I've been blogging the last two days about the strange moves coming out of the Vatican of Pope Francis I, and the signals that portend these strange moves, with the caveat that, when indulging in high octane speculation as an outsider peering into the world's old political chancery and biggest inter-generational pile of equity, such speculations are more than likely to be wrong, than right, but, that said, I'm going to continue to indulge in them here today.
Now let me recall the three main points of the previous two-days' blogs:
"Francis is making other interesting moves, such as:
"(1) calling for "more decentralization", i.e., less papal, and more episcopal, power:
"(2) criticizing "capitalism," which isn't surprising coming from the papacy; it's done it before, and often (think only of John XXIII or Paul VI, even John-Paul II). What's new here is the context(which we'll get back to):
"(3) Seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is both old and new in a sense (and we'll get back to that too):
As I pointed out yesterday, I believe these three points must be read as a whole, for they each impinge and impact the other. Today, our focus is on the "decentralization" meme coming out of the Vatican, and for the possible reasons for it, and the long-term trends that I believe the papacy may be seeing and responding to. Now, in this respect, I want to draw your attention to what I believe is the core set of statements in the first article from the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph (or, as it is sometimes known, the Daily Torygraph):
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” the Jesuit Pope wrote in the document, formally known as an “apostolic exhortation” to the faithful. The Church must not allow itself to be “caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures”, he wrote, in what amounted to a mission statement for the Holy See.
"It was time for “a conversion of the papacy” because “excessive centralisation, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life”, said the pontiff, who has made reform of the Vatican’s dysfunctional finances and administration a priority of his papacy."
"Pope Francis, who was elected in March after the resignation of Benedict XVI, said he was even “open to suggestions” on changes to his own powers.
“'It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it,' he wrote.
"Centuries-old customs and traditions should be cast aside as they got in the way of the Church communicating its core message, he said."(Emphasis added)
Now this is in my opinion another possible revolution in the making, for "changes to his own powers" can mean nothing less than some sort of significant modification of all those centuries accumulated expressions and assertions of papal power, from Boniface VIII's Unam Sanctam to the First Vatican Council's definitions may perhaps be up for "redefinition", and, given the nature of those assertions, any modification most likely will be in the direction of less and not more papal power. After all, it's rather difficult to imagine where one could go from "infallibility ex consensu ecclesiae" and "supreme and immediate" jurisdiction along similar lines. Those expressions pretty much say it all, and they say it clearly. "Changes in papal powers" imply a limitation on them... a move towards a "constitutional papal monarchy" so to speak, and Francis may be hinting at that with his call to more evangelization.
But why the move at all?
One context that suggests itself is the extraordinarily centralized nature of papal Catholicism. In the modern world, it is as much a target as a benefit, and the curia knows this. How would the church survive if - God forbid - the Vatican or the pope himself were the target of an inspeakable act? Decentralization also makes the Church's finances much more difficult for external forces to follow. And the hiring of an auditor? While this suggests possibilities of external pressure on the papacy - and we saw such pressures on Benedict, particularly from the Western financial "Anglo-Sphere" and the Vatican Bank - the hiring of an auditor suggests some hardball in reverse, and a possible gateway for a two way flow of financial intelligence. So we may make one prediction: look for increasing "redefinitions" of papal power and authority vis-avis the bishops, and more particularly, the cardinals who lead various national and local churches.
But there is a deeper agenda here, and it is encoded in the call to a renewed evangelization and Francis's call for a "dirty and bruised" church. Roman Catholicism has never lacked for evangelism, for there is almost no corner of the world where its missionaries or representatives have not gone. So why a call from the Pope to - paraphrasing his words - "get down and dirty?" I suspect these words presage a new long term effort not simply to retrench into the second and third world, now the basis of the papacy's strength. That will continue. But I suspect it is also a call for something else, a "crusade" of sorts, to re-establish itself in its European homeland and in North America in the teeth of secular states and cultures increasingly encroaching on area that the papacy considers sacrosanct; one need only think of American Catholic bishops' opposition to certain aspects of Obamacare.
However, all this aside, I think there is another goal in mind, with this "openness to suggestions to changes in papal power," and that is the Orthodox Churches, particularly of Russia, and the eventual reunion of the two churches. Various doctrines unique to papal Catholicism, as distinct from Orthodox Catholicism, have kept the two churches apart for almost a millennium, and the Orthodox have made no bones about what they are: the changes in the West's doctrine of the Trinity, which, to the Orthodox, are of a piece with its doctrines of original sin, Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and above all, its definitions and assertions of papal power and authority, which the Orthodox will never accept. Francis' words seem to suggest a rather different ecumenical tack may be underway: allow the Orthodox Churches themselves to "make suggestions", and in the meantime, as the visit from Mr. Putin suggests, make common cause in action where both parties are agreed. And notably, Mr. Putin is being implicitly viewed by the Vatican as a kind of representative of Orthodoxy, since he is a member of the largest Orthodox church: The Russian Church. This "openness" to "suggestions" allows us to make another prediction regarding the very long term future and what it might hold, for make no mistake, Francis' pontificate is but one stage in a much larger long term shift underway. That is, in order to effect that possible reunion, and to provide a real attraction to its evangelical efforts, a further liturgical reform may be in the cards, one back towards the kind of ritualism that the Roman Church used to be, but now longer is, known for. Similarly, this may also be signalling a quiet move towards the Anglicans, and particularly to those who have felt disenfranchised by the decision in many local Anglican churches to allow the ordination of women. Time will tell. But with respect to Russia, I think the timing of these an announcements and of Putin's visit does strongly suggest something may be playing in the background of Roman Catholic-Orthodox-Russian relations.
The bottom line: we are watching the papacy reform itself, yet again, and this one promises to be even more sweeping than Trent or Vatican Two, since, in the modern world, with its power base shifting irrevocably toward the second world and third world, it must shift, and "reduce the target", and this can only be done by decentralization, which serves the double purpose of reaching out to the Orthodox Churches.
One thing above all seems clear: Francis I is embarked upon a long range program, one that will continue long after his pontificate ends and a new one begins.
See you on the flip side.