Benevolent Autocracy?

Kind readers have lighted on a paradox: that Praedicate Evangelium (the Vatican Draft Constitution) gives new and direct authority to the Sovereign Pontiff, whilst at the same time giving greater authority to conferences of bishops.

But there is no contradiction. Dictators can afford to be generous.

Consider the aftermath of Amoris Laetitiae. The document itself gave no explicit instructions about the admission of the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion. It merely hinted – in a mere footnote. But local conferences of bishop were eager to take the hint (the Maltese and some South Americans, for example); and Francis was only too willing to commend their efforts. They had grasped the Pontifical drift; Francis could not have put things better himself!

This ruse – to seem to be responding to local initiatives, whilst pursuing a personal agenda – does the opposite of underming the sovereign authority. It enhances it. It leaves the autocrat the option of drawing back (as he did from the traditionalist position of the Poles).

To reconcile autocracy with benevolence requires guile. Francis knows that his liberalising agenda has many enemies. This is a way of maximising the power of his supporters. There are some bishops’ conferences on which he knows he can always rely – and in the event of failure, blame.

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