juan Barros, whose 2015 appointment to the rural Diocese of Osorno started the ball rolling on the crisis.
Francis issued a lengthy set of marching orders to the Chilean bishops while they were in Rome, culminating in clear instructions that they are to recapture the sense of being a “prophetic” Church, which, according to the pontiff, once characterized Chilean Catholicism, but, at some point, was lost.
Most recently, the Vatican at Francis’s direction informed the Catholic bishops of Germany that a draft set of guidelines approved by three-quarters of them clearing the way for inter-communion for the Protestant spouses of Catholics are “premature” and cannot be published as they stand.
On the papal plane on Thursday returning from a day trip to Geneva, Francis made clear that when Spanish Archbishop Luis Ladaria, a fellow Jesuit and prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, originally issued that “no” to the German prelates, he did so with the pope’s explicit permission and approval.
In his comments to reporters on the plane, Francis said that one problem with the German proposal is that it assumes it’s up to bishops’ conferences to make decisions on inter-communion, when in reality it’s up to the local bishop to decide what’s allowable under the limits marked out by Church law.
(As a footnote, this is another instance in which, despite his reputation as a maverick, Francis actually is moving in continuity with his predecessors St. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The 1998 document Apostolos Suos, issued under John Paul and prepared largely by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was intended precisely to insist that a conference can never replace the judgment of an individual bishop on matters of faith and morals, always to be exercised in communion with the tradition and with Rome.)
In other words, we’ve had several clear instances just in recent months in which Francis has all but taken over the judgment of a local church, at least on specific matters, issuing orders and drawing lines in the sand, then insisting on obedience.
The irony here, of course, is that Francis is also the pope who continually preaches the need for a “healthy decentralization” in Catholicism, and who loves to insist that not all questions in the Church need to be answered in Rome.
Given his background in CELAM, the Episcopal Conference of Latin America, it’s unsurprising that Francis continually extols the importance of bishops’ conferences and the local church. As one sign of that commitment, it’s become routine in his documents that a healthy share of his footnotes aren’t just to previous papal teaching but also to texts issued by bishops’ conferences around the world.
In October 2017, Francis also decreed that from now on, most responsibility for making decisions about liturgical translation will pass from Rome to local bishops and bishops’ conferences. He sees that move as a logical application of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), for which the principle of “collegiality,” or shared authority, was a defining pillar.
So, what gives? It’s not just that Francis has engaged local situations, but in the last few months, he’s seemingly become even more willing to do so.
The only possible conclusion is that sometimes, a pope just can’t help being the pope.
Ultimately, a far-flung community of faith of 1.4 billion people scattered in every nook and cranny of the planet experiences incredibly powerful centrifugal forces. If unity in Catholicism is to be anything other than notional, somebody has to have not only the moral standing but also the authority to hold things together.
Francis clearly has decided that however much he may wish that local churches could figure things out for themselves, there will be times when he just has to act.
Therein, perhaps, lies an important lesson for critics of papal imperialism: Sure, the system may need to be reformed – but if we didn’t have something like a pope, we’d probably have to invent it.