Probably, the biggest mistake that has been made in trying to interpret Pope Francis is to look for a standard criterion for his decisions. Because, looking at the facts, Pope Francis’s only standard is the achievement of the short-term objectives he sets for himself. There is no long-term criterion, and there is no defined modus operandi. There is no real controlling idea. There is a plan, a desire to lead the Church to change her mentality, to be a “field hospital” and an outward looking Church. There is no controlling idea behind this plan.
Pope Francis is difficult to understand simply because he cannot be placed in the categories of the past, but also because there will hardly be similar ways of acting in the future. The latest decisions of Pope Francis, together with the things he was thought to have done and still haven’t done, seem to confirm this picture.
Pope Francis’s latest, surprising appointment is that of the trumpeted Cardinal Americo Aguiar as bishop of Setubal. Aguiar was an auxiliary of Lisbon, and the announcement of his creation as Cardinal came before the resignation due to the age limits of the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon Clemente. Pope Francis called the military ordinary Rui Manuel Sousa Valerio to succeed Clemente in Lisbon. A situation similar to that in El Salvador could arise, where the auxiliary, Gregorio Rosa Chavez, was a cardinal and the ordinary was not. Or Pope Francis could have called Aguiar to Rome, to the Dicastery of Laity, Family, and Life, sacking Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who this year concludes the first five years of his mandate.
The Pope chose, instead, to send Aguiar to Setubal, a young diocese (founded in 1975) and never governed by a cardinal. A choice that testifies to the Pope’s desire to break any previous logic regarding cardinal creations: the cardinal title remains unrelated to the pastoral role, and Pope Francis has no class A or B dioceses. The Pope does not consider that a cardinal is a voice of the Pope in the nation —it was for this reason the archbishops of the most important dioceses were often created cardinals. The Pope seems to consider the Cardinal his advisor, something unrelated to the title or role of cardinal and thus also to his institutional impact.
On the same day as Aguair’s nomination in Setubal, Pope Francis had chosen a new bishop for a diocese in Southern Italy, Oppido Mamertina–Palmi. The selection did not fall on a bishop from the area, or in any case from a neighboring region, but on a priest from Northern Italy, coming from a completely different cultural context, but with the merit of having been a fidei donum missionary in Ecuador for a period.
It is not the first appointment of this kind that Pope Francis has made. Suffice it to say that for the diocese of Rome he selected Baldassarre Reina, coming from Sicily, as auxiliary and vicegerent, and Michele Di Tolve, coming from Milan, as auxiliary and rector of the Seminary. The Roman reality is represented by Cardinal Angelo de Donatis, the Pope’s vicar and increasingly outside any decision-making process.
The previous week, Pope Francis had seen Franciscan archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo complete his second five-year mandate as secretary of the Dicastery for Religious Congregations, and chosen him as coadjutor archbishop of the archdiocese of Merida–Badajoz in Spain. The Pope’s decision seemed a defenestration. Indeed, Pope Francis has not hesitated to replace whoever he has wanted upon the expiration of their five or ten-year mandates, as it happened with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, but also with his secretary Yoannis Gaid. In some cases, the five-year mandate norm was instead used as an exit to avoid controversy, as happened in the case of Cardinal George Pell when he left the Council of Cardinals.
These examples demonstrate that there has not been a coherent line in managing the issue of papal mandates and appointments. Yet, sending Carballo to Spain may also signify the Pope’s desire to have one of his most faithful in the Spanish Bishops’ Conference in a moment of transition and while new bishops are taking office. Ultimately, Archbishop Carballo is the one who has consistently applied the papal will, even when it came to applying a hard line against some Congregations.
Finally, Father Antonio Spadaro is appointed Undersecretary of the Dicastery of Culture and Education, an appointment about which there has been much speculation. Ultimately, the explanation seems simple: after 12 years, the Jesuits decided to give a new orientation to Civiltà Cattolica. Father Spadaro, who in recent years has been credited as one of the prominent interpreters of the Pope’s thought, was thus co-opted in the Vatican, called to bring the experience of these years there.
The problem is that every decision leads to a thousand speculations, and not all are correct. Reading the mind of Pope Francis is extremely difficult. But if there is no actual modus operandi, what is Pope Francis’ plan?
As mentioned, the Pope seems to think in short-term objectives, which allows him to make a decision and then completely change his approach. This, too, has happened in various cases. For example, the Pope first defended the Chilean episcopate on the issue of abuse in Chile. Then, he summoned the Chilean bishops twice, resulting in the Chilean episcopate’s wholesale resignation. Or, regarding the responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which denied the possibility of blessing homosexual couples, the Pope initially approved of it and then implied that he would have preferred a softer approach.
It is the idea of the so-called reform in progress. The Pope’s goal is not to change the doctrine formally. Indeed, formality is not part of Pope Francis’ cultural baggage. The documents most used for making decisions are the motu proprio, the most popular ones for sending messages are the apostolic exhortations, and the ones most used for quick decisions are the rescripts.
Pope Francis listens to everyone, but there is no listening synodality in his decision-making. Often, his decisions are dictated by instinct; they come from a conversation, but often not from a weighing of all points of view.
The situation can be counterproductive. Reforms remain at a standstill until the Pope decides because moving independently is difficult and risky. There is little spirit of initiative in the Vatican, which reflects on the institution’s vitality. There is also suspicion because Pope Francis often compares two situations, uses parallel channels, and puts different interlocutors in competition with each other.
While making sense at some level, it certainly leads to an unpredictable landscape. Those who maneuver behind the scenes take advantage of it and have no scruples. One day, when history is written, we shall understand why the Pope wanted the current judicial process being held in the Vatican on managing the funds of the Secretariat of State, regarding which numerous contradictions have already emerged. One day, when history is written, we shall understand why, in the Rupnik case, there was no coordination between the Jesuits, the vicariate, and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in managing not only the case but also the communications for the case. And one day, when history is written, we shall understand why, despite the warnings of the Pope himself, the Synod of the Church in Germany is moving forward without changing a comma, aiming straight to its objective.
Pope Francis, however, will follow the situations case by case, according to the logic of discernment, which he asks to be applied also in confession. In confession, however, it is a matter of facing people made of flesh and blood, often confused, and who want a new start and leave behind their mistakes. Instead, when governing, the reality principle applied alternatively risks only creating confusion.
Many speak of a final phase of the pontificate, which can last years. In this final phase, Pope Francis is accelerating the reforms and the construction of a team of loyalists. The arrival of Victor Fernandez in Rome as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is an example of this. Pope Francis needs his reforms to be protected, backed and explained. The Pope’s plan, however, seems to be to a break with the past, imposing a new model of a less institutional Church, closer to the people, and above all, with a beloved leader. The idea of changing the narrative was born during the Conclave that elected him. But will the change in narrative be enough to help the Church reform itself? What will remain, in the end, of this somewhat unpredictable pontificate?