Under a hurried pope, are we witnessing a slowing down of the papacy?


ROME – When it comes to the relationship between a pope and the papacy he heads, the correspondence is never exact. Yes, a papacy directly reflects the personality and vision of the pope, but it is also shaped by the instincts and perspectives, as well as the weaknesses and limitations, of all those who serve it.

It has sometimes been said of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, for example, that it possesses most of its pope’s vices – inability to manage, stubborn loyalty to bad people, and strong devotion to tradition – without much its virtues. , especially the towering intellect and deeply spiritual nature that always defined Joseph Ratzinger.

In the case of Pope Francis, the relationship between the Pope and the Papacy is further complicated by the fact that Pope Francis has a love / hate relationship with the system that sustains his reign, sometimes entrusting him with the management of affairs and others. times taking things straight into his own hands.

As a result, the papacy can sometimes appear to be suffering from a Multiple Personality Disorder, depending on who is actually driving the train on a given issue. One area where this gap between the Pope and the Papacy is most evident is the pace at which things are moving.

From the start, Pope Francis has been clearly proud of his profile as a maverick, an innovator ready to make his way through centuries of customary and institutional inertia in order to make things happen.

Pope Francis speaks during a meeting with finance ministers and senior economic experts at the Vatican on February 5, 2020. Sitting next to the Pope is Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Academy Pontifical of Sciences and of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. (CNS / Vatican Media)

At 85, and despite the impact of severe colon surgery over the summer and his ongoing sciatica attacks, he is still capable of being exceptionally agile. Recently, for example, he accepted the resignation of Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris just seven days after it was offered, and on the first day of the pontiff’s trip to Greece and Malta.

Given the Vatican’s general reluctance to postpone any major business while the Pope is on the road, the footage suggests that Pope Francis knew what he wanted and was not interested in a five-day delay simply because ‘he was going to be out of town.

Indeed, sometimes his apparent determination not to slow down can be an Achilles heel. In just a few months in 2019 and 2020, he signed four separate “rulings” that gave prosecutors broad powers unrecognized by current law – such as a virtually unlimited ability to use wiretaps and other means of defense. intercept electronic communications – in order to speed up a trial over the Vatican’s $ 400 million land deal in London that has gone dramatically wrong.

The Pope got his trial, although early hearings suggest disorganization, confusion over strategy and a deep reluctance to share all the results of their investigations on the part of prosecutors. With hindsight, one wonders if the company would not have benefited from a more voluntary pace at the start, so that the “trial of the century” does not end up collapsing under its own weight.

On other fronts, however, where the main driving force appears to be less the Pope than the Papacy, the Vatican is capable of being as frigid as it has ever been.

Consider, for example, the publication of a new apostolic constitution governing the Roman Curia, supposedly the backbone of that papacy’s campaign for internal reform. It has been in the works since, almost literally, five minutes after Pope Francis’ election in March 2013, and has yet to see the light of day.

Many predictions for 2022 predicted that we will finally get the constitution within the next 12 months, but, for the record, the predictions for 2021, 2020, etc., contained roughly the same. The waters became more cloudy recently when Pope Francis asked the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization to take charge of planning for the jubilee year in 2025 – an office that supposedly was to be integrated into the Congregation for the evangelization of peoples, and therefore disappear, once the reform is completed.

(This plan may now be under consideration, as Cardinal Peter Turkson’s recent exit from the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development would suggest that simply putting different offices under one administrative roof, without a blueprint on the way the new entity is supposed to operate, is not necessarily “reform”.)

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. (CNS / Paul Haring)

Or consider replacing the heads of Vatican departments, seven of whom are sturdy already over 75, the usual retirement age for bishops, and two of them – Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi on the Pontifical Council for Culture and Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – will in fact be 80 years old this year.

Of course, no one else can name a new leadership for Pope Francis. Yet it feels like no one really starts a fire under him to do it either.

It could all just be standard bureaucratic psychology, that is, “it’s much harder to get in trouble for the decisions you don’t make than for the ones you make”. On the flip side, there may be two more reasons why the junior architects of Pope Francis’ papacy tend to put their foot on the brakes when the boss is not stepping on the gas.

First, in most papal authorities the pope tends to defer many routine governance matters to his subordinates, so that these figures are prompted to act. Pope Francis, however, insists on making the big decisions himself, and since it is often difficult to know in advance what he will consider “big,” the safest course is often restraint.

Additionally, sometimes the key figures around the Pope, consciously or unconsciously, take it upon themselves to protect the boss from his perceived vulnerabilities by leaning in the opposite direction. For a pope known to be impatient, and at times capable of being no doubt a little reckless, this instinct tends to be cautious.

However you explain it, a distinct feature of Pope Francis’ papacy, especially as it gets closer and closer to the decade, seems to be the old mantra of the US military: ” Hurry up and wait.


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