Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"He knows very well what he is doing"

Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, the theologian widely acknowledged to have been the lead ghostwriter of Pope Francis's much-praised apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, recently gave an interview that is remarkable for the crudity of its categories, the tendentiousness of its contentions, and, above all, what it portends for the silent lambs.  The Archbishop's way of talking about the Church is so far from what one would expect from a serious theologian and vir Ecclesiae, it's difficult, for me at least, not to despair at the significance of this man's being one of the advisors on whom the Holy Father is reputed to rely the most.  

The interview is here, and those who care about how we should love the Bride of Christ should be scandalized by the mentality it bespeaks and the future it all but promises.  Keep in mind that its all-but-named target at one point is the recent and utterly unprecedented suggestion (here) by Cardinal Muller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that a new role for the CDF would be to provide a "theological framework" for this pontificate.  As readers will recall, Cardinal Muller was one of Pope Benedict's last senior appointments in the Roman Curia.

The point Archbishop Fernandez is keenest to drive home is that there will be "no turning back:"

The pope goes slow because he wants to be sure that the changes have a deep impact.  The slow pace is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the changes.  He knows there are those hoping that the next pope will [] turn everything back around.  If you go slowly it's more difficult to turn things back. . . .


[Interviewer] :When Francis says he will have a short pontificate doesn't this help his adversaries?

The pope must have his reasons, because he knows very well what he's doing. [SIC]  He must have an objective that we don't understand yet.  You have to realize that he is aiming at reform that is irreversible.  If one day he should intuit [sic?] that he's running out of time and doesn't have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him, you can be sure he will speed up.

So, to recap: The Pope will go slowly to make irreversible changes until he "intuits" that he needs to hurry up if he's to succeed in making irreversible changes.  

Now, as the larger context of the interview makes unmistakable, Pope Francis of course doesn't commit the mistake of thinking that all in the Church is changeable.  Acknowledged as unchangeable, in fact, are the existence of the Petrine office and of the College of Bishops.  And so:

The Roman Curia is not an essential structure.  The pope could even go and live away from Rome, have a disastery in Rome and another one in Bogota, and perhaps link-up by teleconference with liturgical experts that live live in Germany.  Gathered around the pope, in a theological sense, is the College of Bishops in order to serve the people."  

This concatenation of wild possibilities gives a new image to ultramontanism.  But ultramontanist it is, despite the cultured veneers provided by a newly minted theology of papal popularity.  According to Archbishop Fernandez over and over in the interview, the decisive fact is that "the people are with him" "and not with his few adversaries."  "[M]ost of the People of God love Francis."  

And why shouldn't they?  Here comes perhaps the most breathtaking part of a tightly integrated interview that is indeed programmatic in the extreme.  It comes in the explanation of why there is "no turning back:"  "If and when Francis is no longer pope, his legacy will remain strong."  Why, other than nostalgia?  

[T]he pope is convinced that the things he's written or said cannot be condemned as error. Therefore, in the future anyone can repeat those things without fear of being sanctioned.  And then the majority of the People of God with their special sense will not easily accept turning back on certain things.  [emphasis in the preceding par. added]

[Interviewer:] Don't you see the risk of 'two Churches'?

No.  There's a schism when a group of important people share the same sensibilities that reflect those of a vast section of society.  Luther and Protestantism came about this way.  But now the overwhelming majority of the people are with Francis and they love him.  His opponents are weaker than what you think.  Not pleasing everyone does not mean provoking a schism.

[Interviewer:]  Isn't this idea of the pope having a direct rapport with the people something risky, while the Church's ecclesiastical class feels marginalized?

But the Church is the People of God guided by their pastors.  Cardinals could disappear, in the sense that they are not essential.  The pope and the bishops are essential.  Then again, it is impossible that everything a pope does and says will please everyone.  Did everyone like Benedict XVI?  Unity does not depend on unanimity.

[Interviewer:] Do you think a conclave would re-elect Francis today?

I don't know, possibly not.  But it happened . . . .


Yes, it happened.  But the creeping infallibility asserted with arresting breadth and clarity in the quoted language should cause the faithful  -- whether they consider themselves liberals, conservatives, or, better, just plain Catholic -- to sit up and pay attention and, I dare say, to object.  

For example, Pope Francis has never purported to speak ex cathedra, and so how can it be that in his own view, as reported by a most-trusted advisor, nothing he has "said" -- and he says a lot -- can possibly be in error, such that what he has "said" necessarily can be "repeated" ad libitum by the "People of God."

There are changeable elements in the Church visible, and those can indeed be changed.  There are unchangeable elements in the Church visible, and those cannot be changed.  What, then, is the point of the "they love Francis" populism in service of a creeping infallibilism?  Well, perhaps a confusing of the changeable and the unchangeable?  What does it mean to "hurry up," as the Archbishop said Francis would, to make "irreversible" changes in what is, ex hypothesi, changeable?  The truly unchangeable cannot be changed, even by a Pope in hurry.  The authentic theology of the sensus fidelium (cf. Archbishop Fernandez's "special sense," above) is not about the success of demagoguery and Machiavellian politics in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, not about the large numbers who "love [Francis]" and how comparatively few and "weaker" are Francis's "adversaries." Nonetheless, Archbishop Fernandez is more or less content to contend as follows: "This pope first filled St. Peter's Square with crowds and then began changing the Church."      

As the Archbishop insisted, Pope Francis "knows very well what he's doing."  


Brennan, Patrick | Permalink