Confusion follows confusion. The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a press release on January 4 to explain Fiducia Supplicans  – the declaration from the curial outfit that used to be the papacy’s stable doctrinal oversight department – which came as an early Christmas surprise and appeared not only to allow but perhaps to require that priests give blessings to same-sex couples (and others in all manner of “irregular” union).

The January 4 press release was a surprise of its own. Not only had the author of Fiducia Supplicans, DDF prefect Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, insisted in the original document that no further clarification or instruction would be forthcoming. Fernandez had also given several interviews in which – among other things – he accused those who had balked at the declaration and/or asked for clarification  of having misunderstood it either deliberately or as a result of reading it in a fit of bad humor. Mala leche – literally “bad milk” was the colorful Spanish-language idiom he deployed.

It was a strange line to take – not to say “improbable” – which required that one believe the Latin episcopate across broad swathes of the global south and east, along with the leadership of the world’s largest non-Latin ritual Church sui iuris and a host of others across the whole broad spectrum of opinion and state of life in the Church should have just happened to pick up Fiducia supplicans when they were ill disposed.

No matter.

To hear Fernandez tell it in his press release, everything remains as it was the day before Fiducia supplicans appeared, with priests who are of a mind not shying away from making the sign of the cross on people who ask for it, as already happened before.

It goes without saying – or ought to – that there are problems if this sign of the cross, made informally and briefly as an expression of God’s grace, becomes a public act complete with a photographer in tow or celebratory tweets of the “History was made” type. In these cases, the DDF’s sandcastle crumbles because there is no longer good faith,  no longer the search for grace but for media attention.

Such is unsurprising in this day and age, but Inevitable in a pontificate that has mediatized everything.

Over the last week, in fact, another event illustrative of the times and of Pope Francis’s part in them took place. It might seem completely unconnected, but this is not the case. I’m talking about the telephone conversation that Pope Francis had with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky.

Ukrainian media, official Ukrainian agencies, and sources reported the phone call. Nothing about it came from the Holy See, not even to confirm that the phone call had taken place. The reason is simple: No one in the Holy See knew about it until it happened. It is presumable that not even the Vatican Secretariat of State, which in theory handles the Pope’s diplomatic activity, was involved.

There was a telephone conversation between the Pope and the head of a state at war, certainly done through an interpreter but without any official record from the Holy See. There are no minutes of the meeting, no diplomatic presence, no readout, no summary forthcoming from the Holy See. There is only the voice of the pope and that of Zelensky. The Ukrainian counterpart certainly has recordings, minutes, and certifications of the conversation. But why leave all the burden and honor of communication to the Ukrainian counterpart, thus allowing public opinion to be directed?

In accepting the phone call, which passed through certainly unofficial and informal channels, Francis once again revealed himself to be a personalist pope who does not give much weight to institutionality and does not consider how this behavior could harm the Holy See.

The same thing happens, mutatis mutandis, even in matters of doctrine. The way that Hurricane Fiducia blew into being shows how.

The whole thing stems from a 2021 responsum ad dubium from the doctrine office, then-styled the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which denied any possibility of blessing irregular couples per se but kept the door open for blessing individuals.

Media hype almost instantly set the 2021 CDF response against the “style” of a pope who began his pontificate with the famous-and-famously-misconstrued, “Who am I to judge?” In reality, the “Who am I to judge?” utterance did not express any change the Church’s attitude towards homosexuals. That fact did not stop very many folks in the media from billing it as a sea change.

Then, at the Sunday Angelus following the publication of the 2021 CDF note, Pope Francis added off the cuff that the language of Christ is that of tenderness and that Christ does not exclude anyone. His words were immediately interpreted, especially by those close to Pope Francis, as a step back from the “anti-gay”  responsum. It looked like what it was: a journalistic construction. At this point, one must think that the Pope agreed and still wanted to keep hold of the image that it had created or furthered of him.

The issue, in other words, was no longer about whether to bless irregular couples, but the affect of the narrative on Pope Francis’s popular image.

With Fiducia supplicans, Cardinal Fernandez closed the circle. Fiducia supplicans was vague. It could be interpreted freely. In its development stage, the declaration was not really discussed as widely as the January 4 “clarifying” statement protested. Sources inside the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith have stressed that there were internal discussions about the possibility of crafting  such a document, but never any analysis or other consideration of an actual draft.

Thus, there is the risk that there may not be documentation in the DDF archives demonstrating the internal debate, consideration of pros and cons examined, notes of consultants. There is the document, and that’s it, among other things, in the original Spanish. It is quite possible that there is no trace of any discussion as may allow anyone – now or ever — to understand how and why the Church ever got such a document.

The practical upshot is that it is impossible to give a historical judgment of the pontificate based on much besides speculation or historical reconstructions. This holds for diplomacy – e.g., the Zelensky phone call – and for doctrinal issues – viz. Fiducia supplicans – and for workaday conversations that never get a memo to the file.

Informality elevated to a system has perhaps allowed Pope Francis to feel like he is in control. At the same time, it allows everyone to interpret his choices and decisions in willy-nilly. Likewise, using exceptionally“light” documents without consultations makes it nigh on impossible to understand the heart of the decisions.

At best, everything becomes a matter of the papal will. This works both inside the Church and outside the Church. But what benefit does an institution have in which only the sovereign’s will is practiced, without traditional historical counterweights? And what weight does crushed diplomacy have on the sovereign, his choices, and his understanding of history?

A solitary individual, however exceptional, cannot make history except very badly.  What is striking is that around Pope Francis there are many “guardians of the revolution” ready to attack any criticism and to demonstrate how the Pope’s choices for rupture are essential in our times.

This informality puts not only this pope but the papacy and the Church at various risks: imaginary, institutional, and structural. So, one wonders whether those who uncritically defend every choice of the Pope perhaps no longer love what the Pope represents for them, so much as they love what his peculiar and hyper-personal rule is doing to the  Church.

This is the great theme of the day.

Pope Francis, meanwhile , will make increasingly personal, increasingly centralizing, and increasingly divisive choices. After all, that is what he has done all along.


3 Responses to Pope Francis, Informality as a System

  1. Anonimo scrive:

    Gracias. Muy buen artículo. Salvete ex Columbia in América Meridionali

  2. [...] Andrea Gagliarducci, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Cardinal Robert [...]

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