Learning To Take Leave, Pope Francis’s new apostolic letter in the form of a motu proprio, addresses the procedure by which Curial officials and bishops are invited to resign upon turning seventy-five. I was first struck by the title of the motu proprio, which reminds me of nothing so much as a late-1990s Natalie Merchant live LP. Setting that aside, Learning To Take Leave offers a window into how Francis sees the process of retirement from high office in the Church. And it offers a vision of an isolated papacy.

In technical terms, the motu proprio establishes that important officials in the Church, including bishops, heads of dicasteries in the Roman Curia, and pontifical representatives, must send the pope a letter of resignation when they hit seventy-five. The pope will decide whether the resignation is to be accepted or the official is to be continued in office, for a fixed term or indefinitely. Francis cautions, however, that when an official is continued in office, the extension “should not be considered as a privilege, or a personal triumph, or a favour due to presumed obligations derived from friendship or closeness, nor as gratitude for the effectiveness of the services provided.”

Instead, “any possible extension can be understood only for certain reasons always linked to the common ecclesial good.” Francis provides a list of such reasons: “the importance of adequately completing a very fruitful project for the Church; the convenience of ensuring the continuity of important works; difficulties related to the composition of the Dicastery in a period of transition; the importance of the contribution that the person may make to the application of directives recently issued by the Holy See, or to the reception of new magisterial guidelines.”

Francis tells us that the decision to grant an extension in office is an act of governance, requiring prudence and discernment. He warns that extensions are not automatic.

In a sense, the motu proprio does not change current law very much, and the canonists can explain the extent to which it does. Bishops and Curial officials were already invited to offer their resignations upon turning seventy-five. John Paul, Benedict, and Francis have each accepted some resignations quickly and delayed accepting others. No doubt each thought his actions prudent and well discerned. What is interesting is the detail in which Francis explains the reasons why he might continue an official past age seventy-five.

Better perhaps than John Paul and Benedict, Francis understands that personnel is policy. In his pontificate, with the exception of Robert Cardinal Sarah, problematic prelates have gotten the boot. Francis has generally appointed men who are on board with his agenda. Notwithstanding a few surprises, the days are long gone when John Paul and Benedict gave their theological opponents red hats as a concession to tradition or graciousness. Indeed, one can name any number of prelates so far denied the Roman purple for apparently theological—some might say ideological—reasons. Perhaps Philadelphia isn’t what it once was to the global Church—but Los Angeles?

Into this, Francis now injects some broad, apparently neutral principles, all connected to the common good of the Church: finishing projects, ensuring continuity, handling personnel problems, or implementing legislation or doctrinal guidelines. All important, to be sure.

It is tempting to apply these criteria to a few Curial officials who have recently been continued in office past seventy-five. For example, Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, turned seventy-seven last September. Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota, will turn seventy-seven at the end of March. Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio turns eighty this year and has been president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts since 2007. (Remember that Francis allegedly told Gerhard Cardinal Müller that Curial officials should not expect more than one quenquennium in office.) One may speculate as to which of Francis’s reasons applies to each of these men, recalling that their continuation in office “should not be considered . . . a favour due to presumed obligations derived from friendship or closeness, nor as gratitude for the effectiveness of the services provided.”

And this is the somewhat disappointing aspect of Francis’s legislation: the exclusion of the human factor. Consider the long connections between, say, Cardinal Baldisseri and Francis and his circle. Baldisseri was secretary of the Congregation for Bishops when Msgr. Fabián Pedacchio—now Francis’s personal secretary—served in Rome at the Congregation. Baldisseri served as secretary of the conclave that elected Francis, and at the end of that conclave, Francis revived the venerable tradition of putting his red zucchetto on Baldisseri to signal that he’d be named a cardinal in the next conclave. And so he was! Indeed, his appointment was gazetted before Müller’s, despite the fact that prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had traditionally been seen as a more important role than secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops. (How little we knew!)

It would be sad to think that a man as close to Francis as Cardinal Baldisseri—going back to the days when Cardinal Bergoglio was just the archbishop of Buenos Aires—is being continued in office solely because he is necessary for the common good of the Church. He remains in office because he cannot be replaced for the moment. It would be a shame if the pope, a man who holds an office as isolating as it is weighty, were to be deprived of the opportunity to have some collaborators who are chosen because they are good friends, or personally congenial, or effective in carrying out the pope’s wishes.

P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.

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Photo by Aleteia Image Department via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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