There is a quiet media frenzy afoot about the snap decision of Pope Francis not to meet with his cardinals before this weekend’s consistory in Rome. The decision is being attributed to the letter to the pope of i Quattro Cardinali seeking definitive clarification of several points of confusion arising from the papal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, that resulted from the Synod on the Family, and which he seems steadfastly to be refusing to answer.
Pope Francis’ decision is not in itself earth-shattering. Benedict XVI opted out of such a meeting once, and he would hardly have been the first to do so. It may be for other reasons entirely. After all, he is not meeting only the four cardinals involved, but the whole college of cardinals. It would seem quite an overreaction to snub the 97% of cardinals on account of the 3%.
However, given the current media attention on the cardinals’ letter, the cancellation was almost certainly always going to be interpreted in light of the letter. If Pope Francis is having a little dummy-spit, it raises interesting questions. Does it imply that the opinion of i Quattro Cardinali is shared by many, perhaps the majority, of the other cardinals? Is the cardinals’ letter the tip of an iceberg that Pope Francis has already detected and wishes to avoid, no Titanic he?
If this be the case, then it raises interesting issues about the post-conciliar phenomenon of collegiality. A simple Google search will verify the impression that most of us have gained that the pope is pushing collegiality, and its bedmate synodality, with some gusto, even aggressively. It is of a piece with his aim of reducing the power of the papal curia and pushing ecclesiastical decision-making out towards the peripheries and into the hands of the bishops.
One particular problem is that this does not empower individual bishops, which is the essence of the patristic model that informs the campaign for collegiality, but in its modern, and very untraditional, guise subordinates the individual bishop to bishops’ conferences. Thus the bishop who wants to speak out strongly on a certain issue will have to toe the party line if his bishops’ conference has decided to conciliate or temporise. As the Second Vatican Council has itself demonstrated, it is very easy for large bodies to be dominated and directed by small, well-organised cliques within them. Only this week we heard that Cardinal-elect Farrell has ticked off certain American bishops for individually issuing their own guidelines on interpreting Amoris Laetitia; he feels they should have waited for their bishops’ conference to discuss the matter and decide a common approach (or perhaps be railroaded into submitting to an approach that many of them would not actually prefer).
But collegiality can work two ways, and sometimes when the genie is let out of the bottle it does not always act as expected. The US bishops’ conference met this week to elect their leaders for the next three years. Of the ten elections, only one resulted in the election of a papal favourite it seems. The new president, Cardinal DiNardo of Houston, was one of the thirteen cardinals who wrote to the pope at the beginning of the Synod on the Family, objecting to Cardinal Kasper’s controversial proposals as well as to attempts to manipulate the Synod by some of its officials. The letter of i Tredici Cardinali is considered a watershed moment for the Synod, ensuring that attempts to change the Church’s consistent adherence to scripture and tradition did not succeed.
That letter was embarrassing for the pope, who was quietly but not very subtly encouraging Cardinal Kasper. We have seen some its signatories, like Cardinal Pell, suffer some indirect fallout. But the US bishops have elected one of them its president. Of course it was no surprise on one level, as DiNardo was the outgoing vice-president and the outgoing VP is usually elected the next president. But in 2010 the liberal VP was passed over for Cardinal Dolan. It would have been easy for the bishops’ conference to punish DiNardo by not electing him, but they did elect him. It is a sign that the conference is not going to yield unquestioningly to the apparent papal desire to change Church teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried.
This apparent papal desire is looking more certain if Pope Francis has indeed refused to meet the cardinals on account of the letter of i Quattro Cardinali. It also gives evidence that collegiality is not going to be so easily manipulated now as it was in the decades immediately after the Council. We all remember the vigorous affirmation of Church teaching on marriage last year of the Polish bishops’ conference. The US bishops seem to signalling their refusal to conform to the new agenda tacitly, if not actively, promoted by the pope. If the College of Cardinals, as seems likely, is also against any attempt to change the unchangeable, then it is understandable that the pope wishes to avoid them when he can.
Yet if he is avoiding the cardinals on account of their general opposition to the Kasperite agenda, then what does this say about his commitment to the concept of collegiality. Is collegiality only to be invoked when it suits the primus inter pares, and otherwise to be overridden or ignored? That would mean that the pope is adopting a pre-conciliar model of a more monarchical papacy. If so, he would be fatally undermining his own agenda.
Collegiality is proving to be a two-edged sword, and it appears that the pope, and certainly some of his advisers, are none to happy when it cuts in their direction. As the letter of i Tredici Cardinali was a watershed moment for the Synod last year, so too the letter of i Quattro Cardinali is shaping up to be a watershed moment for not only the Kasperite agenda, but this papacy itself. It is effectively forcing the pope to show his hand once and for all. Is he a true Kasperite? Or will he “confirm the brethren” in faith and morals?
Either way there will be tears, but in one of those options there lies an earthquake. In a year of heartbreaking earthquakes in Italy (and recently in New Zealand too), could these seismological events be seen as a warning about the earthquake if the papal choice is for the wrong option? Or could it be a sign that we should gird our loins for an ecclesiastical earthquake of startling proportions?
Or is Pope Francis just tired? If so, it would help if someone official would say so. Nevertheless, he really needs to confirm his collegial brethren in the faith sooner rather than later. The Kasperite agenda is a dead duck, and allowing it to lie rotting in the nave will only spread a nasty stench through the Church. Best to bury it now, don’t you think?