The pope’s passion for the motu proprio captures great irony and profound truth

ROME — Pope Francis yesterday made some small but significant changes to Church law, transferring some powers from the Vatican to national bishops’ conferences and local bishops in certain areas. They include the erection of interdiocesan seminaries, priestly formation projects, the dismissal of members of religious orders from their communities, the publication of regional catechisms and the reduction of compulsory masses attached to legacies or donations.

In itself, each change may seem far from a thunderclap. However, they add to a picture of progressive decentralization in the Catholic Church that Francis has been painting for some time, including returning control of the controversial area of ​​liturgical translation to episcopal conferences in 2017.

In 2015, Francis called for what he called a “healthy decentralization” of power, including changes to how the papacy exercises, if not its essential powers, and greater decision-making authority for local bishops. He said then it would be part of his governance agenda, and yesterday was just another way he’s trying to accomplish.

How this agenda is unfolding, however, reveals both one of the great ironies about the Franciscan papacies and also a fundamental truth about the Catholic Church: namely, that the pope’s decentralization agenda is being implemented in about the most hyper-centralized fashion possible.

The vehicle with which Francis decreed his changes to Church law yesterday was a motu proprio, meaning “on his own initiative,” referring to a legal action taken without any request from another party. Basically, it’s a way of saying “no one asked, that’s just what I want to do”. In a sense, it’s the purest possible use of papal authority, relying on the canonical codicil that says a pope enjoys “full, supreme, immediate, and universal jurisdiction” over the Church. .

Pope Francis, to paraphrase Will Rogers, seems never to have seen a motu owner He does not like.

He has now issued such an edict 47 times in less than nine years in office; in contrast, Pope John Paul II published only 30 motu owner during the nearly 27 years of his own reign. This is an average of more than 5 motu owner per year for François, and just one per year for Jean-Paul. 2016 was a pivotal year with nine motu proprio. If you consider that the Vatican is mostly inactive from mid-July to early September due to Italian Ferragostó vacation is a motu owner a month. He didn’t slow down either, emitting eight motu owner in 2021.

I mean, it was actually the second motu owner just this week, since Monday brought one on the restructuring of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – and today is only Wednesday, so stay tuned. Too bad for the poor publishers of the Code of Canon Law today, because by the time they can market a new edition, it is already outdated.

By the time all is said and done, Pope Francis is destined to be the Henry Aaron of motu propri, that is, the all-time king with a career total that is really hard to top. (I dismiss Barry Bonds in this analogy, of course, because of the steroids.)

Nor does Francis hesitate to exercise his authority in other ways.

Not so long ago, he issued four rescripts authorizing waivers of standard Vatican criminal procedure in the currently ongoing mega-trial for financial crimes, primarily in connection with a controversial London property deal. He undermined the traditional authority of most Vatican departments, preferring to circumvent them on his own, he personally approached the middle management of certain Vatican offices to hire and fire, and he created more new structures and new positions in the Vatican in a decade than he usually gets in a century.

It remains to be seen whether Francis’ changes will produce a church that is in fact more decentralized. What is already certain, however, is that if we get a more decentralized church, it will not be due to decentralization but rather to the crude exercise of papal power.

In turn, this irony about Francis illustrates an enduring truth about the Catholic Church, which is that sometimes reform happens from the bottom up, with changes at the base that eventually force the center of Rome to shift. , but often enough reform is also top-down. , that is, decreed by a pope with a plan and received, sometimes hesitantly and unenthusiastically, by those for whom it is intended.

In the case of Francis’ “healthy decentralization”, it is one of the ways in which he tries to revive the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), that four-year gathering of Catholic bishops from around the world who launched the modernizing church (updating), and whose legacy is, to this day, a bone of contention between the Catholic left and right.

But Vatican II was not the result of a democratic process. Instead, Pope John XXIII decided essentially on his own to call the council, and he did so against the wishes of some of his closest aides. The initial reception of the decision was decidedly frosty among many Vatican potentates, but “good Pope John” went ahead and the later history of the Catholic Church was decidedly different because he did.

If it takes a village to raise a child, perhaps it takes an emperor-pope to deconstruct the imperial papacy – at least, that is, until the next pontiff invested with a ” full, supreme, immediate and universal jurisdiction” decides to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

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