Rorate Caeli

“Many ‘on the one hands’ and ‘on the other’ around a Francis resignation” — Michael Charlier on the end of a pontificate

In Catholic media, but also to some extent in the secular press, there was a lot of speculation at Pentecost about a possible resignation of Pope Francis before the end of this August. The trigger—in addition to pictures of Francis in a wheelchair—was the announcement of a trip to L’Aquila immediately after the consistory planned for Aug. 27, at which Francis plans to explain his curia reform to the cardinals. L’Aquila is the site of the tomb of Coelestine V, the only pope to resign under semi-regular circumstances before Benedict XVI. And Benedict, who had taken office asking for the strength not to flee from wolves, had also traveled to L’Aquila, admittedly four years before his resignation.

We do not want to take part in the speculations that broke out thereupon; for a list of counter-arguments we refer to an article of the sometimes very sharp and sometimes rather esoteric Mundabor’s Blog. Instead, here are some general reflections on the position and weight of the papal office after almost ten years of Francis, the “dictator pope” as historian Henry Sire described him in his sensational 2017 book.

Francis has influenced the status of his office in two opposing directions.

On the one hand, his overall actions—in his openly displayed contempt for all traditions, in the texts he has written or commissioned, in his personnel policies, in the manner of his public appearances, and in often despotic and inhumane actions behind the scenes—have painted a picture of the papacy that many would not have believed possible today: even in the 21st century a pope can appear as an unrestrained ruler whose will is law and whose subjects, like the courtiers of an absolutist ruler, must follow the arbitrariness of the potentate or go off to the desert.

On the other hand, through precisely this style of government, he has spectacularly weakened the papacy in general as well as his own legacy. Pope Francis today, outside the Church, is not much more and not much else than one of countless players in world politics and global value management. One listens to him and applauds him whenever he is pleasing to the spirit of the times—everything else is ignored or, where that seems useful, also attacked in the media. In the Church, he is surrounded by people, congregations, and communities who eagerly await the end of his government—admittedly for different and partly contradictory reasons. He can really rely only on a group of opportunists, however strong in Rome, who have risen to high positions despite hair-raising moral, theological, or human shortcomings and can hold them only as long as they enjoy the goodwill of their promoter and accomplice. And as long as the latter is alive and in office.

It is this faction that is probably working hardest toward a future Francis II, but it is uncertain what support it enjoys in the college of papal electors. The majority of cardinal-electors are indeed appointed by Francis—but according to unclear and sometimes contradictory criteria. It is entirely uncertain whether a cardinal elevated by Francis because of his episcopal seat on the margins shares Francis’s aberrant theological and ecclesiastical ideas—or whether he does not locate his and the church’s interests in an entirely different direction. It is idle to speculate about this. There are a hundred individual cases here.

On the other hand, it can be considered certain that a large part of the personnel decisions already made by Francis or imminent will become invalid with the departure of the dictator pope from his office, which is also expected soon (resignation or not), partly because some top offices automatically expire with the death of a pope and can be filled anew by the successor according to his own wishes, partly because there is nothing—at least from a legal point of view—that could prevent a successor from proceeding as arbitrarily in the allocation of offices as Francis has practiced. On the contrary, Francis’s arbitrariness has cleared away all the barriers that previously practically limited the theoretical freedom of popes in their exercise of government.

In what direction a successor to Francis would exercise this new freedom is again a matter of speculation. Only one thing is certain: even without a change from or violation of Francis’s new laws and regulations, the election of a new pope will reshuffle all the cards. No dignitary appointed today by Francis for a maximum renewable term of five years knows whether he will not lose this office again after the next sede vacante—or whether the successor will tacitly disregard the term limit imposed by Francis and leave him in office permanently. No dicastery, whose officials, hand-picked by Francis, may hope to soon have a woman “cardinal prefect” at its head, can be sure that this wish will be fulfilled in the lifetime of its younger members. Nowhere does it say that women must be appointed—and even if it were, it would not bind the successor.

The inconsistency and, in many cases, explicit (un)bindingness of Francis’ legislation at the pontiff’s discretion, as well as the complete lack of anchoring in tradition in many cases, make it easy for any successor who wishes to do so to disregard what has been established. No modern pope has had such latitude. But even that is only true in the narrower sphere, that is, for the Roman Curia and the circle of sycophants and water carriers, which is scattered around the world but not very reliable.

One of the positive consequences of this pontificate is this: the ultramontanism and hyperpapalism that have plagued the Church since the mid-19th century have been disavowed in a way that can hardly be reversed. Never before have local churches and communities been so spiritually independent as at the end of this pontificate. On the one hand, this entails risks of disintegration and schism, as can be seen in the Synodal Way of the Germans. On the other hand, however, it also opens up to all those who want to hold on to the traditions of the Church and the revealed faith possibilities for action that previously seemed unthinkable. The enormous differences with which the bishops are reacting to the attempt to abolish tradition once and for all, a campaign started with Traditionis Custodes, indicate the kind of situation the Church will have to face in the future.

Michael Charlier
June 7, 2022