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The ironies of Pope Francis’s fiat

14 March 2014

His vision is consultative, not authoritarian says Paul Vallely

AMID all the fanfare surrounding the anniversary yesterday of Pope Francis's first year in office, one detail failed to grab public attention - and yet it was all the more revealing for that. It goes to the heart of one of the great ironies at the heart of the Francis papacy.

Last weekend, the treasurers of Roman Catholic religious orders from around the world met in Rome to discuss how they could use their financial assets "for the service of humanity". It came after the Pope last autumn rather pointedly suggested that religious orders - which still have 900,000 men and women around the world, but which are in decline - should not be turning their empty monasteries and convents into hotels and restaurants, as has been a trend in recent years. Instead, they should be given over to the homeless and to refugees, he said.

It was the kind of initiative that the world has come to expect from Pope Francis. But what was not widely noticed was that the treasurers had been summoned to the meeting in a letter dated 1 January, and yet the media did not find out until a few days before it began.

Pope Francis runs a very tight ship. He consulted few people on who should be numbered among the 19 new cardinals he created last month, mainly from the world's poorest countries. "He kept the list pretty much in his back pocket," one archbishop told me. "No one knew who was on it." So much so that the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, learned that his name was there from the media rather than through any leak from Rome.

There is an irony to this, considering that under the previous papacy, a phrase, Vatileaks, had to be coined to describe its colander qualities. In contrast, Pope Francis keeps his own diary, sends personal emails, and rings people without consulting his officials, who are often in the dark about what is planned until it actually happens. Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the private secretary whom Francis inherited from Pope Benedict XVI, is said not to have much to do beyond formal ceremonies and audiences, and has a great deal of time on his hands.

There is a further irony in this. It goes to the heart of Fr Jorge Mario Bergoglio's time as leader of the Jesuits in Argentina. Then, his domineering style made it clear that this was a man with a steely vision of the Church. His style may have changed, but his vision has not. It is as clear as ever - perhaps clearer.

The central paradox is that the Pope wants above all to restore collegiality to decision-making in the Church. And yet he wants to avoid doing so by the autocratic fiat typical of the old papal absolute monarchy.

His answer has been to put in process a more consultative approach. He has begun with church teaching on sexual issues. He has sent out a questionnaire to elicit the views of lay Catholics and priests about the Church's pastoral practice on premarital sex, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. He has empowered bishops to give their views openly, without fear of censure, and looks set to allow them to make decisions in the forthcoming Synod of Bishops. Anglicans may well have advice to offer on this incipient searching towards a sharing of the articulation of authority.

How fast will all this move? When the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi was asked this by journalists, there was another irony in his reply: "Only the Pope can decide."

Paul Vallely's biography Pope Francis: Untying the knots is published by Bloomsbury.

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