The papal visit to Chile in January went up in flames. A smouldering sexual abuse crisis exploded due to a series of mistakes by Pope Francis. Since then, he has been the chief fireman, arson investigator and now architect of the rebuilding, all of which have earned him high marks for addressing the rot in the Chilean Church.
The New York Times, a reliable barometer of the secular liberal opinion which is a key supporter of Pope Francis’s pastoral strategy, castigated the Holy Father in January. In May, the editorial board was back to singing his praises.
It has been an astonishing five months. On the eve of the visit to Chile, the dominant question was why Pope Francis had gone ahead with the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros in the face of strong opposition from all sectors of Chilean society, including the most senior bishops. Now the whole Barros matter is very much secondary; Bishop Barros himself has not been seen in his diocese for nearly two months. The focus is now upon the Pope as the solution, not the problem, with the Holy Father, to switch metaphors, acting as prosecutor and judge of the entire Chilean episcopate, who offered their resignations en masse.
It is a triumph for the distinctive managerial style of Pope Francis, in which he acts as his own centre of initiative, bypassing entirely the officials of the Roman Curia. At the same time it is a risk, for in choosing to reform the Chilean Church from the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Holy Father is attempting a managerial task unprecedented task in the post-conciliar Church.
The Second Vatican Council taught clearly that “the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.”
The Pope has as much authority as any local bishop anywhere; more authority, in fact, because as supreme legislator he can amend the canon law which binds bishops. Yet the post-conciliar era has also been marked by a complementary, if not competing, ethos, that of collegiality and synodality. During the 2014 and 2015 synods Pope Francis held up Blessed Paul VI’s decision to reconvene the Synod of Bishops as a landmark development in the life of the Church.
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