The remarks Pope Francis prepared for Thursday’s penitential liturgy at Rome’s cathedral archbasilica of St John Lateran are tempting to tea leaf-readers. One may resist that temptation, however, and still glean from his prepared remarks some not insignificant insight into the mind of Francis the governor of the universal Church.
The reflection was chock-full of phrases that any reader cursorily familiar with the current state of the Church and Pope Francis’s leadership in this chapter of her life could hardly fail to take as allusions to ecclesiastical circumstances and papal governance.
For example: “The great temptation of the shepherd,” Pope Francis said in a section on the bitterness in priestly life “is to surround himself with ‘his own’.” It’s not really possible to hear this without thinking of Francis’s own decision to turn over the management of curial reform — the principal project of his pontificate — to a group of trusty senior churchmen (many of whom came to the job with significant baggage).
Nevertheless, that is precisely what Pope Francis asked his audience to do.
“These lines,” wrote Pope Francis in the prepared remarks, which Rome’s vicar general, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis read in his stead, “are the fruit of listening to some few seminarians and priests of diverse Italian dioceses and cannot or must not [be taken to] refer to any specific situation.”
They will apply generally then, and that means they will apply to Italy’s capital see as well as to any other.
In any case, Francis’s invocation of St Benedict of Nursia is interesting as well. “St Benedict in his rule,” wrote Pope Francis, “recommends that the abbot, when he must face an important decision, consult the entire community, including the youngest members.” Ogni riferimento è puramente casuale, as the Italians say — except we are explicitly enjoined against taking any specific reference, however casual.
“[St Benedict] continues by reiterating that the final decision is up to the abbot alone,” Francis wrote, “that everything must be disposed with prudence and equity,” or fairness. It might be too much cheek to hear echoes of George W. Bush’s oft-quoted line, “I’m the decider,” but, there you have it.
It’s fair to render the Italian equità with “fairness” by the way. It’s fair, but it isn’t perfect. Aequitas is a fascinating word, and in this context, a term of art: Cicero tells us that aequitas is the font and source of the right disposition of things in the universe — the order of the cosmos — and he gives it a threefold structure, each part of which is a constitutive element of a whole that encompasses all that is, was, or shall be: pietas (what we owe the supernal gods); sanctitas (what we owe the dead); iustitia (what we owe each other), which Cicero equates with aequitas in the locus classicus (Topics 90).
The two best places in which to go and read for Cicero’s more ample discussion of the business, by the way, are in Cicero’s Republic and Laws. The practical upshot of all this is that figuring out exactly what we owe each other is precisely the work of justice, which falls to rulers in controverted circumstances.
That is one reason why one may be forgiven for thinking Pope Francis protests too much when he writes, “For Benedict, authority is not in discussion — on the contrary — it is the abbot who answers to God for his leadership of the monastery.” Authority is precisely what is in question — its nature, scope, and exercise — and dioceses are not monasteries, nor are diocesan presbyterates monastic communities.
When Francis writes about “the true problem, which embitters,” he has some further interesting observations in these regards.
“It’s not the divergences,” he writes, “nor, perhaps, errors.” Parenthetically, he offers, “[E]ven a bishop has the right to make mistakes like other creatures,” before identifying one of two causes of bitterness, which he describes as “very serious and destabilising for priests.” He notes “a certain soft authoritarian drift” and describes it phenomenologically.
“Those among us who see things differently are not accepted,” he writes. “For a word, one is transferred to the category of those who are opposed: for a pointed distinction [It. un distinguo], one is enrolled among the malcontents,” Francis offered. “Parrhesia is buried by the frenetic desire to impose projects,” and, “the cult of initiatives replaces the essential: one faith, one baptism, one God, the Father of all.”
Intended as such or not, that series of observations is an apt description of the ecclesiastical controversy that erupted in the wake of Amoris laetitia. Certain bishops and sometimes whole conferences took the Pope’s earnest invitation to fearless discernment as a green light for changing disciplinary policy under the guise of “implementation” of the Pope’s pastoral guidelines. Other senior churchmen demanded a reiteration of standing rules.
The peanut gallery called from one side for the pope to punish the malcontents, and from the other for the Pope to quit fiddling and be Catholic.
“Adhesion to initiatives,” Pope Francis goes on to write, “risks becoming the measure of communion.” Communion, however, “does not always coincide with unanimity of opinion, nor can one pretend that communion be unidirectional: priests must be in communion with the bishop — and the bishops in communion with priests. This is not a problem of democracy, but of paternity,” Francis writes.
How, precisely, that squares with his insistence that the question is not one of authority, is something Pope Francis does not address.
He does touch on the current leadership crisis, however, and on the way that crisis affects priests in ministry. “The Evil One tempts us by pushing us towards a ‘Donatist’ vision of the Church,” Pope Francis writes, adding that he means the sinless are counted among her members and those who have made mistakes are expelled.
“We have false conceptions of the Church militant,” he said, “a sort of ecclesiological Puritanism. The Bride of Christ is and remains the field in which wheat and tares grow up to Parousia,” i.e. the Second Coming.
One is at that point very glad of his warning against application to specific circumstances, for one would not want to take his remark as an explanation of his reported reticence in some cases permanently to dismiss men from the clerical state, who have committed acts of abuse, including sexual abuse. Also, it is worth mentioning that an anti-Donatist disposition is a perennial justification for Fabian resistance to ecclesiastical reform.
No sane man would expel even the most heinous abusers from the Church — for that is to wish hell on them — but expulsion from the clerical state is not expulsion from the Church. Francis himself has said that clericalism is a major cause of the current crisis. He is not wrong. When the worst thing Church authority can do to a criminal cleric is make him a layman, one may wonder how deep the clericalism runs.
Thankfully, we know Pope Francis did not mean that.
If we are indeed entered upon a new phase of this pontificate, in which the pope’s governance will garner more attention than his words, then perhaps these words regarding governance may be in any case a key to understanding why he governs the way he does, and what he is trying to be about.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.