The bang at the end of calendar year 2023 is still reverberating, and will continue to cause commotion well into 2024. I’m talking about the “early Christmas present” from Pope Francis through his chief teaching department and its new-ish prefect, Cardinal Victor Manuel “Tucho” Fernandez.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faiths’ declaration Fiducia supplicans proposes the idea of a “non-ritual” blessing forto couples in irregular unions (i.e., couples composed of persons divorced and either cohabiting or civilly remarried), or same-sex couples. The document insists that marriage remains between man and woman open to life and that no blessing can be given to irregular or same-sex unions per se. The author of Fiducia supplicans further insists that a blessing be given in a “creative” way so as not to deny a pastoral accompaniment to those who are seeking grace.

Reaction to the document ranged from enthusiastic – the head of Austria’s bishops’ conference basically said priests must give blessings now, to any couple requesting one – to lukewarm – see the US and Canada, Spain, and a few others – to frigid – in Poland and large swathes of the global south – to incredulity and complete rejection from several quarters mostly in Africa and one major sui iuris ritual Church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

The document remained vague in its language, imprecise, and left room for many interpretations. And so, various episcopal conferences in Africa, but also the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Latin rite in Ukraine, up to the bishops of Hungary, have thought it necessary to specify for the faithful that no blessing for homosexual unions is permitted. They noted that it is possible to bless individuals, but that has always been the case and had been reaffirmed in a 2021 response from the the Vatican’s doctrinal department, then styled the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was based on the pastoral care document for homosexual persons published in 1986.

In short, there was a problem of clarity.

Anyone expecting really successful efforts to clarify the business from the top really ought to rethink things in light of the dynamics in play: Fernandez’s job seems be the pope’s chief lieutenant for making a mess - hacer lìo, according to a Pope’s popular catchphrase.  This will have broad implications for the next papal conclave, which may well come during the twelvemonth just opened.

There has perhaps not been an event that has had a more disruptive effect on the pontificate of Pope Francis than the appointment of Fernandez as DDF prefect. A friend and confidant of the man who became Pope Francis in 2013, Fernandez is not only the carrier of his principal’s theological thought , but also one of the thinkers who has inspired and shaped it. Fernandez arrived in Rome with a precise mission, one the pope gave him in an unusual letter of mandate published the very day on which his appointment was announced: To change the profile of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, to break with the past, to give the Dicastery a more pastoral face.

And Tucho not only did it, but did it with a heavy hand, making the office visible and noisy, present in the media (even if only in certain media), and correcting some of the settings of the past.

It was not just a matter of bringing the theme of discernment to the center – and while we’re here, it is worth mentioning in connection with blessings that priests in pastoral trenches all over the world already were doing the work of discerning on a case-by-case basis – but of imposing a vision and of doing so without any possibility for others to give different visions.

Lots of bishops balked at that, while priests across the broad spectrum of pastoral practice and theological opinion were flummoxed, and laity were shocked at what appeared to be both doctrinal and administrative overreach astounding even for a pope and a pontificate already known for both.

Cardinal Fernandez did not take it well.

Fernandez granted an interview to the Spanish newspaper ABC and another to the Diario, complaining that those who speak of homosexual blessings are in bad faith and have not understood the spirit of the document. These words, ultimately, are a slap in the face to refined theological bishops, a major archbishop (practically a patriarch), and at least one cardinal who has clarified the doctrine and the document.

Synodality – a buzzword in search of a working definition – is supposed to be the motor of Pope Francis’s pontificate. If bishops or even whole conferences try to offer their point of view on some issues or disagree with some applications, the pope’s top synodalizer declares them in bad faith.

In reality, Cardinal Fernandez’s verbal intemperance somehow reflects Francis’s own decisions and style of governance throughout the entire pontificate. The year just passed saw a multiplication of legislative decisions by the pope, who has increasingly centralized decisions and powers, concentrating them in himself. This past year, there was a reform of the Vatican judicial system, a reform of the fundamental law of the Vatican City State, and a reform of the Pontifical Academy of Theology.

In ten years of pontificate, Pope Francis chose a motu proprio 61 times to reform what he wanted to reform, while in the case of the environmental question, he followed up Laudato Si’, an encyclical, with Laudate Deum, an apostolic exhortation, certainly a lighter document that requires less in the way of strict observance and traditionally has fewer “rules” for both the writing and the reading.

All throughout last year, everything accelerated, and reached break-neck speed with the appointment of Fernandez. Pope Francis has thus officially brought Latin America to the center of the world, with its mentality and history of presumed marginalization. How Fernandez’s activism should inform a general view of the Francis pontificate is therefore a pressing question, not only for Vaticanisti but for the College of Cardinals.

The available answers do not contribute to creating a serene climate. Among those who have criticized Fiducia supplicans, there are also cardinals whom Pope Francis created, and therefore of unquestionable loyalty to the Pope, yetet criticism is immediately interpreted as bad faith.

Some have observed that the pontificate of Pope Francis, with its documents and the contradictions already found in the documents, is like a black hole. We are currently witnessing an implosion of the pontificate. Everything that the Pope built risks being eroded from within and by the behavior of the people he called to help him.

Fernandez’s interviews in response to the criticisms of Fiducia supplicans told the cardinals who will enter the conclave not to vote for a candidate with a profile similar to Bergoglio. It told them to look instead for a competent legislator and administrator who will be able to take small course-correction measures while avoiding conflict with other bishops and cardinals.

Pope Francis, for his part, may well desire still to exert some influence over the next conclave. Perhaps he will give us a reform of the conclave rules in 2024 — in truth, that’s something that has been much discussed for some time – but in any case, he has secured everything he could of his Church reforms, such as they are or have been.

Francis has done what he could do to give his shape to the Church.

At the beginning of this new year, everything suggests a long preparation for the coming papal election. If this is the case, it will be a controversial one. Expect surprises.


7 Responses to Pope Francis and the next Conclave

  1. Efage scrive:

    We are starting the new year 2024 in the presence of a Bishop of Rome and a prefect of the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith heretics in a state of apostasy. this is dramatic, after the pee keys!!

  2. [...] janvier [...]

  3. [...] to receive papal visits, including Belgium, Vietnam, and his native Argentina. Discussion of a future conclave is likely to continue and [...]

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  5. John Smith scrive:

    I am very thankful that my Archbishop and pastor are men of faith, of the scripture and tradition of the holy and apostolic church.

    1 Peter 5:10

    But the God of all grace, who hath called us into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little, will himself perfect you, and confirm you, and establish you.

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