A personal way to govern: Why Pope Francis uses Apostolic Letters the way he does

A personal way to govern: Why Pope Francis uses Apostolic Letters the way he does

Pope Francis / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Vatican City, Jul 4, 2022 / 09:06 am (CNA).

It is no coincidence that Pope Francis chose the form of an apostolic letter to write about liturgy. Nor that he chose to write it one year after the publication of the Traditionis custodes, the motu proprio with which he abolished the liberalization of the Traditional Latin Mass by Benedict XVI.

Published on June 29 and entitled Desiderio desideravi, the document not only drives home his concerns with the liturgy. It also shines a light on the thought — and the modus operandi — of Pope Francis.

In the 15-page apostolic letter, the pope said he wanted “to invite the whole Church to rediscover, to safeguard, and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration.”

Pope Francis also said, after writing a letter to bishops to accompany Traditionis custodes, he wished to address all Catholics with some reflections on liturgical formation, the theological importance of the Mass, and acceptance of the liturgical documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Notably, this is the 83rd time that Pope Francis has used the form of the apostolic letter to convey an authoritative opinion.

When it comes to expressing the pope’s teaching authority, his magisterium, an apostolic letter ranks fourth in the hierarchy of pontifical documents. The most important would be an apostolic constitution, followed by a papal encyclical, and then an apostolic exhortation.

Pope Francis, however, has always favored “light” legislative instruments, which require less effort in drafting – and do not undergo a longer approval process.

An apostolic constitution, for example, must be consistent with canon law and other prescriptions of the Church. For this reason, Praedicate evangelium, which regulates the functions and offices of the Curia, has had a long gestation period and still awaits full implementation.

The same is true of a papal encyclical, which is concerned with expressing the magisterium – and cannot be linked only to contingent moments.

The third most important kind of document, an apostolic exhortation, is a more particular and personal instrument of the pope. In the case of a post-synodal exhortation, it will draw on the fruits of a Synod of Bishops.

It is worth noting that Pope Francis’ governmental program takes the form of an apostolic exhortation: Evangelii gaudium replaced the post-synodal apostolic exhortation expected after the Synod on the Word of God in 2012.

Of that synod — the last of the pontificate of Benedict XVI — no trace remains.

When Pope Francis had to legislate, he mainly used the form of a motu proprio (the Vatican website lists 49 of them) and rescripts. These are officially called rescripta ex audientia sanctissimi, i. e. orders of the Pope, written following a personal audience.

Neither of these types of decisions require approval by the Roman Curia.

The use of the apostolic letter, like an executive order, also demonstrates a development of this pontificate: Pope Francis did not initially use these as a form of government. Ultimately, however, that is how he most of all expressed his thoughts and decisions.

Beyond apostolic letters in the form of a motu proprio, which have a legal purpose and effect, the letters of Pope Francis are also instruments for addressing the people of God.

The document Desiderio desideravi serves a variety of purposes:

  1. It is a personal letter with which Pope Francis addresses a specific theme – the liturgy.
  2. It is a letter that carries legal clout because Pope Francis reaffirms what was decided in Traditionis Custodes – and denies any possibility of liberalization of the Traditional Latin Mass.
  3. It is a letter that never mentions his predecessor Benedict XVI, whose decision he subverts, establishing a clear rupture between the before and after.

In other words, Pope Francis is using this apostolic letter in a very particular way to reinforce a personal decision.

The government of Pope Francis is deeply personal, so much so that his own point of view is expressed as magisterium.  Pope Francis thus shows himself to be a particular kind of centralizer: Faced with the various expressions of the Church, Pope Francis does not fail to enforce unity, making choices that exclude, in fact, a plurality of forms. Whoever celebrates the Traditional Latin Mass, for Pope Francis, uses a different rite, and is outside the tradition of continuity of the Church.

We might say that whenever the Pope finds resistance, he gets around it using whatever instrument is available to him. Hence, even the use of “lighter” documents ultimately constitute a form of legislation. In the end, they are the quickest means available to the Pope to govern effectively without consulting too much.

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