Pope Francis has various methods of governing, but the technique of relativizing power, or in any case of taking away power, is his most common. Whenever the Pope wants to take control of certain situations, he does not change management or initiate reform. First, he takes away power and credibility from those in the offices to eventually reform.
In recent times, this method of governing has become increasingly visible. The clearest example concerns the vicariate of the Diocese of Rome. The reform of the vicariate, which centralizes powers primarily on the Pope, came as the culmination of a series of initiatives that led the Pope to try to break every possible chain of internal control. But, above all, it came at the end of a reflection that led the Pope to in effect oust his vicar for the diocese of Rome, Cardinal Angelo de Donatis.
Step by step, Pope Francis made sure that de Donatis was considered an auxiliary like the others. Even the “vice gerente”, who would be the vice vicar, is an office that the Pope left vacant, then gave to Bishop Palmieri, and then left vacant again by sending Palmieri as bishop to Ascoli. Only with the reform did the Pope appoint a “vicegerente” in the person of Baldassarre Reina, a young bishop from outside the vicariate who had arrived as auxiliary bishop only a year earlier.
And, in the most classic of scripts, the deputy has taken over the management of the operation. Because it was Reina who summoned the parish priests of Rome on March 2 precisely to discuss the reform of the vicariate, and it will be Reina who will coordinate works that promise to be tense and characterized by solid absenteeism. In the meantime, Pope Francis has appointed the supervisory committee for the financial aspects of the vicariate, a body already envisaged by the reform.
Pope Francis has done this in many other cases. As soon as he sees a concentration of power, the Pope works to remove the power from those in charge, even by accepting a delegitimation.
He did so particularly with the situation in Italy, bearing witness to a substantial prejudice against Italian control of Vatican affairs. When Pope Francis wanted to change the presidency of the Italian Episcopal Conference, he had begun to meet with the vice president, the archbishop of Perugia Gualtiero Bassetti, later created cardinal. This move put the then-president of the Italian bishops, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, in great difficulty. However, he resisted until the deadline, proving he knew how to stand firm..
And in the meantime, Pope Francis asked the Italian bishops to change the rule, which provides for the Pope to choose their president and general secretary, only to use the faculty to decide almost brutally. He did so, for example, when he chose Bishop Nunzio Galantino as secretary of the bishops, even though he did not appear in any of the lists presented to him by the Bishops.
The Pope also takes away power simply by cutting it off, as he did with Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, who has been “on ice” since he finished his five-year term as prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith Dicastery; with Archbishop Clemens, gone into retirement as secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity just at age 69 (he was Benedict XVI’s secretary before Archbishop Georg Gaenswein); and with Archbishop Gaenswein, formally left in the position of prefect of the Papal Household but in reality prevented from using his office.
Another modus operandi of Pope Francis is to appoint bishops those he believes should be his collaborators or when he wants to strengthen some position. It went well with Rolandas Mackrickas, commissioner of Santa Maria Maggiore, who had to operate in a difficult financial situation. But, with the episcopate, the Pope wants to remove power from the archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore, strengthen a commissioner, and possibly consider internal reforms.
And just last week news emerged that the dean of the Roman Rota, Alejandro Arellano Cedillo, will also be ordained bishop. Of course, it is not customary for the dean of the Rota to be a bishop, even if it has happened before. Still, it is striking that it did not fall to Arellano’s predecessor, Pio Vito Pinto, who had also worked hard to demonstrate that he was in line with the thinking of Pope Francis, supporting the application of the new norms on matrimonial nullity.
Again, it’s not the first time. Among the first acts of government by Pope Francis was the episcopal ordination of Victor Fernandez, then rector of the Catholic University of Argentina. An ordination that sounded like revenge because the Pope had wanted Fernandez to lead the Catholic University against the opinion of the Congregation for Catholic Education, particularly the then secretary Jean-Louis Brugues, who later became Librarian of the Holy Roman Church.
It is no coincidence that Brugues was never created a cardinal despite his position, while Tolentino Mendonça was, just soon after he was name successor. Just as it is no coincidence that, in every list of cardinals, Pope Francis includes cardinals over eighty who can be considered “remediation cardinals.” They are the cardinals created to show the Pope’s disagreement with some decisions taken in the past and thus created to legitimize those opinions that had instead been marginalized.
In short, Pope Francis seems to have a precise language of power, which feeds on gestures, red and purple hats, with official assignments when there is no need, and with power taken away informally so as not to make noise.
In short, he is not a Pope who acts casually. And perhaps we should resign ourselves to losing the patina of a Pope who practices synodality, because Pope Francis has instead centralized power and decisions. Of course, all Popes are kings, but few use all the prerogatives of kings. Pope Francis does. This cannot be denied.