Paul Collins, Catholic writer


Signs of the Papal Times – an Assessment of the New Papacy

21 April 2013

Pope Francis with Jesuit General Father Adolfo Nicolas Pope Francis with Jesuit General Father Adolfo Nicolas

At first all we had to go on were the signs. The first sign was when Pope Bergoglio defined himself by taking the name Francis after the rich man from Assisi who repudiated his wealth to live like Christ, the poor man who had nowhere to lay his head. Then we saw a pope who ‘dressed down’ without the ermine lined, red mozzetta (the short cape worn over the shoulders) and the metres of lace that had characterised the previous papacy. Francis has rejected the trappings of ‘royalty’ moving out of the papal palazzo and into the quite modest, motel-like and accessible Casa Sancta Marta in the Vatican grounds. All the signs pointed not only to a different style but to a substantial change in direction.

Five weeks into his papacy Francis has moved-on from signs and now squarely faces tackling the hard issues. So far (21 April 2013) he has only appointed eleven bishops and nine of these would have been in the appointment system well before he was elected. But Francis has personally appointed two: Mario Aurelio Poli, 65, to replace him in Buenos Aires and Jose Rodriguez Carballo, OFM, 59, former minister general of the Franciscans and President of the International Union of Superiors General, who has been appointed Secretary to the Vatican congregation that oversees religious orders. What are these men like?

Poli was described by Norberto Padilla of the Catholic University of Argentina as someone “who was very close to Bergoglio” with a similar episcopal style. Carballo was also personally known to Bergoglio before he became pope. As a major superior in a mainstream religious order it can be safely assumed that Friar (now Archbishop) Carballo would be an ecclesiological moderate who seeks collaboration rather than confrontation. So while Francis seems to have ‘reaffirmed’ the findings of an on-going Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States, Carballo’s appointment indicates that from Francis’ perspective he wants churchmen sympathetic to religious orders to deal with the whole affair and help overcome the tensions involved in this whole Vatican/US bishops-manufactured fiasco. US Jesuit James Martin says he is convinced that “The LCWR will ... get a fair hearing from Pope Francis” (America, 15 April 2013). Nevertheless this is a still a worrying issue.

If Francis doesn’t understand that US women religious are so much closer to his own ideals of social justice and to the reality of the life experience and aspirations of the vast majority of Catholics in the developed world than the US bishops and hierarchs will ever be, then he has a lot to learn. His closeness to the poor is admirable, but the poor have two aims: firstly to survive and then to achieve middle class status (India is a prime example of this), or to migrate to a developed country. Then they will be facing the same existential issues as we are in a country like Australia; they will be educated Catholics with the same preoccupations as the vast majority of us have. So perhaps the US sisters and the LCWR might become a test case for Pope Francis’ real understanding of the broader church.

In contrast we have Francis’ appointment of eight cardinals to act as a kind of ‘kitchen cabinet’. With a very broad remit, they have clearly been appointed on the basis of geographical regions; several represent regional bishops’ conferences (Asia, Latin American, Europe), and others like George Pell represent specific regions such as Oceania.

According to the Vatican communiqué the group’s function is “to advise [Francis] in the government of the universal church and to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus.” Perhaps significant are the facts that only one cardinal (Giuseppe Bertello) has been appointed from the Vatican and he comes not from the curia but from the government of the Vatican City State, and that the co-ordinator of the group is Cardinal Óscar Andreś Rodriguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, a highly talented, multi-lingual, outspoken moderate progressive. Vatican commentator, Sandro Magister (, says that “with the sole exception of the Australian Pell ... all of the other cardinals [belong] ... to the moderate or progressive camp of the College of Cardinals.”

Pastor Bonus was issued by John Paul II in June 1988. It outlines the roles and functions of the Secretariat of State, the congregations, tribunals and pontifical councils and other organs of the Holy See. Essentially it did little more than tinker with the functions of the Secretariat of State and confirmed its leadership role in the governance of the curia, and set out the already existing functions and competencies of the various bodies of the curia. But, as Thomas J. Reese points out, it did re-enforce “the sense that ... [the Roman curia] is the center and the rest of the world is the periphery” (Inside the Vatican, p 159). This assumption that ‘Rome knows best’ is precisely the problem anyone reforming the curia is going to have to confront.

Much more significant even than reform of the curia is the fact that Francis clearly intends that this kitchen cabinet becomes a realization in action of the Vatican II doctrine of collegiality. A key phrase in the communiqué said the cardinals’ task is “to advise [the pope] in the governance of the universal church.” This is a much more radical statement than appears at first sight. In fact, it is unprecedented in the second millennium of papal history.

In the first millennium the pope was advised by the Roman Synod. This “was made up of the bishop of Rome meeting with the bishops of the surrounding area”, as well as the senior priests of Rome diocese, the men who from about the beginning of the sixth century were called ‘cardinals’. The Roman Synod “was unique in that it dealt not only with local ecclesiastical matters, but also with wider issues that had impact beyond the geographical area of central Italy. The popes used the Roman Synod as a forum for discussion and decision-making on issues that had a wider application and impact than the pope’s own metropolitan sphere”      (Paul Collins: Upon This Rock. The Popes and Their Changing Role (2000), p 46). For the first thousand years of Christianity the essence of church government was collegial and synodal. This was lost by increasingly ‘high’ papal pretensions in the second millennium culminating in the definitions of papal primacy and infallibility at Vatican Council I (1870).

