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‘Patriarch of the West’: Pope Francis Heads Forward Into the Past


ANALYSIS: The restoration of the papal title is the latest example.

Pope Francis has often warned against “indietrism” in this lastest period of his pontificate. It is an unwieldy term in English, but there’s nothing arcane about it. The word comes from the Italian, indietro — “backward” — and could be rendered “backwardism” without too much trouble.

He has repeatedly warned that attending to the history of the Church does not mean looking backward; that tradition is not the preservation of ashes. He’s not wrong about any of that, but he has used the rhetorical trope — an effective homiletic — to justify some controversial acts of his Church governance.

Pope Francis used this kind of reasoning to justify the restrictive measures he imposed on the celebration of liturgical rites according to the old liturgical books. He has also used it to explain or even defend his proposed solution to borderline pastoral situations, such as the blessing for the so-called “irregular couples” provided by the controversial Fiducia Supplicans declaration.

Perhaps none of that is really surprising. What is surprising, though, is how several decisions Pope Francis has made throughout his 11-year pontificate do look backward, at least to before Benedict XVI’s papacy. These decisions suggest that Benedict XVI’s pontificate has been put on hold and that his legacy has been put aside.

The most recent of these decisions is reinstating the title of “Patriarch of the West” among the attributes of the Pope. Benedict XVI eliminated this title. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, as it was then styled, explained the decision in a lengthy note dated March 22, 2006, underlining that the title was eliminated for a conceptual issue (the West no longer meant a limited geographical territory but a cultural area that also included the United States and New Zealand) and also to improve ecumenical relations, effectively not putting the Pope in competition with the patriarchates present in the Orthodox Church.

No explanation was given for reincluding the title. It is difficult to think that this was prompted by the new ecumenical relationships that have developed in these 11 years of the Francis pontificate. Relationships have progressed very well, with several trips to Orthodox territories and improved ecumenical relations with everyone, at least until the publication of Fiducia Supplicans.

It is therefore noteworthy that the encouragement of ecumenical dialogue should be among the chief reasons adduced by observers across the spectrum of opinion in the Church for the restoration of a title that Benedict XVI had eliminated in the name of encouraging better ecumenical dialogue. That the restoration has come in the first annuario (the annual directory of the Holy See) prepared after Benedict XVI’s death is certainly a matter of curious timing, too.

We are still determining whether this decision will have consequences or whether it is dictated by the desire to leave the title of “Patriarch of the East” to the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, dividing the world into zones of religious influence.

It is worth mentioning that the Orthodox were not pleased by Benedict’s decision in 2006, nor were some Catholics of the Eastern Rites, in part because the patriarchal standing of the See of Rome was one of the things on which there was broad and unambiguous agreement.

The fact is that decisions made without giving any explanation lend themselves to conflicting readings. It is an ongoing occurrence of Pope Francis’ pontificate: Everyone is forced to chase the news to try to understand the meaning of some decisions, and there are no explanations for those decisions. 

The reintroduction of the “Patriarch of the West” title fell in a week that saw the publication of the Dignitas Infinita declaration, the presentation of which opened with a lengthy defense by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernandez, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, of the Fiducia Supplicans declaration.

Dignitas Infinita and the defense of Fiducia Supplicans show how Pope Francis wants to represent the pontificate. On the one hand, a declaration without anything too terribly controversial or even theologically interesting, Dignitas Infinita expresses Pope Francis’ desire to broaden horizons. Pope Francis’ decision to throw out Benedict XVI’s liberalization of the old liturgical books’ use is another example. His raft of financial and judicial reforms that have abandoned the international course charted and undertaken by Benedict XVI in favor of the Holy See’s (and Vatican City’s) older, privileged and complex relationship with Italy is another.

In the middle between the look backward — the restoration of the “Patriarch of the West” title — and the look forward, but with orthodoxy — the declaration Dignitas Infinita — we also have another characteristic of Pope Francis’ pontificate, his nod to popular opinion.

During the press conference, Cardinal Fernandez produced a defense of Fiducia Supplicans based on an opinion poll. An unidentified survey says that 65% of young adults between 25 and 35 years old approved of Fiducia Supplicans, a text Cardinal Fernandez says reached 7 billion internet views (an unlikely figure).

The image given is a Church that looks at numbers and consensus, which indeed builds its innovations on consensus. There are personal decisions of the Pope, and these decisions are based on consensus.

It isn’t easy to find a common direction in these choices.

Perhaps the point is that there really isn’t a common direction. On the one hand, there is the Curia, the work it does on the documents, the search for balance with the innovation requested by the Pope (in the case of Dignitas Infinita, the inclusion of social issues), and, at the same time, at least the veneer of continuity with the previous magisterial teaching. On the other hand, there is Pope Francis, with his impromptu decisions, which may also be the result of pastoral practice but ultimately turn out to be haphazard.

The real problem also seems to be a poor understanding of the language of the Church. Cardinal Fernandez said Pope Francis would never speak ex cathedra (Latin for “from the chair,” referring to binding and infallible papal teachings), almost as if to say ex cathedra were a bad thing. Perhaps Cardinal Fernandez meant mostly that the Pope would not use infallibility because — he added — he would never change doctrine.

Cardinal Fernandez isn’t exactly wrong to think that the Pope is somehow teaching either personally or through his Curia every time he gives a homily or they produce a document, but it is nonetheless reasonable to wonder when the Pope or his lieutenants are mostly teaching and when they are mostly just talking, and the attitude taken and championed by Cardinal Fernandez strongly suggests that neither he nor his principal believe there’s much difference.

Ultimately, though, papal teaching and papal governance become entangled, and both become highly politicized and sociologically driven. It is a language that divides and polarizes, language that splits the Church into those who agree with the Pope and those who do not, into those whom a survey places among the people in favor and those who are considered against, between indietrists and progressives.

The ultimate risk of the pontificate is that it will disappoint everyone. The progressives will feel they got less than they could have or should have gotten, and conservatives will feel marginalized and attacked, because they have been.

Andrea Gagliarducci is a Register contributor. He is an Italian journalist for Catholic News Agency and Vatican analyst for ACI Stampa. 

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