When Pope Francis was elected ten years ago, the decision to rewrite part of the recent history of the Church was immediately clear. The extraordinary emphasis given to Pope Francis’ gestures, the attention of the media, but also some gestures made by Francis himself from the beginning, said so.
In these ten years of pontificate, Pope Francis has alternated between tradition and innovation, but without really giving the two words a profound meaning. His choice to give the cardinal’s hat to Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary of the Conclave, was in line with what was said John XXII did as well, in other circumstances. However, his decisions about the Curia are questionable, and point to a theology that had been set aside years ago.
The idea of a missionary papacy, setting aside institutionality; the desire for a center that is actually at the service of the peripheries, abandoning the old power structures; the dialectic on the problems of the institutional Church and hence the attack on clericalism; all these were ideas that had spread during and after the Second Vatican Council and which had exploded in a virulent way in the debates.
Paul VI tried to keep the bar straight. He instituted the Synod of Bishops, and above all he promulgated Humanae Vitae, an encyclical which reaffirmed the traditional teaching of the Church and which, in fact, swept away any attempt to go beyond the depositum fidei. That encyclical was much contested, yet adherence to the principles of that encyclical was very broad, almost total. Indeed, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla underlined that the encyclical should have been linked to the theme of infallibility, emphasizing how the Pope had not presented an opinion, but had summarized correct doctrine.
In short, there was an ongoing debate, which the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI had tried to resolve. John Paul II had done so by seeking constant dialogue on issues of faith, and at the same time creating authoritative institutions. Benedict XVI approach was to always underlining the centrality of Christ – and in a particularly symbolic way with the publication of the books on Jesus of Nazareth.
These are symbolic decisions that are very revealing. Benedict XVI wanted two words to be added to the theme of the Aparecida Conference, which had Bergoglio as its rapporteur general, which was “So that our peoples may have life”. With Benedict XVI it became “So that our peoples may have life in him.”
John Paul II, on the other hand, changed the structure of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), making it a Council made up of the presidents of the conferences of bishops and no longer of the delegated bishops. In this way, he elevated the debate of the European bishops by giving them greater authority. The body became a body of presidents, and European debates could easily become national debates, because they were carried over by the presidents to the assemblies.
A victory for the Curia? A book, “History of a Defeat”, by Francesca Perugi, claims it was. Indeed, it highlights how what used to be a “focolare” in St. Gallen – seat of the CCEE – was instead set aside by a new protagonism of the Roman Curia, and that therefore all that seed of the great post-conciliar debate had been swept away.
Between the warriors of dialogue and the cultural warriors, John Paul II would have chosen the latter, putting an end to the great experience of the hearth of St. Gallen that had formed around Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan and for several years president of that Conference.
These are words that want to break the narrative on the “St. Gallen Mafia“, launched in particular by a book by the historian Julie Malone, who instead notes how the group was structured for a real “coup d’état”, focusing first on Bergoglio as a candidate for the 2005 conclave, and then agreeing to converge on Ratzinger to avoid the candidacy of Cardinal Ruini. In fact, Ruini would have been the exponent of that turn of “cultural warriors” that John Paul II endorsed at the Ecclesial Meeting of the Italian Conference of Bishops in 1985.
In short, John Paul II would have closed any experience of debate and collegiality, imposing his own model, and thus showing once again the excessive power of a Curia that did not want the peripheries to emerge.
But is it really so? Pope Francis seems to give credence to this idea, and his decisions have all gone towards a progressive deconstruction of the Curia and the structures of power. No assignment is certain with Pope Francis, no title comes automatically, and everything must be understood within a missionary spirit which is what drives the reform of the Curia forward.
At the same time, however, nothing happens without the authorization of the Pope, no decision can be independent and, in a place where assignments and also the “rules of engagement” can change rapidly, the only point of reference becomes the Pope, with his personality and his decisions.
Pope Francis channels the anti-Roman narrative in many of his speeches, and from the very beginning he used the expression “the old Curia” to refer to a group of faithful curia members who remained attached to the Church, and particularly to those who felt they had been “defeated” by the last two pontificates.
Even in the consistories, Pope Francis has not failed to symbolically “repair” the alleged wrongs they suffered, often inserting the so-called “remediation Cardinals” (like the former nuncios Rauber, whose recommendations for appointing the archbishop of Brussels were not followed, and Fitzgerald, reassigned from the very important post as secretary of the dicastery for interreligious dialogue to diplomatic envoy to Egypt).
We do not know whether these moves by the Pope were a concession to avoid pressure, or for ideological adherence. And yet it is worth noting how there is, within the Church itself, a cancel culture that is trying to rewrite history, showing in a negative key everything that would go against the current mentality or in favor of the institutions. The institutions are almost considered evil, while a personalist government is accepted without problems. It is a paradox, but it is the reality of the day.
The fact is that we are faced with a Church that does not know itself, and does not even understand the importance of history and its past. The Church has always been obsessed with the past, with a return to the origins, because in the experience of Christ everything is recapitulated. Today, however, the past seems to be a burden, and decisions are made without even considering previous experiences. It’s a world where fiction trumps facts. And in which we experience the drama of churchmen more interested in a certain narrative than in the history of the Church, its tradition, its life.
There is confusion between practical decisions and ideological adhesions. Of course, there was a desire for a narrative coup d’état, with the election of Pope Francis. It is no coincidence that Austen Ivereigh spoke of a real “Team Bergoglio”, which met in St. Gallen (“we were a kind of Mafia”, Cardinal Danneels said only half-jokingly) but which was not the “cenacolo” of the CCEE. Not surprisingly, the pontificate has had this media impact. And yet, when it came to studying Humanae Vitae, Professor Gilfredo Marengo, certainly not a conservative, admitted: Paul VI did not act alone.
There is a Church that continues to live, and a tradition that has never been put aside. The question is whether it will survive or succumb to the narrative.