Rorate Caeli

Michael Charlier: "Francis Secures His Legacy"

Michael Charlier
July 10, 2023

"Francis Secures His Legacy"

Or at least that's what he thinks. The increasingly hectic succession of decisions of the pope, who is in his 86th year and severely affected by illness, gives the impression that the big boss is using all the tricks and threats to shuffle and prepare the cards for the next round in the great church game so that nothing else can come out but his will. The Church, however, and the Vatican too, are not a poker game. The Lord is and remains Christ, who died for us on the Cross -- and he together with the Holy Spirit will end the tragedy when He sees the time has come.

From the collection of experiences of the people of Israel, the book of Psalms, we know that one of the worst punishments the Lord inflicts on those who apostatize from Him is to abandon them to their hardened hearts, "and they acted according to their own plans." (80/81; 13) -- and the result is always the same: Defeat and collapse, and the desperate question: how much longer?

If one wanted to go by the fact that the frantic acceleration of things was a sign of the coming end (not immediately of the whole world, but of the current doom), we could find reasons for hope. Within a few weeks, Francis has taken a series of steps to secure what he considers his legacy -- and they are fizzling out like flashes in the pan. Since the enactment of the new "Legge fundamentale" for the Vatican State on June 7, which seeks to concentrate all power on the sick man in Santa Marta, absolutely nothing is moving in the Gubernatorio -- a civil servants' Mikado.

The appointment of Fernández as the new head of the faith thingy is a resounding failure of the first order. From the day of the appointment, the new man has had his hands full fending off the laughs that his admittedly long-ago booklet on the art of kissing has been getting -- and fending off the apparently very few readers outside the former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of his numerous "specialist theological" publications that call into question his fidelity to the Faith. He is apparently not a man from whom one would even want to buy a used car, and to make matters worse, he has now admitted to being quasi-unemployed: his job, he says, is not to fight error, but to enforce the "magisterium" of the current pope.

Well, such a "magisterium of Francis" does not exist -- there is widespread agreement on that, at least outside the circle of papal court sycophants. What we have, instead, is an abundance of oral and written statements, some of which contradict other statements of Francis himself or the doctrine and legislation of his predecessors. There are numerous utterances -- especially from his infamous airplane press conferences -- that either make no sense at all, or allow two or three contradictory interpretations. And even where he seems to embrace traditional doctrine, he readily opens a door to doubt in one or another infamous footnote. To enforce such an ambivalent and unclear "non-doctrine" is not a thankful task even for the shrewdest used-car salesman. Especially since -- as the reactions even before he took office made clear -- there is little willingness to take him seriously.

Yet the opposition is not only coming from the circles that one likes to summarize (somewhat simplistically) as "traditionalist." The list of participants specifically invited by Francis to participate in the synodal synod, also published earlier this month, includes a number of people who have probably been assigned the task of hemming in somewhat the ideas of the German Synodal Wayfarers, which go far beyond Francis' current plans. In the United States, however, things look different. There, German-type reformers are clearly a small radical minority in the bishops' conference -- the vast majority of U.S. bishops are more or less committed and successful in trying to view Vatican II in a "hermeneutic of continuity." And that is why the list of participants separately invited by Francis has caused unease: names like Blaise Cupich of Chicago, Wilton Gregory of Washington, Robert McElroy of San Diego, and Joseph Tobin of Newark clearly signal Francis' desire to give greater weight to progressives who have had little success in the United States itself. And then also Fr. James Martin S.J. from the LGBT+ front, who is closely associated with the pope -- that raises fears.

The common denominator for the "middle line" representatives in the U.S. who are troubled by the course of the Pope and his Synod on Synodality is the fear that the Church could turn away from what they see as the all-in-all successful course of "moderate modernization" of Vatican II in order to push through reckless innovations or to fall back into a supposedly "pre-conciliar" exaltation of institutions and self-referentiality.

About the "all-in-all, according to the needs of the time" Second Vatican Council, one can now hold quite different opinions, but it is probably true that the negative effects of the spirit of the Council were generally weaker in the USA than in Western Europe. And as far as the plague of self-referentiality is concerned, we can only agree that the perspective shaped by the synodal way is nothing if not self-referential. True, Bätzing and Francis incessantly invoke the "preaching of the Gospel" as the great task, but in practice they engage in nothing but navel-gazing and give the world the worst possible, indeed, a downright chilling, picture of this Gospel and its believers.

The pope's latest blow to fix the balance of power he has created is now the list of cardinal appointments published over the weekend, according to which the proportion of future papal electors elevated to their position by Francis rises to more than two-thirds. Whether this fact means all that much is open to question. A good portion of the latest appointments were virtually inevitable anyway: certain leaders without the title of cardinal will find it hard to get a foot on the ground in the Roman apparatus, which is steeped in centuries-old habits. But outside of Rome, even the cardinal's hat will do little to win respect for most of Francis' appointed officeholders, who are of staggering mediocrity.

In fact, in this list "staggering mediocrity" is again the keyword that adequately explains many new appointments: these men (for the women cardinals we will probably have to wait a little longer) are faithful companions and water-carriers of Francis. The others again correspond more to the new paradigm: "periphery good, center evil." A personnel policy that follows a scheme of poignant simplicity. The distinction of both groups will not change the current Roman power relations; no future-shaping potential can be assumed for any of the "new men."

It is objected here and there against the present new appointments that Francis thereby (once again!) exceeds the upper limit of 120 papal electors ordered by Paul VI. While this is true, it is meaningless: the pope is ultimately not bound by any orders of his predecessors. And, after all, the newly appointed officials, instructed by a handwritten letter, could one day learn this to their chagrin. Where such orders had been issued in the form of laws, it would of course be good style to change the law before proceeding differently -- but that is not an obstacle to proceeding differently.

Incidentally, precisely with regard to the manipulation of the upcoming conclave, Francis is faithfully following the example of Paul VI, who, with the arbitrary introduction of the age limit of 80 for papal electors -- which is not according to any tradition in the Church -- quite obviously pursued the intention of excluding older cardinals, more rooted in the "pre-conciliar spirit," from the election of his successor.

Nothing new, then, from post-conciliar Rome.