Pope Francis Flexes Papal Power With Chile


National Catholic Register, 18 May 2018

While the bishops did not clarify whether Pope Francis asked them to submit their resignations, or whether it was their idea, it must certainly be the former.

The proffered resignation of the entire Chilean episcopate is the greatest assertion of papal power since Blessed Paul VI promulgated far-reaching liturgical reforms in an exercise of his supreme authority in the Church.

The only recent initiative of comparable scope was the publication of the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church by St. John Paul II. While done on papal authority, it did follow a massive six-year consultation of the entire world episcopate.

Even the Roman centralization of some aspects of the liturgical translation process left in place substantive collegial and consultative measures.

But the dramatic conclusion to the Chilean sexual abuse summit is something that harks back to an age long-thought buried by the emphasis of the Second Vatican Council on episcopal collegiality, an emphasis updated by the current pontificate’s emphasis on synodality. The bold move by the Holy Father invites comparison to the days when popes would place entire dioceses, or even countries, under interdict or other penal measures.

While the news conference of the Chilean bishops did not clarify whether Pope Francis asked all the bishops to submit their resignations, or whether it was their idea, it must certainly be the former. The en masse resignations mean that the Holy Father is assuming personal responsibility for reconstructing an entire national episcopate on an accelerated pace, a difficult task fraught with peril. It is inconceivable that the Chilean bishops would drop this entire steaming mess on the Pope’s own desk without him inviting it.

Consider the contrast with the Irish bishops in 2010. They were summoned for a sexual abuse summit with Pope Benedict XVI, which produced a pastoral letter to Ireland in March 2010 and the announcement of a program of apostolic visitations.

In 2011, Benedict XVI appointed a trusted aide, Msgr. Charles Brown, apostolic nuncio to Ireland with a mandate for far-reaching reform of the Irish episcopate. But the Irish bishops resisted, and Archbishop Brown’s tenure yielded nothing in the way of major reforms. After five years he was given a very public demotion to Albania. The papal efforts at reform in Ireland were largely blocked by the Irish bishops.

That will not happen in Chile. There will be no one left standing to block anything. It is a remarkable act of bravery on the part of the Holy Father, for within several months there will be no one left in the leadership of the Chilean Church whom the Holy Father has not personally selected.

The reform of the Church in Chile will proceed as did the Vatican summit, with Pope Francis taking personal charge of the file himself, acting on his own initiative and not relying on the various Vatican departments. How the Holy Father himself will manage the reform or what new structures he will put in place remain to be seen, but there can be no doubt that it is a daunting task.

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