The proffered resignation of the entire Chilean episcopate is the greatest assertion of papal power since Blessed Paul VI promulgated far-reaching liturgical reforms in an exercise of his supreme authority in the Church.
The only recent initiative of comparable scope was the publication of the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church by St. John Paul II. While done on papal authority, it did follow a massive six-year consultation of the entire world episcopate.
Even the Roman centralization of some aspects of the liturgical translation process left in place substantive collegial and consultative measures.
But the dramatic conclusion to the Chilean sexual-abuse summit is something that harks back to an age long-thought buried by the emphasis of the Second Vatican Council on episcopal collegiality, an emphasis updated by the current pontificate’s emphasis on synodality. The bold move by the Holy Father invites comparison to the days when popes would place entire dioceses, or even countries, under interdict or other penal measures.
While the news conference of the Chilean bishops did not clarify whether Pope Francis asked all the bishops to submit their resignations, or whether it was their idea, it must certainly be the former. The en masse resignations mean that the Holy Father is assuming personal responsibility for reconstructing an entire national episcopate on an accelerated pace, a difficult task fraught with peril. It is inconceivable that the Chilean bishops would drop this entire steaming mess on the Pope’s own desk without him inviting it.
Consider the contrast with the Irish bishops in 2010. They were summoned for a sexual-abuse summit with Pope Benedict XVI, which produced a pastoral letter to Ireland in March 2010 and the announcement of a program of apostolic visitations.
In 2011, Benedict XVI appointed a trusted aide, Msgr. Charles Brown, apostolic nuncio to Ireland, with a mandate for far-reaching reform of the Irish episcopate. But the Irish bishops resisted, and Archbishop Brown’s tenure yielded nothing in the way of major reforms. After five years, he was given a very public demotion to Albania. The papal efforts at reform in Ireland were largely blocked by the Irish bishops.
That will not happen in Chile. There will be no one left standing to block anything. It is a remarkable act of bravery on the part of the Holy Father, for within several months there will be no one left in the leadership of the Chilean Church whom the Holy Father has not personally selected.
The reform of the Church in Chile will proceed as did the Vatican summit, with Pope Francis taking personal charge of the file himself, acting on his own initiative and not relying on the various Vatican departments. How the Holy Father himself will manage the reform or what new structures he will put in place remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that it is a daunting task.
The news of May 18 left a major question unanswered. Pope Francis blamed his own grave errors regarding Chile on being badly informed. The summit did not explain how he was misinformed or by whom. But in giving himself the right to summarily fire every last Chilean bishop, Pope Francis must be confident that his judgments regarding Chile will be better now than the grievous errors he was making just four months ago.
If and how his judgment will change is the key to the entire papal-reform effort. There is a live risk that a papal-centered reform might end up just like the papal visit to Chile, which made things far worse, not better. Directing the Chilean Church from the St. Martha residence, if not done with complete information, prudent judgment and pastoral wisdom, might prove a further catastrophe for the Church in Chile.
Three Papal Characteristics
The conclusion of the Chilean summit clarified three characteristics of the Holy Father’s pastoral style.
First, Pope Francis is quite ready to fire people at the most senior levels. He has fired three Curial prefects, something which simply wasn’t done previously. Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal Gerhard Müller were all dismissed when judged to be obstacles to the Holy Father’s agenda. The Vatican’s auditor general, a key figure in the financial-reform program appointed by Pope Francis himself, was fired last summer. A few months before that, the Holy Father even fired someone who was thought to be beyond the Pope’s power to dismiss, the grand master of the Knights of Malta.
Pope Francis has shifted away from the more traditional ecclesiastical style to a more business style of management. The traditional ecclesial style, especially in Rome, was to wait for people to retire or to move them to a face-saving post.
In his 2016 annual address to the Roman Curia, the Holy Father called for “the definitive abolition of the practice of promoveatur ut amoveatur” — promoting someone to remove him.
In principle and in practice, Pope Francis prefers the corporate style in which the chief executive fires his subordinates, either for cause or in order to change direction. He has applied that on a massive scale in Chile.
Second, Pope Francis believes his office to be in fact a center of initiative, independent of the Roman Curia, or even contrary to them. His major financial reforms, as well as other important initiatives, have almost entirely been done by motu proprio or papal chirograph, which are documents of the pope’s own initiative. During the two synods on the family, the Holy Father would often say that the “pope’s presence is a guarantee for all.”
Since the Karadima/Barros affair escalated three years ago, the principal mover has been Pope Francis himself, not the Secretariat of State or the Congregation for Bishops. The meeting with Chilean victims and the subsequent bishops’ summit put Pope Francis front and center from start to finish. He has now chosen to be the dominant figure in the reform of the Church in Chile.
Third, the Chilean summit showed Pope Francis is never afraid of course correction, even lurching from one extreme to another. His financial reforms were implemented in accelerated fashion, and then reversed just as abruptly.
His flagship reform on sexual abuse — a tribunal for negligent bishops — was announced and then was never spoken of again before being dropped the next year.
On the papal plane to Poland, the Holy Father dismissed the murder of Father Jacques Hamel at the altar as similar to domestic violence, with no particular religious significance. Six weeks later, he declared him a martyr and told the local bishop to place Father Hamel’s picture in the church because he was “already blessed.”
Nevertheless, the speed and scope of the Holy Father’s reversal on Chile is breathtaking.
Four months ago he dismissed complaints as “calumny,” saying he had seen no evidence. Now, having belatedly seen the evidence, the entire Chilean episcopate has been temporarily downgraded, and even the Holy Father’s priority for synodality and collegiality has been set aside.
As of today, there is, for practical purposes, one bishop for all of Chile, upon whose shoulders lies the future of that Church. And he lives in Rome.