“From this, it is clear that approval, compared to confirmation, involves a greater commitment and involvement of the higher authority. Therefore, it is clear that moving from requesting approval to requesting confirmation is not just a terminological change, but a substantial one, which moves precisely in the direction of decentralization.”
In 2017, Pope Francis published the motu proprio Magnum principium, which established that translations of liturgical texts approved by national episcopal conferences should no longer be subject to revision by the Apostolic See, which would in future only confirm them.
At the time, Cardinal Robert Sarah, then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, drew up a note on the subject, which interpreted the new legislation in a restrictive sense, underlining that this “did not in any way modify the responsibility of the Holy See, nor its competences concerning liturgical translations.”
But recognition and confirmation, Pope Francis replied in a letter, could not be put on the same level, and indeed Magnum principium “no longer maintains that translations must conform in all points to the norms of Liturgiam authenticam [the 2001 document establishing criteria for translations] as it was done in the past.”
The pope added that episcopal conferences could now judge the goodness and consistency of translations from Latin, albeit in dialogue with the Holy See. Previously, it was the dicastery that judged fidelity to Latin and proposed any necessary corrections.
This interpretative note from Pope Francis must also be applied to the latest motu proprio, although some questions remain open.
Much will depend on how the Vatican decides to apply its faculty of confirmation: whether it will choose simply to confirm decisions or, instead, enter more directly into the questions, offering various observations.
At the same time, bishops’ conferences will lose the guarantee of communion in decisions with the Apostolic See. They are more autonomous in some choices but always subject to confirmation from the Holy See. They are empowered but somehow under guardianship.
By favoring decentralization, Pope Francis wants to overcome the impasses that he experienced as a bishop in Argentina, also overcoming the perception that Rome is too restrictive and does not appreciate the sensitivities of local Churches.
On the other hand, a centralized law guarantees justice, balance, and harmoniousness. The risk of losing this harmony is always around the corner.
This point also arose when Pope Francis changed the procedures for matrimonial nullity. Even then, he had somehow forced the bishops to take up their responsibilities.
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A year after the promulgation of the documents Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Mitis et misericors Iesus, the pope gave a speech to the Roman Rota in which he stressed that the streamlined nullity process could not be entrusted to an interdiocesan court because this would distort “the figure of the bishop, father, head, and judge of his faithful,” making him “a mere signer of the sentence.”
This decision created difficulties for bishops in areas where interdiocesan courts largely functioned well, as in Italy. It was, therefore, no coincidence that Pope Francis, with yet another motu proprio, established a pontifical commission last November to ensure that the changes were applied in Italy.
The commission was established directly in the Roman Rota court, indicating that Pope Francis takes decisions that favor the autonomy of local Churches. But paradoxically, he does so by centralizing everything in his hands.
This is the modus operandi with which Pope Francis aims to unhinge an existing system to create a new one. The key to understanding this modus operandi is the phrase “good, soft violence” that he used to describe reforms in an address to members of the Vatican’s communication department in 2017.
At the end of this process, the bishops will be more autonomous, but also more alone. Without a harmonizing guide, there is a risk that each particular Church will adapt decisions to its own territory and create new doctrinal guidelines.
Who guarantees, in the end, that there will not be a repeat of the “Dutch Catechism” episode? In 1966, the bishops of the Netherlands authorized the publication of “A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults.” The text was so controversial that Pope Paul VI asked a commission of cardinals to examine its presentation of Catholic teaching. Later, Pope John Paul II called a special assembly of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the issues raised by the episode.