Pope Francis has often warned against ”indietrism” in this last period of his pontificate. It is an unwieldy term in English, but there’s nothing arcane about it. The word comes from the Italian, indietro – “backward” – and could be rendered “backwardism” without too much trouble.

He has repeatedly warned that attending to the history of the Church does not mean looking backward; that tradition is not the preservation of ashes. He’s not wrong about any of that, but he has used the rhetorical trope – an effective homiletic – to justify some acts of his Church governance.

Pope Francis used the kind of reasoning apparently encapsulated in indietrism to justify the restrictive measures he imposed on the celebration of liturgical rites according to the old liturgical books. He has also used it to explain or even defend his proposed solution to borderline pastoral situations, such as the blessing for the so-called “irregular couples” provided by the controversial Fiducia supplicans declaration.

Perhaps none of that is really surprising. What is surprising, though, is how several decisions Pope Francis has made throughout his eleven-year pontificate do look backward, at least to before Benedict XVI’s papacy. These decisions suggest that Benedict XVI’s pontificate has been put on hold and that his legacy has been put aside.

The last of these decisions is reinstating the title of “Patriarch of the West” among the attributes of the Pope. Benedict XVI eliminated the title of Patriarch of the West. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, as it was then styled, explained the decision in a lengthy note dated 22 March 2006, underlining that the title was eliminated for a conceptual issue (the West no longer meant a limited geographical territory but a cultural area that also included the United States and New Zealand) and also to improve ecumenical relations, effectively not putting the Pope in competition with the Patriarchates present in the Orthodox Church.

No explanation was given for re-including the title, Patriarch of the West. It is difficult to think that this was prompted by the new ecumenical relationships that have developed in these eleven years of the Francis pontificate. Relationships have progressed very well, with several trips to Orthodox territories and improved ecumenical relations with everyone, at least until the publication of the Declaration Fiducia supplicans.

It is therefore noteworthy that the encouragement of ecumenical dialogue should be among the chief reasons adduced by observers across the spectrum of opinion in the Church, for the restoration of a title that Benedict XVI had eliminated in order to encourage better ecumenical dialogue. That the restoration has come in the first annuario prepared after Benedict XVI’s death is certainly a matter of curious timing, too.

We are still determining whether this decision will have consequences or whether it is dictated by the desire to leave the title of Patriarch of the East to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, dividing the world into zones of religious influence.

Could be.

It is worth mentioning that the Orthodox were not best pleased by Benedict’s decision in 2006, nor were some Catholics of the Eastern Rites, in part because the patriarchal standing of the See of Rome was one of the things on which there was broad and unambiguous agreement.

The fact is that decisions made without giving any explanation lend themselves to conflicting readings. It is the excellent theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate: everyone is forced to chase the news to try to understand the meaning of some decisions, and there are no explanations for those decisions. This also leads to a further consequence:

• Everyone feels obliged to advise something.
• There are no filters.
• The Pope can decide extemporaneously.

The reintroduction of the title of Patriarch of the West falls in a week that saw the publication of the Dignitas Infinita declaration, the presentation of which opened with a lengthy defense by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, prefect of the Dicastery for Doctrine of the Faith of the Fiducia Supplicans declaration.

Dignitas Infinita and the defense of Fiducia Supplicans show how Pope Francis wants to represent the pontificate. On the one hand, a declaration without anything too terribly controversial or even theologically interesting – Dignitas infinita – expresses Pope Francis’s desire to broaden horizons but has minor doctrinal problems. When Dignitas is attacked, it is because it seems at odds with the language – the “style” – of Pope Francis. How can the pope of “Who am I to judge?” then be so harsh on gender ideology? How does the Pope of todos todos todos! then wholly close the experience of surrogate motherhood?

The answer may be that the pope is Catholic after all, but one understands where the people who are asking the questions get them and also why they’re asking.

