Morto ’n papa se ne fa n’artro, say the Romans – “When one pope dies, another is made” – and like all maxims and proverbs and other dicta of social wisdom, this one is true all the time. Only, how is it true this time?
Pope Francis is the first man to succeed a living former pope in more than six centuries. So, the question is really about how Francis’s pontificate change, now that his predecessor in office has gone the way of all flesh.
Partisans on every side of Pope Francis have their predictions and prognostications, roughly falling into two broad categories: Those who expect Francis to pull out all the stops, and those who expect him to shift into endgame / succession consolidation mode. There’s a lot of wishful thinking in there, and a good deal of fearmongering. Everybody’s wrong, but – with apologies to The Buffalo Springfield – that don’t mean ain’t nobody right.
Meet the new pope … same as the old pope?
Some corroboration of the balls-out thesis may be found in Pope Francis’s recent reorganization of the Rome Vicariate, by which he has in essence reduced the government of his home territory to personal rule. Like the rift it signaled with his Cardinal Vicar for the city, that reform measure was both a long time coming, and in keeping with Pope Francis’s other reform efforts. Francis has spent nearly a decade governing the Church, and so mostly without the curia.
Pope Francis has always preferred a “hands on” approach to the government of the Church, but it has not always served him well. In the case of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile and that of Gustavo Zanchetta in Argentina, Pope Francis’s personal management did not exactly lead to the appearance of justice being done. In cases like those of Guam’s Anthony Apuron or – rather more recently – Marko I. Rupnik SJ, it is tough to say whether the individuals and organs ultimately tasked with investigating the business and judging the men involved were administering justice at all, or whether they were doing the will of their principal.
Sure, he has bent this or that curial department to his purpose now and again – his creation of a superdicastery for “integral human development” and decision to put the outfit in the hands of a trusted confrere come to mind, as does his use of Divine Worship for some near-the-knuckle work implementing his legislative massacre of Benedict’s liturgical legacy.
Successful rulers tend to delegate more and more, especially as they begin to perceive that they are approaching the end. Pope Francis is doing the opposite. That may be because he does not have the end of his reign in sight. It may indicate his own measure of his success in reform.
A ruler who perceives himself failing will tend rather toward micromanagement than to delegation, but this tendency toward personal rule is nothing new for Pope Francis, so it cannot serve as an index of his own feelings about the way things are going. Given the burden of papal office, however, it is hard to see how more active and direct involvement in more daily work of government could possibly be healthy even for a man ten years Francis’s junior. It certainly isn’t practical, whatever you think of the man.
There has also been a lot of talk about Pope Francis moving to ensure something like continuity of vision in the papal succession.
The fact is that Pope Francis is increasingly isolated in the Vatican, while the College of Cardinals spread throughout the world has little in the way of working familiarity with itself. Said simply and shortly: Francis has no allies at home, while the men who will choose his successor hardly know him or each other. The unflappable, scrupulously level-headed and consummately fair-minded John L. Allen Jr. of Crux recently compared Pope Francis to the unfortunate Dickie Greenleaf. The late and long-suffering Cardinal George Pell – not without reason considered a hero of the Faith – is reported to have taken the extraordinary step of writing pseudonymously to the College about Pope Francis’s governance, and wrote a scathing critique of Francis’s leadership for The Spectator shortly before he died.
Even the cardinals broadly sympathetic to Francis’s vision of mold-smashing evangelical élan for the Church are flummoxed by the ersatz and ad personam modes and orders he has established. This Vatican-watcher first posed a question about this five years ago: Will the Pope’s project result in real reform—or turn Rome into a Buenos Aires-on-Tiber?
Welp, Buenos Aires-on-Tiber it is.
One would be hard pressed to find a prince of the Church who isn’t at very least uneasy with the answer we now have to the question. Francis has resisted predictability. He encourages puzzlement and thrives on perplexity. There’s no saying what he may do next. Whatever happens during the balance of Francis’s pontificate – or doesn’t – one thing is certain: There will be an end to his reign.
I’d wager one could build an exact replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in record time with the man-hours Vatican beat journalists while away in handicapping the next papal conclave, but that is because Vatican beat journalists spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen and need to talk about something else while they wait. The plain fact is nobody knows who the next guy will be. Handicapping the Big Race is a pastime.
That said, here are some things to consider.
Pope Francis cannot reign forever. He has not created a functioning bureaucracy – certainly not one that can hope to survive him – and he has done much to create conditions in which the men charged with choosing his successor may have a harder time of it than should have been necessary.
There are not only competing visions for the Church and incompatible views of how to achieve incommensurable goals. The unknowns of personality, record, talent, taste, style, and a host of other qualities all bearing on fitness for office abound. The one thing on which everyone agrees is that the current situation is untenable.
The College of Cardinals will have to choose between someone who promises to be what they thought Francis was, and someone who is the polar opposite of what he has been. That sort of choice is not impossible, nor too difficult, per se.
Complicating the choice, however, is that some of the cardinals thought Francis was going to be an easily manipulated outsider willing to let others do things, while others thought he was just the right kind of energetic visionary cheerleader the Church needed to get her groove back. Those two estimations were not irreconcilable, but they were both exactly wrong and precisely backward.
Pope Francis has governed by the twin swords of fear and uncertainty.
“[A] prince,” wrote Niccolò Machiavelli, “ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.”
A prince needs a certain kind of fear among his subjects in order to be an effective ruler. Just exactly what kind of fear is best remains a matter of debate among political philosophers. Nevertheless, “[A prince] can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”
“[W]hen it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone,” the Florentine diplomat and man of letters continues in Chapter XVII of his Prince, “he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must abstain himself from others’ property.” Whether one considers the various money grabs in the curia, or his penchant for putting religious congregations in receivership, or combining bishoprics, or Pope Francis hasn’t had the easiest time with that.
The reason: “Men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”
There is a good deal of talk about the “resistance” to Pope Francis and his agenda, such as it is, though one wonders as much what Francis should have to fear in it as whence it comes. There has also been a good deal of talk about Francis’s almost uncanny ability to shake off scandal. His successor will not be able to count on such Teflon coating, which in any case wears off eventually.
“[A] prince ought to reckon conspiracies of little account when his people are benevolent toward him,” Machiavelli advises in Chapter XIX, “but when must the people are his enemy, and hold him in hatred, he must be fearful of everything and everyone.” Niccolò goes on to note: “Well-ordered states and wise princes have with every diligence thought to let the nobles fall not into desperation, and to keep the people satisfied and contented, for this is one of the most important objects a prince can have.”
Given the general tenor of things under Francis, however, it is possible that Machiavelli is too much. Perhaps a better literary measure of the reign may be found in Terry Pratchett’s fantastic Machiavel, Lord Havelock Vetinari. “[W]henever some well-meaning soul begins a novel enterprise they always, with some kind of uncanny foresight, site it at the point where it will do maximum harm to the fabric of reality.”
Do not expect the next conclave, whenever it comes, to be short or pretty.
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