Before the latest motu proprio on the implementation of the Vos Estis Lux Mundi, Pope Francis’ latest government decision is the renewal of the Council of Cardinals membership. Nine members with the inclusion of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, who attended all meetings but who was not initially included in the chirograph with which the Pope established the Council in 2013.
The Council’s renewal testifies that the reform season is not over after ten years. Just as Pope Francis wanted the Church in a permanent synod —so much so that in his pontificate, two ordinary synods and two special assemblies were celebrated—the Curia is in permanent reform.
In the ten years of his pontificate, Pope Francis first proceeded with the renewal of the offices and responsibilities of the Roman Curia. Only later did he promulgate an apostolic constitution, the Praedicate Evangelium, which gave a broad reading of the reforms made.
But not only. The Pope has intervened in various matters, from the liturgy to the so-called Catholic health care, using lighter forms of decisions, or rather documents such as the Rescripta ex audientia Santissimi or motu propri. These documents have also been used to clarify certain decisions, testifying that, in the pontificate of Pope Francis, the law cannot be applied without a correct interpretation defined by the higher authority.
Pope Francis, in the end, has proven to be a pope who makes decisions personally. When necessary, he decides quickly, avoiding documents that would take longer to prepare.
Pope Francis demonstrated this modus operandi precisely on the path toward the reform of the Curia. The promulgation of the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium dates back to March 2022 and has been in effect since June of the same year. However, the constitution had already been in place for some time in many respects.
Therefore, rather than renewing the Curia, the constitution photographed an existing reality and added some other unification of the dicasteries. Among other things, the reform was presented to the Consistory of August 2022 as a fait accompli, with no possibility of discussion. John Paul II convened three extraordinary consistories (in 1979, 1982, and 1985) while he was doing the work of reform to then promulgate the great reform of the Curia in 1988.
Pope Francis used Rescripta ex audientia Santissimi, i.e., documents from a note following an audience with the Holy Father, to explain how the reforms should be understood.
It is a rescript that notes that all the assets of the dicasteries and entities of the Holy See must be managed by the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, the so-called Vatican bank.
It is a rescript – among other things never formally published externally – which establishes that there can no longer be service apartments or controlled rental prices for the heads of the Curia dicasteries.
It is a rescript that gives the interpretative key to the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, further restricting options for those who want to celebrate the Mass according to the ancient rite.
However, the Pope has also used indirect means to validate the interpretations over the years. For example, when responding to a letter from the Argentine bishops on applying Amoris Laetitiae, he established that approach, which he considered correct, to be included in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis or the list of official acts of the Holy See. This unusual decision gave official status to a text that would have remained only local.
Pope Francis used the form of the apostolic letter 85 times. The last time was when the Pope published, in December 2022, an apostolic letter to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Francis of Sales. But, even before that, there was the apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi, which marked the anniversary of the Traditionis Custodes, the motu proprio with which Pope Francis had abolished the liberalization of the ancient rite wanted by Benedict XVI.
The apostolic letter is fourth in order of importance of the papal documents. The most important is the apostolic constitution, followed by the encyclical and the apostolic exhortation.
The Apostolic Constitution, having the highest rank, also needs the most discussion because it must also be consistent with the norms of canon law. So far, the Pope has used it in rare cases: for the reform of the Curia, outlined with the Praedicate Evangelium; and for the reform of the vicariate of Rome, with the constitution In Ecclesiarum Comunione.
Even the encyclical needs extensive work because it wants to express the universal magisterium of the Pope and cannot be linked only to contingent moments. So far, Pope Francis has promulgated three encyclicals: Lumen Fidei, prepared mainly by Benedict XVI; Laudato Si on the theme of ecology; and Fratelli Tutti on the issue of social friendship.
The apostolic exhortation is a personal instrument of the Pope. In the case of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, the Pope draws up a document starting from the propositions that the Synod of Bishops produces as the fruit of its work. It is a lighter instrument, and the Pope has used it to outline his “government program.” This is all contained in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which replaced the post-synodal apostolic exhortation expected after the Synod on the Word of God in 2012. Of that Synod, the last one celebrated by Benedict XVI, no trace has remained.
When the Pope has to legislate, he almost always favors the apostolic letter in the form of motu propri (the Vatican website currently has 51) and Rescripta ex audientia Santissimi.
In fact, with his choices, Pope Francis shows that he is a man alone in command. When in doubt, the final interpretation always rests with the pontiff. And only the Pope can make exceptions.
In contrast, the Pope diminishes the powers of those collaborating in government. The vicar for the diocese of Rome is defined as an auxiliary – but he would be the representative of the Pope and is always a cardinal – while the heads of departments now have their authority guaranteed only by the canonical mission, which the Pope gives.
These are the two most recent examples. But it is also enough to note that the Pope expands the boards and commissions with the idea of enhancing representation, but at the same time, he always takes his decisions personally. When something goes wrong, he goes back.
Everything is also checked. There are commissioners sent at every change of leadership of a dicastery (it happened with the Congregation for Divine Worship, with that for the Clergy, with the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development) or when the Pope wants to give a new direction to things, as happened with Caritas Internationalis. What happened with the Order of Malta should not be underestimated, where Pope Francis used all his prerogatives to intervene in the reform processes.
Generally, the Pope intervenes whenever he suspects someone is going in a different direction from the one he indicated.
For example, faced with the possibility of lengthy investigations for the London Palace trial, the Pope intervened by approving a summary trial and giving various special powers to Vatican magistrates with four different rescripts.
The decision to use “light” documents to define legislation is also part of the Pope’s fight against what he believes to be a form of corruption within the Church.
The Pope’s strategy is one of shock and awe. In this way, the Pope avoids anyone who could stop the execution of his reform.
Added to this is the need to block what the Pope considers circles of power. And so, Pope Francis prefers not to consider, except in some specific cases, traditionally cardinal sees to assign the red hat but instead looks to the people and the country’s message. Therefore, there are no longer dioceses of cardinals nor recognizable criteria even in the assignment of episcopal sees.
The Pope shuffles the cards, which is also a way of governing. In the end, everything passes through Pope Francis. And it is the Pope who decides whether or not to approve the decisions. Indeed, it is not a collegial project, nor is it a synodal project. It is a question of a single man in command, who commands with all the tools at his disposal.