In his interview with La Civilta Cattolica/America, Pope Francis said
Pope Francis: Looks friendly--but not to the
pezzi grossi monsignors who are afraid of
losing their desk jobs
Discernment, at least in the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, is something new to the process of governing the Church. The Church has, at least in the past four centuries, been governed primarily as a rational autocracy—and probably at least since the illnesses of Pius XII in the 1950’s, as a rational bureaucracy. What do I mean by these terms?
With the rise of royal absolutism in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries as the theories of “Divine Right” and absolute monarchy determined the politics of secular Europe, a corresponding notion developed in the Church—in part, no doubt, by the confusion of roles of the Pope between being a secular monarch and an ecclesiastical superior. Popes had not always been absolute. Their direct governance had in the first millennium been pretty much limited to their own See while their influence—as distinct from power—spread over the Western Church. As papal power began to grow with the popes of the 11th century Gregorian Reform it was checked and balanced by the power of local bishops, synods, and Councils. From the 13th-the 15th century it was understood that the Roman Pontiff was subject to the authority of an Ecumenical Council. But after the Fifth Lateran Council and especially at Trent, the same sort of absolutism claimed by the Tudors and Stuarts in Britain and the Valois and Bourbons in France, as well as the royal houses of Spain and Portugal, was claimed by the Popes. One can say that from Lateran V (1512-1517) until today, the Pope is an absolute monarch. And while Pius IX made some feeble efforts at introducing governmental reforms—one cannot go so far as to say democratic reforms—in the Papal States upon his accession in 1846, there was no corresponding attempt to share governance of the Church until the Decree Christus Dominus of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.While Popes in this period could be considered—for the most part—to be wise and discerning shepherds of the faithful, “discernment” was not part of their operating mechanism. While always cloaked in the most pious of language, decisions and decrees were made for all variety of reasons. The 1773 Bull, Dominus ac Redemptor which suppressed the Jesuits, can hardly be said to reflect the Divine Will. It was issued as a result of political pressure from the Courts of France, Spain, and Portugal where strong Masonic influence governed the religious policies and saw the Jesuits as the main resistance to the liberal Enlightenment ideologies they, the Masonic societies, were trying to advance. Other policies—such as the 1896 Bull, Apostolicae Curae—were motivated by ecclesiastical politics, in this case a desire to undermine the credibility of the Anglican Church so as to maintain the number of converts to Roman Catholicism stemming from the Oxford movement. Sometimes, Papal Decrees such as Pascendi dominici gregis and Lamentabili sane of Pius X addressed real problems but from a perspective that reflected a failing of personal intellect as well as what might even be termed a paranoia on the part of the Pope himself. There were, of course, remarkable Popes and some excellent governance in this period, but while Bourbon France and Czarist Russia could also be used as outstanding examples of malfeasant authority, nothing proves the inadequacy of autocracy better than papal government as we have seen over the period of papal autocracy from the sixteenth through the twentieth century. I think to a great extent that the Second Vatican Council was an attempt to re-direct the barque of Peter from the shoals of such unwise (and unholy) waters such as Mortalium Animos—in which Pope Pius XI condemned the Ecumenical Movement—or Jamdudum cernimus, which provided the basis for the notorious proposition found in they Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX that condemned the idea the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization. Similarly the Conciliar decrees swept away other embarrassing relics of papal absolutism such as condemnations of democratic government and the rights of freedom of conscience. At the same time, the Council drew from and built on the extensive repertoire of sound papal decrees such as Rerum Novarum, Quadrigesimo Anno, Mediator Dei, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Mystici Corporis, Tra le Sollecitudine, and others. All in all, the mixed record of Papal autocracy demonstrates that that the governance of the Church was no better—nor no worse—than other autocratic states. Just because the Holy Spirit is available to those who call on Him (Her?), doesn’t mean that He(She?) is always consulted or that His(Her?) consultation is followed. But then, when I look at my life, I would have to say the same for my own decision making.
As for the allegation that rational bureaucracy replaced the rational autocracy that had been the modus operandi of modern popes sometime in the 1950’s, what I mean is that the serious illness and decline in health of Pius XII after 1952 led to that papal autocracy being exercised sub rosa not by the Pope personally but by the machinery of the Papal Curia in the Pope’s name but by their own authority. Most papacies through the history of the Church have known the torpor of a Pope’s declining years. If they are given the opportunity, Popes, like the rest of us, are subject to becoming aged, feeble, and even senile. For centuries this has not been a problem. Without modern media it was easy to draw a veil of discrete dignity between a decrepit Pope and the credulous faithful. Public appearances could be kept to a minimum. There was no pressing need for an encyclical that couldn’t wait until the new reign. Most papal business could grind to a halt for a year or two—or five. Committees could meet and function to confirm elections to episcopal sees (bishops being more normally elected by their chapters than appointed by Rome until the 19th century). Government by ministers could function in the Church as it did in the Great European Monarchies during the dotage of the king. But just as a succession of a new king to the throne gathered power back into the royal hands from the late king’s ministers, so too a new pope quickly overshadowed the Curial bureaucracy and gained control.
The decrepitude of Pius XII presented a different challenge. While papal ceremonies could be shortened and audiences cut back, the day to day functioning of the Church could not be allowed to slow down in the turbulence of the Post-World War II/Cold War world. There were huge challenges to be met from the spread of International Communism to the spread of Protestant missionary inroads in Latin America. An intellectual renaissance triggered in part by Pius’ own 1942 Encyclical Divno Afflante Spiritu was causing concern about a revival of Modernism. The ideas of Teilhard de Chardin—the Jesuit paleontologist/mystic were causing an uproar about orthodoxy as were the political ideas being advanced by the American Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray. In France advocates of the Nouvelle Theologie were upsetting those clinging the neo-Thomism mandated by Leo XIII. This was no time for a Pope who was not running at full steam. As usual the Vatican bureaucracy, especially the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office (formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition—how’s than for a bone-chilling title?) stepped in and took charge. The final years of Pius XII were not happy ones for the internal life of the Church, but more perilous was that the new Pope, John XXIII, had considerable difficulty trying to wrest power back from the Curia Romana and in particular from the indomitable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Head of the Holy Office. The Curia was taken aback when John, only three months into his papacy, called a Council. There was no need, they assured the Pope, of a Council. He was infallible. They—no, we meant “he,” the Pope (no, they meant “they” the Curia) could do anything a Council could do. After writing a lineamenta (agenda) for the Council that would produce some window-dressing but no substantial change, the Curia officials were appalled that the Pope threw their schema out and permitted a commission of Council Fathers to re-set the agenda. In session after session of the Council, the Curia prelates and their allies battled John’s successor, Paul VI and the proponents of collegiality (shared governance of the Church by the College of Bishops). When the Council documents were signed, sealed, and delivered the Collegialists had won. But they went home and the Curialists stayed to “implement the Council.” They violated a key safety maxim: never leave a wounded animal. I don’t have to tell you what a disaster that was, especially once John Paul II became Pope. No Pope—John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I or II, or Benedict XVI—has been able to curb the power of the Curia. The bureaucracy has taken on a life of its own. Pope Francis has called in a commission of eight cardinals to “reform” the Curia and not one of the eight is a curialist himself. Cardinal Guiseppe Bertello who administers the Vatican City State itself is the closest thing to a Curia prelate, but as his duties involve the temporal administration of the Vatican and not ecclesiastical responsibilities for the Holy See he is only on the “margins.” We will see how successful Pope Francis shall be but there are those who fear, if not for their jobs, for their power and influence. Good.