Rorate Caeli

“Obviously knitted with a hot needle”: Pope Francis’s rush of legal changes

Canon Law and Crisis of Faith
Michael Charlier
February 18, 2022

As if sensing the end of the pontificate approaching, Pope Francis and his whisperers are currently showering the astonished people of the Church with a plethora of decrees and legal amendments. They are supposed to make the innovations promised and achieved by this pontificate “irreversible,” although they are obviously knitted with a hot needle. As if everything that Francis decrees “on his own initiative” and by the stroke of a pen could not be undone by one of his successors with another stroke of a pen, just as he undid or made ineffective many decrees of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI… Better to say: wanted to make ineffective—because for a long time neither the mass of the faithful nor his fellow apostles in the episcopate feel bound to what the man on the Roman bishop’s chair orders, if it does not suit them.

This did not start with Francis. Already Paul VI had had the experience in the revolutionary year 1968 with his unpopular “pill encyclical” Humanae Vitae, which not only many half-believers refused to obey, but entire bishops’ conferences—such as the German one with the Königstein Declaration from the same year. The number of occasions on which John Paul II preached to the closed ears of bishops can hardly be counted—just mention the boycott by a majority of bishops of the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei of 1988, which is particularly dear to us; the deliberate disregard of the 2004 instruction against liturgical violations, Redemptionis Sacramentum; and the open rejection of the document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), issued under claim of supreme magisterial authority, affirming that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood. [One could also mention Ex Corde Ecclesiae.—Ed.]

With Benedict XVI, who even more than his predecessor wanted to guide the Church less with laws than with his teaching, the contradiction also shifted accordingly: modernist bishops and professors, especially in Europe, competed with each other to devalue the pope’s theology as outdated and therefore irrelevant to the modern world. And where he enacted a law that did not suit the rulers—for example, Summorum Pontificum [or the insistence that pro multis be translated “for many”]—his opponents ignored it, just as they had acted under his predecessor. Two essential pillars of the papacy—that of legislation and that of magisterium—had thus largely broken away even before Francis took office. Not so much because the popes (if one overlooks the unfortunate complex of liturgical reforms) had passed bad laws and promulgated dubious doctrines, but rather because in many cases they had refrained from enforcing even the existing laws.

In the pontificate of Francis, these negative tendencies have clearly intensified. Francis has practically suspended the Magisterium: “Who am I to judge?” He seems, consequently, to attach all the more weight to legislation. In nine years of his reign, he has issued 49 motu proprios—his predecessor John Paul II issued just 31 in 26 years. He liberally amends paragraphs of Canon Law and even the Catechism. Yet most of his legislative acts relate to the Roman apparatus, whose comprehensive reform he had promised before the election, and where they have a lot of experience changing doorplates when new structures are decreed, but otherwise proceeding as they always have… for better or for worse.

This was the case with the first dissolution of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, decreed by Francis in January 2019, only to continue its work afterwards as Department IV, as before, under the umbrella of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the same staff and in the same rooms. Not at all so, then, was the second dissolution of the commission in the wake of Traditionis Custodes last summer, when disciplinary jurisdiction over ex-Ecclesia Dei communities passed to the Congregation for Religious Orders. Their staff transported the Ecclesia Dei files to their dicastery’s offices over the weekend, and the old Ecclesia Dei people were somewhat surprised to find their offices cleared out on Monday. Not a single one of the old employees was taken over—a rare case, for Rome, of a reorganization really being meant seriously, and a clear sign of the Pope’s will to leave no stone unturned in the area of the “Old Liturgy.” It is becoming increasingly clear that the focus of this pontificate is less on building something new than on destroying what has been handed down.

The latest legislative changes in the organization of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the legal status of bishops in canon law—The Pillar provides an overview, CNA a commentary—do not seem to affect the area of doctrine and liturgy, at least at first glance. On second glance, however, two new regulations catch our eye. In the future, the department of the Congregation responsible for doctrine is not only to take care of the preservation and deepening of doctrine, but also increasingly to deal with questions “arising from the progress of science and the development of society”—this could become problematic, considering how, for example, in the German Bishops’ Conference, the “progress of science” is regarded and increasingly used as a corrective to the doctrine handed down by the Lord to the apostles. In fact, even the formerly highly valued task of “refuting false and dangerous teachings” is no longer included in the new catalog of tasks; in contrast, the importance of “dialogue” is upgraded. People are familiar with the pattern, and are probably justifiably skeptical in view of the results of the previous procedure based on it.

In the same direction go the reservations against a change in canon law, which grants the local bishops or the bishops’ conferences more competences to determine the contents of doctrine—up to the elaboration of own catechisms, which are only to be shared with Rome, but not approved by it. If one goes by the demands made under the German Synodal Way, which have been reinforced in a veritable drumbeat of episcopal statements since the conclusion of a second session extremely successful for the modernists, one can expect almost anything here. The foreseeable “federalization” of the Church through strengthened bishops’ conferences enables Rome under Francis to allow far-reaching changes at the regional level even in areas that, such as the abolition of celibacy or the “access of women to all offices,” have so far been rejected by Francis. The path to an ecclesiastical organization in which everything is possible and everything is permitted—except adherence to what has been valid for two thousand years—is becoming increasingly clear.

Even under the successors of Francis, it will not be possible to change all this very easily, even if they should they want to do so. After 60 years of undesirable developments in academic theology and administrative neglect, especially in the appointment of bishops, a real change of course would be possible only with the utmost application of force—and that is not to be expected any time soon. The people and movements that we may simplistically summarize here as “forces of tradition” will thus face hard times, with challenges that will be difficult to overcome. On the other hand, however, their task will become easier when the contours of the loss of faith and apostasy become more sharply defined.