There’s plenty of grist for the mill in the excerpts of Pope Francis’s autobiography, published last week in Italy’s Corriere della sera. One thing, however, is particularly striking: Pope Francis feels hurt by the claim that “Francis is destroying the Papacy.”

The Pope’s response was this: “My vocation is the priestly one: first of all, I am a priest, I am a shepherd, and shepherds must be among people. The Vatican is the last absolute monarchy in Europe, and that court reasoning and maneuvers are often carried out here. Still, these schemes must be definitively abandoned.”

Why are these statements striking? They discuss the way Pope Francis sees the Vatican and how he tries to remedy it. In the Pope’s words, there are many general prejudices about what the Vatican world is—a courtly world made up of gossip that requires a break from the past.

Of course, it didn’t take an expert to understand the Pope’s thoughts. Pope Francis has repeatedly complained about the “terrorism of chatter,” pointed the finger at “the diseases of the Curia,” and” called for an outgoing Church opposed to the Church of the State Clerics.

In the book, Francis explains that in the 2013 Conclave, “there was a great desire to change things, to abandon certain attitudes that unfortunately still struggle to disappear today.”

“There are always those who try to slow down the reform,” Pope Francis says, “those who would like to remain stuck in the times of the Pope-king.” Is that really the case? Are things really so?

Above all, has anything really changed under Francis? In general, Rome has always been said that it was a court environment. The chronicles demonstrate that the Popes had various forms of involvement in making decisions for the Life of the Church.

No one really behaved like a Pope-king. Indeed, the task was to demundanize, open up to new forms of government, and redefine some legacies of the past. John XXIII soon abandoned the curial schemes to encourage more excellent debate at the Second Vatican Council. Paul VI reformed the structures of the Papal Household itself to adapt them to the times. John Paul II also defined a collegial government for the Vatican City State.

Every Pope made great use of private or public consultations and consistories to discuss general topics with their fellow cardinals. The Vatican environment was defined as a court simply because it was structured in a certain way, which is how the Holy See presents itself to the world. It is a world of symbols, in which each has its place and tells something about the institution it wants to represent.

There can be cracks in that world, lousy management, and even closures to and from the world outside. The point is that nothing is left to chance.

None of that supports the conclusion that the structure should be considered outmoded, much less irrational. Indeed, perhaps precisely the inability of the folks in charge to understand the very symbology of their own organization helped create this problem.

Speaking of the court, then, Pope Francis mortifies the Holy See’s language, reduces it to a legacy of the past that is not in line with the past, and—in fact—creates a rupture.

But simultaneously, he uses the same tools to reform, creating a court of his own—a different court— perhaps more informal, but still a court. The so-called C9 Council of Cardinal Advisors is something between a “kitchen cabinet” and a privy council, and in any case is just a group of guys gathered around the Pope.

The fact that these people are constantly changing only works against continuity and in favor of a centralization of the Pope’s prerogatives. In modern history, there has been no Pope more Pope-king than Francis, who has used all the papal prerogatives, with emergency or personal legislation (the now famous motu proprio) and “synodal” decisions.

The Pope complains of being accused of destroying the papacy, but in fact, he does not understand the profound root of the criticism, which does not concern him, or the role of the Pope when the role of the Holy See and how it is perceived externally. It is a nuance, a more subtle question, which, however, the Pope reduces ad absurdum, as if he were considered the Pope who ruined the institution of the pontiff. This was never the criticism, and if there was such criticism, it was undoubtedly not nuanced appropriately.

There is, however, a discernible discontinuity accompanied by Pope Francis’s desire to impose his own point of view. Since the Pope decides, one must necessarily agree with the Pope, and one cannot notice how, for example, some choices still create a break with the past. There have never been clear breaks in the history of the Church; there has always been a historical continuity, which has never failed in the great seasons of reform. At the same time, there has always been a debate.

Talking about resistance to the reform necessarily divides into an “us” and a “them.” It creates not only a court but a real team in defense of what the reform must be. The problem with Francis’s pontificate, in other words, is that it has gone a long way toward transforming the papacy itself – the institution of the Roman Pontiff – into a mere partisan power within the Church, one that acts politically, and does so largely in order to demonize the very practice of “politics” that supposedly has characterized the papacy’s institutional life..

This is perhaps one of the great contradictions of the pontificate: it wants to be new while using old tools and to represent things that are part of the tradition of the Church as new. Not that there weren’t problems to address and issues to improve. In the 2013 Conclave, this anxiety for renewal was felt, or at least it was perceived by journalists. But it is also true that the desire for renewal was, above all, functional; it was a renewal of the structures, which did not mean destroying the institution and rebuilding from the ground, up. There were functional adjustments to be made, accompanied instead by a necessary change of mentality.

Pope Francis calls for a change of mentality, but the means he uses are instead the political ones of a Pope who makes all the decisions and complains that those who criticize them have not understood him. Indeed, he accuses every possible criticism of being backward-looking.

The Pope, it is true, is called to be, first of all, a priest. However, it is also true that his first function is to guarantee the unity of the Church. After all, who will ever know where the center is if the center goes to the suburbs? And then, is there a periphery in the Church? Because where there is the Eucharist, there is no periphery: there is always the center of the Church.


3 Responses to Pope Francis and the meaning of the pontificate

  1. Australia scrive:

    The typical “straw man” arguments used by this Pope to distract attention from the problems he has created and make him seem a reformer and even “Saviour” of the people from curial tyranny. Only non-thinkers would be fooled by this argument.

  2. James Scott scrive:

    ‘in the excerpts of Pope Francis’s autobiography,…’

    The Pope has written an autobiography, you tell us.

    His own autobiography?

    You cannot be serious!

    What next:

    His own radio record show?

    His own brand of whisky?

    Appearing in ads for Coca Cola Inc, Anaconda, Ford Motors?

    Just out of interest, with all these media stunts, when DOES he find the time for his day job?

    And, by the way, did he pass his most recent performance assessment there?

  3. Carlos Aldana Valenzuela scrive:

    The way you finished your article is just magnificent.How easily we forget that first of all the Church is a Mystery whose center is the Eucharist. The Eucharist makes the Church as Fr Henri de Lubes said.Thank you very much

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