On the other hand, we’re talking about the reintroduction of the title of Patriarch of the West, which definitely is a step backward – whatever else it is — as there have been several in this pontificate.

Pope Francis’s decision to include some “remediation” cardinals in every consistory (that is, to create cardinals who had ended up on the margins with Benedict XVI, like the former nuncios Rauber and Fitzgerald), is one. His decision to throw out Benedict XVI’s liberalization of the old liturgical books’ use is another. His raft of financial and judicial reforms that have abandoned the international course charted and undertaken by Benedict XVI in favor of the Holy See’s (and Vatican City’s) older, privileged and complex relationship with Italy is another.

In the middle between the look backward – the restoration of the title of Patriarch of the West – and the look forward, but with orthodoxy - the declaration Dignitas Infiinita - we also have another character of Pope Francis’ pontificate.  

During the press conference, Cardinal Fernandez produced a defense of Fiducia supplicans, which is based on an opinion poll. Not only has the pope’s pastoral language not been understood, not only is it not accepted that the pope does something as he can do and as all popes have done, but ultimately – this is Fernandez’s reasoning — an unidentified survey says that 65 percent of young people between 25 and 35 years old approved of Fiducia Supplicans, a text Fernandez says reached (an unlikely figure) 7 billion internet views.

The image given is that of a Church that looks at numbers and consensus, which indeed builds its innovations on consensus. There are personal decisions of the Pope, and these decisions are based on consensus.

In this sense, it is not surprising that the repudiation of the document of the Doctrine of the Faith on the no to the blessings of homosexual marriages led the Pope, at the Angelus on the Sunday following its publication, to explain that the language of God is compassion and tenderness – and that he would be prepared for the road to the Fiducia Supplicans. And it is not even surprising when Pope Francis said he accepted the resignation of Archbishop Aupetit of Paris on the “altar of hypocrisy” – and in the wake of a press campaign based on claims subsequently proven by French authorities’ own investigation to have been inaccurate.

It isn’t easy to find a common direction in these choices.

Perhaps the point is that there really isn’t a common direction. On the one hand, there is the Curia, the work it does on the documents, the search for balance with the innovation requested by the Pope (in the case of Dignitas infinita, the inclusion of social issues), and at the same time, at least the veneer of continuity with the previous magisterial teaching. On the other hand, there is Pope Francis with his impromptu decisions, which may also be the result of pastoral practice but ultimately turn out to be schizophrenic.

Then, there are the “guardians of the revolution” who defend every choice of Pope Francis as utterly unamenable to criticism of any kind. To entertain, let alone express an opinion critical of Pope Francis’s decision – whatever it is – means pitting oneself against the pope directly, and therefore against the Church.

Fun times for consensus based on dialogue.

The real problem also seems to be a poor understanding of the language of the Church. Cardinal Fernandez said Pope Francis would never speak ex cathedra, almost as if to speak ex cathedra were a bad thing. Perhaps Fernandez meant mostly that the pope would not use infallibility because – he added – that he would never change doctrine.

Fernandez isn’t exactly wrong to think that the pope is somehow teaching either personally or through his curia every time he gives a homily or they produce a document, but it is nonetheless reasonable to wonder when the pope or his lieutenants are mostly teaching and when they are mostly just talking, and the attitude taken and championed by Fernandez strongly suggests that neither he nor his principal believe there’s much difference.

Ultimately, though, papal teaching and papal governance become entangled, and both become highly politicized and sociologically driven. It is a language that divides and polarizes, language that divides the Church into those who agree with the pope and those who do not, into those whom a survey places among the people in favor and those who are considered against, between intietrists and progressives.

The reality is more nuanced.

In this sense, the Pope seems contradictory because there is a difference between what he approves and what he says. The ultimate risk of the pontificate is that it will disappoint everyone. The progressives will feel they got less than they could have or should have gotten, and conservatives will feel marginalized and attacked, because they have been.

