How Pope Francis’ unorthodox governing style is likely to impact the next conclave

Pope Francis

Pope Francis was supposed to be in Dubai this weekend to attend the UN climate change conference COP28. But his doctors forcefully insisted that he not make the trip.

They told him it would be too risky for a man of his age who has been fighting a bronchial infection and shortness of breath for about a week now.

They said it was not a good idea to make such a long journey, for just a short stay, and try to pack in numerous private meetings and public events.

Sources inside the Vatican say Pope Francis, who will be 87 on December 17, was extremely upset when he received that advice. But in the end, he accepted it. Grudgingly.

No stopping Francis

The Holy See Press Office announced the cancellation of the papal trip last Tuesday afternoon, saying it was due to the fact that the pope was still dealing with flu-like symptoms and an inflammation of the lungs.

But that didn’t stop Francis from holding his weekly general audience and a private meeting with a Scottish soccer team the very next day.

And then on Thursday morning, the day before he was supposed to set off to Dubai, he held eight audiences, as the Vatican calls the pope’s meetings.

Three of these were semi-private gatherings with largish groups, during which the pope gave published speeches (he actually spoke off the cuff and handed out his prepared texts).

The other five meetings were with smaller groups or individuals.

These included the top brass of the Conference of Canadian Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the papal nuncio to Burundi, the rector of the Catholic University of Argentina, the bishop Hildesheim (Germany), and the two recipients of this year’s “Ratzinger Prize” for theology.

Carrying out all this activity (and that was just in the morning and only what was officially in the pope’s public diary) was likely Francis’ way of saying to friends and foes alike, “Don’t get any strange ideas – I’m still alive and kicking!”

And to emphasise that there’s no health emergency here, his master of liturgical ceremonies on Tuesday published a slate of six celebrations that he will preside over during the two-week period spanning Christmas Eve and the January 7th Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Acting on instinct and personal initiative

None of this is exclusive to this pope. In fact, doing everything to convey the sense that all is well, despite having to deal with the normal aches and pains that come with old age, is something we saw during the final years of John Paul II’s long pontificate.

The tired, old adage “the pope is in perfect health, until the minute after he’s dead” seems to pertain to every Roman Pontiff.

What is somewhat extraordinary, though, is that Francis actually followed the advice of his doctors this time.

It is extraordinary only because he has not always done so. And because he has shown himself to be a pope who so often acts on instinct and personal initiative, rather than relying on institutional customs and protocols that have shaped and have become part of the modern day papacy and the Holy See.

In fact, Pope Francis has ignored or scrapped many of the protocols and customs. And thank God for that! This has mostly delighted his admirers.

And even some non-Catholics (and anti-Catholics) applaud him for stepping outside the mold, lionizing him as a Roman outsider and Church reformer who has taken on the big, bad institution of wealth and corruption known as the Vatican.

But by increasingly untethering himself from many of the constraints or checks, the Jesuit pope has set aside protocols that were originally designed to serve as safeguarding mechanisms.

Massimo Faggioli pointed this out more articulately in his latest “Signs of the Times” column:

“Francis has also marginalised the institutional filters that are meant to help craft his message and protect his authority.

“This is happening at time when a certain type of hyper-papalism is defining certain sectors of Catholicism, where the Church’s voice on public issues is reduced to the dissemination or interpretation of whatever the pope says or does not say, and whatever he does or chooses not to do, and also how the wider public applauds or criticises his words and actions.

“In the higher echelons of the Church’s hierarchy, it has become rare for a cardinal or a bishop to express an opinion different from the pope’s without being seen as an enemy or a traitor.”

And this brings us to reports that Francis has decided that he may strip the arch-traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke of his Vatican home and pension.

The 75-year-old American cardinal is one of several high-level Church officials (bishops and cardinals) who have been extremely critical of the pope’s theological views, legislation, pastoral priorities and – in short – his pontificate.

The pope can do whatever he wants

Let’s be clear: Francis has the authority to take away privileges from any cardinal.

According to the Church’s law, about which Burke is considered to be an expert, the pope actually has the authority to do just about anything he wants. And, by law, he is not even obliged to justify his actions.

Further, “there is neither appeal nor recourse against a decision or a decree of the Roman Pontiff”. Pope Francis did not write that – the 1983 Code of Canon Law did! (This is an urgent issue, but for another time.)

The Argentine pope, in any case, is not a legalist.

And he surely knows that while, “in virtue of his office he enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he can always freely exercise”, a pope must be shrewd in how he uses that power.

If he is seen to be acting indiscriminately, unevenly, or unjustly, he can actually weaken his own authority.

There is increasing concern, even among those who are enthusiastic supporters of this pontificate and its deeply evangelical theological-pastoral vision for the Church, that Francis may be doing that right now.

He is acting more and more in an isolated and personalist way, which has been disruptive and disorienting for many in the Church.

This is certainly true for those engaged in the Holy See’s diplomatic efforts. Francis often side-steps them and carries out initiatives on his own, without even consulting his own Secretary of State or other top officials.

That doesn’t mean he is not using the institutional levers at his disposal.

Indeed he is. He has issued numerous decrees, set up untold numbers of protocols for dealing with a variety of issues, but – again – he is seen to apply them unevenly and indiscriminately, or to not even apply them at all.

According to the Church’s law, he is under no obligation to justify this, but it is troubling for many (or it should be) that a pope who is now in the process of making synodality the legacy of his pontificate, should act in such a … non-synodal way.

Churchmen seeking a bit more order

Those of us who have been encouraged and energised by Pope Francis, especially by the vitality he has helped to pump back into the Church and for the force of good he has been in the world, should be concerned about how his unorthodox governing style will be judged by the men who will eventually elect his successor.

Assuming that Francis does not radically alter the current conclave system (an assumption we cannot take for granted, actually), it is more than just a possibility that the cardinal-electors will want to find a pope who is more tied to and respectful of established institutional protocols, especially regarding the Holy See.

As it has been said before, even if more than 70 percdent of the electors have been appointed by Francis, not every one of them is what one proverbially calls a “Francis bishop”.

Some of the current pope’s cardinals are clericalists, and actually pretty conservative or traditionalist.But all the men in red who will have to decide who succeeds him are classic “churchmen”, with hardly any exceptions.

And that means they are men of a certain age who were formed and are steeped in the Church’s institutional protocols and customs.

This pontificate, especially in the past few years, has been a bit too disruptive for many of them. Just how many is a good question.

But it seems likely that a majority of the cardinal-electors, even those who would like the next pope to carry forth Francis’ project of synodality and vision for the Church, will seek someone who would do that in a more organised and institutional manner.

That means any cardinal seen to have a governing style similar to the current pope’s would be eliminated as a serious candidate.

This is another reason why the next conclave looks to be very unpredictable. And that, too, will likely be part of the legacy of this dynamic, disruptive pontificate.

  •  Robert Mickens is the La Croix International Editor. Each week he publishes the Letter from Rome, unravelling the issues and policies that are alive in the Vatican and within the Church.
  • First published in La Croix. Republished with permission
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