A Pontificate of Power

COMMENTARY: Contrary to the storyline pushed by papal courtier Austen Ivereigh and others, Pope Francis exercises authority in the manner of a Jesuit superior who, after hearing those he chooses to hear, makes his own decision.

Pope Francis looks on as he presides over the "24 Hours of the Lord" at the parish of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Trionfale, on March 17, 2023 in Rome.
Pope Francis looks on as he presides over the "24 Hours of the Lord" at the parish of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Trionfale, on March 17, 2023 in Rome. (photo: Filippo Monteforte / AFP/Getty)

Papal courtier Austen Ivereigh has written two very useful biographies of the Holy Father and another book together with him. It would be churlish to deny him a measure of celebration of Pope Francis on his 10th anniversary.

Yet the occasion does not require questionable claims to be made, and, regrettably, Ivereigh has done just that, in writing that Pope Francis has “sought a transformation of the internal life and culture of the Catholic Church, at the heart of which is a conversion of power.”

Ivereigh argues that “not long ago the Vatican was notorious for its haughty manner, its centralism and its authoritarianism.” Climate change has since come to the Vatican, Ivereigh implies, with the icy winds of John Paul and Benedict being replaced by the gentle, warm breeze of Pope Francis.

Ivereigh is a clever man. He knows that, contrary to the approved storyline, this has been a pontificate of power. He was writing a preemptive defense.

Critics of the Holy Father’s governing style sometimes resort to the explanation that Pope Francis wields raw power in the manner of an Argentinian Peronist.

It is more the case that he exercises authority in the manner of a Jesuit superior who, after hearing those he chooses to hear, decides on his own.

Pope Francis implemented the Jesuit model immediately upon election, convoking his own “council of cardinals” who had privileged access to him, bypassing all the usual structures for consultation. He listened to them and then decided what he would do.

Recall The Two Popes, the film that heaped laudations upon Pope Francis. It opens with a charming scene of the Holy Father attempting to book a flight to Lampedusa for his first trip. (That may be the only true scene in an otherwise wholly imagined script.) It was innocent enough, but the modus operandi was already clear; no matter was too trivial — including travel logistics — for the Holy Father not to be personally in control of it.

Canonizations are not trivial, involving the most solemn exercise of papal authority; an infallible act, in fact. That’s why there is such a rigorous procedure for sainthood causes.

Soon after election, Pope Francis decided to waive the requirement for a miracle for Blessed John XXIII to be canonized, possibly so that Blessed John Paul II would not be canonized alone. He would do the same thing for his favorite Jesuit, Blessed Peter Faber, and again for Blesseds Junípero Serra, Joseph Vaz, Francois de Laval, Marie of the Incarnation, Margaret Costello and others. More saints are a blessing, but that so early on Pope Francis would use his supreme authority in such a frequent and extraordinary fashion was an important sign of how he would wield his authority.

Pope Francis has removed local bishops’ authority to approve new religious communities in their dioceses, changed canon law so that he has the authority to fire bishops and, famously regarding the traditional Latin Mass, removed a bishop’s authority to determine what happens in his parish churches — including how their bulletins are written. Now, instead of the long-standing Vatican practice of cajoling local bishops into a voluntary resignation, Pope Francis can simply dismiss them, as he has done in Paraguay, and Puerto Rico, and Memphis, Tennessee.

Closer to home, in a new constitution for the Diocese of Rome, Pope Francis sidelined the cardinal vicar and mandated that a new pastoral council meet three times a month in his presence, with the agenda sent in advance. It’s hard to believe that the supreme pontiff will actually attend such meetings, but by law that is the default position. New parish priests in Rome can no longer be appointed by the cardinal vicar; the Pope will now do that himself, as well as approve seminarians for ordination.

More broadly in Italy, Pope Francis reorganized all the marriage tribunals in the country. He has appointed special commissioners to govern religious houses. After years of the Italian bishops making clear that they saw no use for a national synodal process — like Germany or Australia — Pope Francis forced them to do it anyway.

In the Roman Curia, he has rather unceremoniously demoted or dismissed no fewer than five Curial cardinals from their posts: Cardinals Raymond Burke, Gerhard Müller, Angelo Becciu, Fernando Filoni and Peter Turkson. They joke amongst themselves that they are part of the “throwaway Curia.”

Papal power has been brought down ferociously to diminish the Pontifical Academy for Life and the former John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. The Order of Malta — the Sovereign Order of Malta — has been completely taken over by Pope Francis, who forced a new constitution and senior officers on it.

The Roman Curia itself is entirely bypassed in most of the Holy Father’s initiatives, issued motu proprio — on “his own initiative.” On more than one occasion major changes in jurisdiction were discovered by the relevant department heads when they read the daily press bulletin of the Holy See.

That is particularly true in terms of financial reform.

When the Holy Father created the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014, Cardinal Pietro Parolin was blindsided. Two years later, when the economy department was stripped of key jurisdiction, Cardinal George Pell was similarly blindsided. The audit that Cardinal Pell’s department had ordered was suspended by the Pope; and, later, the Holy Father dismissed the Vatican’s first auditor general.

Recently, Pope Francis decreed that all assets of all Vatican entities belong to the Holy See, not the various departments, some of which have controlled the funds for centuries. Every euro now, in theory, is subject to direct papal control.

When personnel and money are involved, the long practice of the Church is that, when reform is needed, Rome often centralizes. Doctrine is another matter, though, and in his exaltation of papal power, Francis has decided to set aside the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

The new constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, makes it possible for anyone to head up a Vatican dicastery, exercising governing power in the Church. What, then, of Vatican II’s teaching that bishops govern in virtue of their ordination and that they are “vicars of Christ” in their own right?

At the press conference following the promulgation of Praedicate Evangelium, one of its drafters, canon law scholar Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda (now a cardinal) flatly stated a position at odds with Vatican II:

“The power of governance in the Church doesn’t come from the sacrament of holy orders, but from the canonical mission.”

The message: Power is not sacramental, but papal. Power comes from a papal mandate, not from the sacraments.

That direct challenge to Vatican II is a grave issue, a matter taken up by theologians and canon lawyers in scholarly work for decades. Pope Francis attempted to settle the matter by means of assertion, backed up by a single press conference. Not surprisingly, at the consistory of cardinals in August 2022, there was significant pushback, with many cardinals arguing that the Pope did not have the power to do what he had just done.

The paradox of this pontificate is that, despite power being asserted always and everywhere, there is a spectacular failure in great crises.

The Holy Father is openly defied in the Syro-Malabar Church in India, where his liturgical directives have not brought resolution. In Nigeria, he threatened all the priests of a diocese with suspension unless they accepted a new bishop. He backed down and transferred the bishop. And in Germany, with the Synodal Way, despite the Holy Father’s repeated initiatives to shut it down, defiant bishops have produced a crisis that will most likely consume whatever is left of the pontificate.

The pontificate of power has proved in great matters strangely impotent.