Tuesday 23 January 2024

Analylzing the Pope’s reliance on hasty canonical legislation

 Motu Proprio | Sancta Missa

Over the last week, Pope Francis has enacted three more reform laws, each by papal fiat. 

In the technical jargon of Church government, these acts are called litterae apostolicae motu proprio datae – Apostolic Letters given of [the Legislator’s] own accord – or motu proprio for short. 

They add to the collection of over 70 motu proprio published in ten years of his pontificate.

Motu proprio are generally used to legislate quickly. 

Major reforms and more sweeping legislation usually call for different means, and historically have been accomplished through broader documents painstakingly developed in deep consultation with specialized offices of the Roman Curia.

The reasons for proceeding this way are many, but they all converge on the goal of developing Church law in a way that is at once consistent with the regining pope’s vision of how things ought to be and also in keeping with canon law and previous tradition. 

This historically tried and true procedure also helps give major reforms a definitive character, minimizing the need for revision after the fact.

That Pope Francis has used a motu proprio to legislate at least six times a year signals a turning point. 

The Pope makes decisions alone. The documents are created by him or a close entourage and are published without too much notice and sometimes without preparation.

In the past, there would frequently be briefings about such legislative reforms – major and minor – at the Holy See Press Office, which allowed the contents to be understood. 

With Pope Francis, these briefings have become fewer and fewer, often enough because the communications department had not even been made aware of changes in the works.

The latest three motu proprio have a common characteristic. 

One of them establishes something that was already common practice regarding posting laws in the Vatican City State, while the other two modify the Vatican procurement law. 

The law, promulgated four years ago, required some fine-tuning, as is customary. 

In reality, however, the motu proprio changes so many details of the four-year-old reform as to be almost a rewrite of it.

In general, the changes represent a step backward in the grip of Pope Francis’ reforms.

The new law on procurement, for example, establishes a maximum expenditure ceiling within which the ministries have their management autonomy and do not have to ask for permits. It is a rule of common sense because it is impossible, for example, to put out a tender even to buy stationery material. But it is a rule that represents a step backward compared to the decision of “absolute control” taken in the promulgation of the procurement law when it was promulgated.

The two circumstances make us think. First, the substantial rewriting of the law demonstrates no legal precision in those who write the texts for Pope Francis (or in the Pope himself, assuming he writes them in his hand). 

Therefore, there is a need to rewrite everything with a more precise language, to define the details better, and to harmonize everything.

It’s not the first time this has happened.

In 2015, for example, Pope Francis had to walk back his decision to make the Secretariat for the Economy responsible for all financial branches, from supervision to the provision of pensions. 

Instead, it was decided to move some functions to the Administration of the Heritage of the Apostolic See (APSA), better delineating the difference between supervision and management. 

Even in that case, it was a common-sense choice, which was taken only later when it became clear that supervision and management could not be the prerogative of the same body and the same prefect.

However, a second fact stands out.

In reforming, a sort of “blind fury” is implemented in the desire to show three things: greater control, a break with the past, and greater transparency. This fury, however, never stands the test of reality. In practice, some reforms risk missing the criteria of reasonability. It is a situation that puts the entire Vatican system at risk.

After ten years of pontificate, we are sure that Pope Francis is a legislator who makes decisions and issues documents that change the cards on the table. It is more challenging to understand whether he is a genuinely reforming Pope, despite the many reforms implemented.

These reforms of Pope Francis, born along the way, never seem definitive. They proceed through trial and error. They are not the result of an in-depth study leading to documents that can last over time. 

Above all, the shape and contents of reforms that arise from requests made to Pope Francis and promulgated by him are greatly affected by who is among the Pope’s trusted advisors at that moment and what interests they are pursuing.

It is worth remembering that the Pope changed the legislative structure of the Vatican City State three times, and this while a trial was underway – the one on the management of the funds of the Secretariat of State – which had significant implications regarding the very position of the Holy See in the international arena. 

During the investigations of the same trial, Pope Francis changed the investigative rules via four rescripts, effectively changing the rules of the trial while it was underway.

In short, there is a legislative activity that appears in some way to be a simple emanation of the personal will of Pope Francis. If there is a real plan or a far-reaching vision within or behind that personal will, it has proved so far impossible to discern it. Nothing lasts in this pontificate.

The daily Masses at Santa Marta did not last to the end. They were first broadcast daily by Vatican News, then live during the pandemic, and then never celebrated again as they did at the beginning of the pontificate. 

The idea of having interdicasterial moments in the ad limina visits also did not last, though that seemed to be the most significant innovation a few years ago. The enthusiasm for the Synod did not last either, because after the first phase of this Synod on “Communion, Mission, and Participation,” it seems that the driving force had stopped.

The impression is that decisions are made and processes continue until a new decision or process can overturn the situation. Or until a “decision maker” arrives who acts entirely in harmony with the overall choices.

It is the meaning of the Church as a “field hospital” in a perpetual state of emergency, and it is the meaning of endless “reforms” without any real vision.

This, however, leads to some confusion.

There are no fundamental reforms. For doctrinal issues, it seems that problems already managed pastorally are becoming central, with more or less success depending on the cases and situations (irregular couples, divorced and remarried people, and the pastoral care of homosexuals).

It is often said that we would need a legislator Pope after this pontificate.

Perhaps a shepherd Pope would be more needed, capable of recomposing the disunity thus created and intelligent enough to surround himself with legislators. 

There is no need to reform the Pope’s reform because Pope Francis’s reform seems somewhat fragile. 

There is a fundamental reform to be done, which concerns the Church’s government and the Papacy’s role. 

Not an easy task, indeed.