There will be more theologians and canonists among the members of the second stage of the Synod of Bishops, which will be held next October. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi said this during a meeting in Bologna on the forty years of the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law, and it is an interesting fact. After a synod which led to a particularly controversial text, amended 1215 times, we are thinking of a synod in which the experts will be called to give shape and substance to the texts, which will then be published at the end of the meeting.
Once upon a time, the news of having more canonists and theologians would have been received with optimism because it is ultimately excellent news. It is necessary to harmonize the decisions of the Church with the juridical and theological corpus for these decisions to make sense. Yet, the same news also creates some concern. And it is in that concern that we can understand how Francis’ pontificate is perceived.
In these ten years, Pope Francis has been a strong legislator Pope. He promulgated 48 motu proprio, various apostolic letters, various appeals, making and undoing laws in what he called “reform in progress.” At the same time, with each paradigm shift, Pope Francis has found a theological or historical justification, extrapolating phrases or decisions from past contexts to demonstrate a continuity between his decisions and those that have existed previously, to signal that his theology is not a break with the past.
It happened, for example, in the letter to the priests of the diocese of Rome last August when he used the thought of the great French theologian de Lubac, taking some parts of it and not considering others. But there are other examples of this kind, from the simplification of the theme of the condemnation of slavery by the Church to that concerning the reform of the Curia, often dismissed with a joke about the effectiveness of the Curia itself.
This simplification is now found in the responses to the dubia sent by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The idea is to convey the truths of faith in a colloquial language. Still, the sense remains of a certain ambiguity, so much so that the dubia was sent twice, as the first responses were not considered satisfactory.
Simplification responds to the need to speak directly to the people. In ten years of pontificate, Pope Francis has eliminated the “intermediate bodies.” There is no longer an elite of officials, managers, Vatican officials, and cardinals ready to help the Pope or act as a filter in the most challenging situations.
There is the Pope, and then there is the people. The Curia is marginalized, used when it gives an idea of collegiality with interdicasterial meetings and left somewhat to its fate. The Pope has the people he listens to, even if he then decides directly. Alongside him, he wanted a Council of Cardinals to define the Curia’s reform and help him govern the Church. In these ten years, however, life has often overtaken the Council’s proposals.
Pope Francis has, therefore, deconstructed the Church institution, keeping some structures alive while weakening them. An example is what happened to the Secretariat of State, which has lost competencies and financial autonomy over the years, increasingly transforming itself into a “Papal Secretariat.”
If the people are the first point of contact for the Pope, if there is no elite, the Pope finds himself alone in making all the decisions. Pope Francis is a Pope who finds himself micro-managing, who always wants to be informed, who wants to know everything. He is a Pope who prefers to talk to people on the street than to cardinals because, from the former, he learns about the situation in the Church and wants to make corrections.
The question, however, is broader. If cardinals and officials are not considered, how will they be part of a government, and how will they be able to help? A pontificate that cuts off intermediate bodies not only forces the Pope to the strenuous work of constant and continuous discernment even on issues that he does not know about, but also puts the Church institution’s very future at risk.
Above all, a Pope who removes the intermediate bodies, in the end, can hardly make choices that are not dictated by personal emotions. It works at the level of government, and it works at the level of ideas. This is why the announcement of having more theologians and canonists at the next Synod causes concern. The problem lies not so much in the profile of the people who will be chosen but in their ideological approach.
It immediately comes to mind that those who will be able to carry forward the Pope’s ideas and overcome what Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, general speaker of the Synod, called “resistance” will be chosen.
The risk is that we find ourselves faced not with a debate but with the search for an interpretative framework that justifies the decisions and choices of the Pope. A first “warning” of this came with the appointment of Victor Manuel Fernández as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and then with his creation as cardinal. Fernández has committed himself, in recent months, to giving a theological framework to the Pope’s choices, even the most controversial ones, effectively giving the go-ahead to the cultural revolution, which Pope Francis then concretized with the reform of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, which did nothing other than draw from the pastoral constitution Veritatis Gaudium on the pontifical faculties.
The lack – or non-consideration – of a ruling class leads to choices which sometimes risk following the long wave of public opinion (as happened when the Pope changed his mind on the management of the issue of abuses in Chile). The institutional organization is at risk because Pope Francis reforms it not from within but using the method of commissions and commissioners inaugurated since the beginning of his pontificate.
The next Synod of bishops thus becomes an essential test to understand what direction the pontificate has taken. The Pope’s choices will say much about the Church he wants to leave as a legacy to his successor. He will have two choices: continue destroying the “intermediate bodies” or rebuild everything.