Good ecclesiastical governance takes time, writes Hugh Somerville Knapman OSB
FOUR APOSTOLIC LETTERS have already appeared this year; in 2021 there were eight, in 2020 five, and in 2019 another eight. In a pontificate now into its tenth year, Pope Francis has issued a total of 49; Benedict XVI issued 13 in eight years, and St John Paul II issued 31 in almost 27 years. Generally, letters such as these—issued motu proprio, “by personal, or particular, initiative”—are a legal instrument by which a pontiff enacts or changes a piece of canon or administrative law.
John Paul II issued them to create the Labour Office of the Holy See, to regulate the Curia’s pension plan, to create the Ecclesia Dei commission that regulated the liberalization of the pre-Vatican II liturgies, and to clarify which grave offences were reserved to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for adjudication. Benedict XVI used them to modify the rules for electing a pope, for tightening the financial regulations of the Vatican, and—famously—to remove most restrictions of the celebration of the pre-Vatican II rites.
Pope Francis has often used them in the same way, such as to refine the financial regulations of the Vatican or to rearrange curial departments. Last year he issued one, Traditionis custodes, which undid Benedict XVI’s Summorum pontificum and re-restricted the pre-conciliar liturgy. He has also used the instrument to establish the ministry of catechist, and to open the ministries of lector and acolyte to women. In the latter instances the work would normally have fallen the Congregation for Divine Worship, which means he has effectively by-passed the dicastery entirely.
The Franciscan way is to rule by decree; the most recent motu proprio, Ad charisma tuendum, which was issued on 14 July, seems to have come from nowhere. By it the Holy Father has removed the personal prelature Opus Dei from the care of the dicastery of bishops to that of clergy, at the same time decreeing that the prelate concerned will no longer be made a bishop. To the complacent eye it seems a fairly minor piece of legal tinkering; given the way that Pope Francis makes liberal use of the motu proprio to advance his agenda, however, we can be sure there is more to it.
What might be that agenda be? It is no secret that the Society of Jesus, which the Holy Father joined in 1958, holds Opus Dei in odium. Yet there seems more to this than simply adding a goal to the Jesuit scorecard. Opus Dei has a mixed reputation in the Church, being seen as secretive and almost cult-like; Dan Brown relied heavily on this reputation in The Da Vinci Code of 2003. In Latin America especially Opus Dei has wielded significant ecclesiastical and political influence, and it is worth remembering in this context that Pope Francis was previously Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
By demoting the future prelates of Opus Dei to monsignorial rather than episcopal status the Holy Father has dealt a blow to the prelature’s prestige and standing. Moreover, even though Opus Dei is overwhelmingly composed of laity and promotes a lay spirituality of sanctification in the world and workplace, the pope has not transferred oversight to the dicastery for laity. Pope Francis clearly holds that its influence lies in its clerical members. Ad charisma tuendum declares that “the pre-eminent task carried out in [Opus Dei]” is done by “clerics”.
The Holy Father may be working to several programmes here. One of them seems to be his apparent desire to laicise the Church, by reducing and constraining the role of clergy and bishops. For all his talk of collegiality, he has little time for bishops exercising their own authority if it does not cohere with his own policies; time and again he has belittled and berated the lower clergy for what he perceives to be clericalism. Synodality is increasingly emerging as another instrument by which he can work around both Curia and clergy in the exercise of the Church’s mission to teach, by elevating the role and voice of the laity—or at least some of them.
The Vatican recently issued a declaration that sought to put brakes on the runaway German Synodal Way. The German synodal process has been dominated by lay activists promoting a particular set of issues in the life of the Church, and has been brazen in its desire to change (among other things) the Church’s teachings on human sexuality and ordination. The declaration called the Germans to order, warning them in thinly-veiled language that the Synodal Way was in danger of leading the Church in Germany into schism.
Ironically, the prominent liberal and papal favourite Cardinal Walter Kasper has been one of the loudest to sound the alarm. Rome is now seeking to regain some control over a process that Pope Francis encouraged, but over which he has lost control. Nevertheless, Ad charisma tuendum signals that he is not giving up on his programme to de-clericalise the Church, or his preference for only some lay voices. How he will balance democratisation and de-clericalisation without rupturing its essential fabric remains an open question, if in fact it can be done at all.
Another open question is whether or not the Holy Father will live to see it. For all its faults, the Curia has often acted as a necessary check and balance on papal power—perhaps refining rash (if noble) ideas into workable compromises—and very often a prudent one. Good ecclesiastical governance takes time, and increasingly it seems as though, in his increasing rule by decree, Pope Francis feels that time may be running out.
Dom Hugh Somerville Knapman is a monk of Douai Abbey.
(Photo of Pope Francis with Opus DeiPrelate Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz courtesy of Vatican Media)
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