People of common sense would also like to hear about the Eucharist, faith, and the meaning of life and not be affected by various para-political arguments. They also have less interest, I would say, in the gossip about the papal election or in papal reconstructions of complex situations aimed at defining final narrative of the pontificate but succeed mostly at making a human pontificate, too human.

In the end, the sense of the divine is missing.

The title of Patriarch of the West can then return because, after all, bringing it back responds to a very practical and concrete logic. Otherwise, it would have remained disused, as it had been since 2006.


4 Responses to Pope Francis, a pontificate that (also) looks backward

  1. Mary Ann Grail scrive:

    Francis is as understandable as an atheistoc communist. The basic principle of both is “Two steps forward, one step backward”. Fiducia Supplicans was two steps forward, and Dignitas Infiinita is one step backward.

  2. James Scott scrive:

    Pope Francis and the Pontificate of Francis are readily summarised:

    i) In terms of ecclesiology, he is a religious autocrat/despot/dictator.

    In footballing terms seasoned with language of Vatican1; ‘he is an ultramontaigne’s ultramontaigne’

    Or, as our American cousins so succinctly express it:

    My way or the highway.

    (And how the world’s bishops have, with a minute handful of exceptions, as in the England of Henry VIII, shown themselves amenable to this hiring & firing policy.)

    ii)[a]In theological terms, he is, to use a golfing analogy this time, a one club man.

    The whole Gospel message of Jesus Christ and all Biblical teaching can be summarised in one single word: Mercy

    ii) [b]And who is the arbitrar {of what constitutes ‘mercy’ but of every other question too} in any and every situation?

    See point (i) above.

    But, you may well argue, and I would join you in this observation, isn’t point (ii)[b] in direct contradiction of THE cornerstone teaching of his Pontificate, viz ‘Who am I to judge?’ enunciated only weeks after his election?

    For the answer:

    See point (ii)[b] {supplemented by point(i)} above.

    The result can be seen everywhere. In my case, neither the present parish priest nor his predecessor nor the local ordinary will discuss the issue of such Papal omniscience; preferring to concentrate on the sham so-called Synod of Synods.

    The most self-evident of a myriad of vile consequence of this posture was summarised before Easter by Chris Altieri in the following terms:

    ‘ Five years ago, the Pontiff railed against “abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth…” His record since has been abysmal and even scandalous. ‘

    Words fail me…

  3. Australia scrive:

    Will history remember this Pope as a spiritual leader or as an ecclesiastical politician?


  4. Elias Galy scrive:

    Speaking of looking back, I had made comments for Gagliarducci concerning the London property affair and Becciu: that the proceedings were not directed at leading the Church away from bad business practices and by not identifying issues squarely things would be unfair to Becciu and innocent parties while the bad actors esp. the laymen would get away to strike again.

    Signs of high-flying and suspect business behaviours and practices are lately noted at CRUX, today:

    ‘ At one point, an April 2021 memorandum prepared for investigators by Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, Becciu’s successor as the sostituto, or “substitute,” effectively the pope’s chief of staff, identified Perlasca as the key figure in a system within the Secretariat of State which was intended to pressure top officials into making hasty decisions about financial matters, effectively rubber-stamping decisions already made.

    “It’s a mechanism in which the superior is put under pressure, pushing him to act quickly and predicting catastrophe, such as, ‘If you don’t sign immediately, you risk losing a lot of money,’ ‘We don’t have an alternative,’ ‘Don’t worry, the practice is fine,’ and ‘This is only a formality’,” Peña Parra wrote.

    With regard to the star witness, Peña Parra said, “In daily meetings with Monsignor Perlasca, in response to my request for explanations he provided incomplete or partial information that were limited to attempts to justify operations that were already underway.”

    Perhaps most damningly, the Peña Parra memo asserted that Perlasca himself signed two key documents authorizing the London deal “before the question had been submitted to the attention of the Secretary of State or the Holy Father,” meaning, effectively, that Perlasca had presented his superiors with a fait accompli. ‘


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