The whole exercise of appointing this kitchen cabinet indicates that Francis takes collegiality seriously and, while he might not have the Roman Synod of the first millennium explicitly in mind, he is actually beginning to create a very similar body except that its membership reflects the universal church. This is a genuinely revolutionary move and will in itself help to relativise the curia’s influence and give a voice to local bishops and the wider community of the church.

This group of cardinals will not be meeting formally until 1-3 October 2013. This will be over six months into Francis’ papacy. However, they will be in contact with each other in the meantime and the pope will be able to talk to them personally on the phone, one of his favoured means of communication. Clearly the group is already operative.

Perhaps the delay in getting them together is caused by Francis’ emphasis on being bishop of Rome. Maybe he wants to get a handle on the problems besetting his own diocese before he tackles wider problems and the dysfunctionality of the curia. He has, after all, strongly emphasized that he is the bishop of Rome, another unequivocal return to the tradition of the first millennium church.

Catholicism in Rome faces the same pastoral problems as Catholicism throughout Western Europe: poor church attendance, religious indifference, secularism and anticlericalism, declining numbers of priests and religious and a pervasive feeling that the church is irrelevant to real life. In 1994 the then Papal Vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini referred to Rome as “a de-Christianized city.” Most tourists only see the historical centre of the city and miss the sprawling and often ugly suburbs where congestion, high density living, pollution, immigration and population growth make life difficult. So if Francis’ priority is on being bishop of Rome then he is going to have to deal with these issues. Certainly his style as archbishop of Buenos Aires was not confrontational but consultative, and perhaps he wants to take his time to discern in the best Ignatian fashion the direction he should take first as Rome’s local bishop and only then as pope.

Certainly reform of the curia is a priority and this was made clear by many cardinals before the conclave. However, personally I think it would be a mistake for Francis to concentrate all his energy on this moribund body. As I suggested in my book Papal Power (1997) probably the best thing he could do would be to abolish it entirely and set-up a small, more efficient papal secretariat. Then he could begin to take collegiality seriously and delegate major decisions such as liturgical translations, appointment of bishops, dealing with sexual abuse and other local issues to national and regional bishops’ conferences where traditionally such decisions belong.

Given that this is an unlikely scenario, what issues concerning the curia will the group of eight be considering? No doubt they will be looking at cutting down the size of the curia. It has grown considerably since Vatican II and its tentacles extended into all areas of church life. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were fewer than 200 people working in the Roman Curia; in November 2011 there were 2,832 working within the curia, and a further 1,876 working for the Vatican City State. Clearly the size of the curia needs to be tackled and bodies such as the Secretariat of State needs to be trimmed in size and Congregations like Causes of Saints, Clergy and Catholic Education abolished. Many of the Pontifical Councils should be combined and others like the Councils for the Family and the so-called ‘New Evangelization’ closed down. They serve no useful purpose.

Secondly, the curia needs to learn to work co-operatively. At present it acts like a series of feudal baronies involved in endless, low level and often vicious internecine warfare. In other words, the curia needs to learn to act collegially. Thirdly, the curia has to learn that it doesn’t own the church, lock, stock and barrel. It is there to assist the pope, not to act as a universal, bureaucratic micro-manager of every aspect of Catholicism. Sando Magister says it needs to be “less suffocating” of the local churches. To achieve these aims the papal kitchen cabinet and Pope Francis will need to act decisively. Only time will tell whether they have been successful.

But what we do know for sure is that a sea change has occurred with the advent of Pope Bergoglio. His election has shifted the emphasis in Catholicism from a preoccupation with irrelevant and peripheral internal issues like reunion with Lefebvre’s schismatics, liturgical minutiae and translation, denunciation of ‘secularism’, and endless culture wars over gender and sexual issues. No longer are moderate or progressive Catholics going to be beaten over the head with nonsensical claims about so-called ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ and the ‘hermeneutics of rupture’, as though we thought that somehow Catholicism had been re-founded completely during Vatican II.

Francis has challenged the church to leave the sacristy to those who love lace and baroque dress-ups. Genuine Catholics live in the real world and deal with the central issues facing us: ecological disaster, poverty, racism, inequality, hunger, social justice. He has refocused the church on these truly important issues.

And the emphasis on collegiality means more than just pope and bishops working together. It also includes lay people and priests co-operating with each other and with the bishops in the ministry and the leadership of the Church. It challenges all of us to work co-operatively to build up both the community and the kingdom of God. Having left the sacristy it is now our responsibility to make conscientious decisions trusting that the Spirit of God informs the whole Christian community, not just the Roman curia or the hierarchy. As Cardinal Newman said it is about time the people of God were “consulted”.

Whether or not he lives up to present expectations, Pope Francis has already lifted a burden from our shoulders that has been there since the 1978 election of John Paul II and freed and encouraged us once again to be proud ‘Vatican II Catholics’!

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