At the eve of the sixth meeting of the Council of Cardinals, it seems that the path of the reform of the Roman Curia has come to a halt – Pope Francis himself said that reforms will not carried out within the next year. As there was a de facto halt for what regards the most far-reaching positions during the last Synod of bishops, carried forward by those who were considered the closest to the Pope. As, in the end, there was a halt on many of the initial decisions of Pope Francis. These events suggest there are groups who want to prevent Pope Francis from carrying forward the reforms. With a nuance. The reforms that must not be carried forward are Benedict XVI’s, not Pope Francis’. As if, putting in parenthesis Benedict XVI’ pontificate, there was a need to go back.
That many did not like Benedict XVI’s silent revolution is evident by looking at the (often unjust) attacks Benedict XVI’s pontificate had been subjected to. And that Benedict XVI’s revolution is being blocked and slowed down has been made evident in many instances during Pope Francis’ pontificate. Perhaps, the most important instance is the account of the book “The Great Reformer,” written by the London-based journalist Austen Ivereigh.
Formerly a spokesperson of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor of Westminster and deputy editor of the progressive British Catholic magazine ‘The Tablet’, and currently manager of CatholicVoices, Ivereigh has reported that the so-called “Team Bergoglio” has worked behind the curtains to back the Archbishop of Buenos Aires’ election as Pope.
According to Ivereigh, the ‘team’ was composed by cardinals Murphy, Walter Kasper, Carl Lehman and Godfried Daneels. Ivereigh wrote,generating controversy, that the four cardinals “secured Bergoglio’s assent” (although this claim will be modified in the reprints of the book). The issue was raised of the validity of Bergoglio’s election, since ‘Universi Dominici Gregis’, the Constitution that regulates papal elections, forbids any ‘political’ agreement before a conclave.
On the other hand, the Constitution does not forbid the exchange of opinions, the informal dinners, and discussing possible candidates. And the cardinals of Team Bergoglio (Murphy could not even take part in the Conclave) did exactly this: dinners, exchange of opinions and so forth. Yet, the four asked Fr. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See Press Office, to dispute the book’s account, which he did. To which Ivereigh responded by underscoring that they were only denying they had an agenda, not that they urged for Bergoglio’s election.
Ivereigh writes that the four had backed Jorge Mario Bergoglio during the 2005 conclave, and that Bergoglio himself dissuaded them from keep on voting for him –voting that served to block Ratzinger’s election. It seems just a minor detail, but in fact it is a revealing piece of information. After eight years of Benedict XVI, the cardinals chose to look back. It is even a symbolic choice, in a world where everything has a meaning. And the meaning is: we should have walked a different path.
Scandals and continuous attacks on Benedict XVI’s pontificate must be read against this backdrop: the attacks have provided an excuse for cardinals to switch the pre-conclave meetings’ themes from the universal problems of the Church and of announcing the Gospel, to the urgent problem to solve the practical controversies. And they have also backed the notion that the urgent problems may be solved with a reform of the reform. Id est, returning to the past, masking it as a great novelty.
Good part of the biased debate at the pre-conclave meetings is mirrored in the current debate. The so-much discussed Curia reform had been backed by many during the meetings. Yet, just a few cardinals knew in depth what the Roman Curia is, how it works. The financial issue was deemed crucial. But much of the information was that coming from newspapers, and it was not always accurate information.
This backdrop is probably the reason why Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and member of the Council of Cardinals, wrote an article on the Catholic Herald.
The headline of the article – “The days of ripping off the Vatican are over” – was true: many have ripped off the Vatican during these years. And Cardinal Pell is moved by the sincere wish to clean the Vatican up. Some passages of the interview are however noteworthy.
Cardinal Pell underscored that the Vatican is not broke, since there are many millions in “sectional balance sheets.” Fr. Federico Lombardi clarified Pell’s assertions the day after the publication of the article, noting that the cardinal was not speaking about hidden funds, as his words may have suggested.
That of the “millions tucked away” is perhaps the most flamboyant assertion.
It is also noteworthy that Cardinal Pell’s text may suggested that Ettore Gotti Tedeschi was sacked from his post of President of the IOR Board of Superintendancy because he was in the middle of a struggle of power; and that Pontifical Councils and Congregation had at least a naive management of their finance – but in fact they were kept to present their balance sheet to the Prefecture of the Economic Affairs for oversight.
True, a rationalization of the organization of the Vatican financial structures might be in order. But it is also true that what Cardinal Pell described as “sectional funds” are more likely the funds of the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Congregation for the Eastern Churches: all of them have their own budgets, which are not reflected in the overall Holy See / Vatican City State budget.
All of these institutions have dedicated funds and budgets in order to defend the Church’s freedom. For instance, if in a country where priests cannot have a bank account and neither can their parishes, the Apostolic Nuncio accredited there asks for financial aid from the Secretariat of State, the latter must be able to give it to him quickly and possibly in cash. This is part of the mission of the Church, supporting the dioceses in mission.
In order to guarantee the Church’s freedom, a financial reform that would adhere to international standards and at the same time preserved the Vatican City State specificity had been drafted under Benedict XVI’s pontificate. And a reform of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs had been put into effect as well, thus giving this prefecture tasks similar to those of a Vatican ministry of finances. The Institute for Religious Works (IOR) had started reviewing all of its clients’ accounts, while Vatican finances as a whole underwent a third-party evaluation by the Council of Europe’s MONEYVAL committee. MONEYVAL’s report found Vatican finances largely compliant with international standards, while the MONEYVAL progress report that followed (issued Dec. 2013) confirmed the seriousness of the Vatican effort.
Pell’s article suggests the need for a complete overhaul. On the other hand, one should consider Benedict XVI’s reforms and their huge impact. Likewise it should be acknowledged that this path had already begun under John Paul II. The new project for finances seemingly aims at the total consolidation of budgets, under the sole control of the Secretariat for the Economy. Instead, Benedict XVI’s reform was based on collegiality, but nobody have really underscored it.
Benedict XVI’s pontificate has not been understood in its revolutionary potentiality. On the other hand, everything done by Pope Francis is (often wrongly) described as a rupture with the past.
Among cardinals, bishops, Curia workers many are feeling a little disappointed, since this new approach – fostered by media – seemingly maintains that nothing had been done in the past. For example, the stress on a new pastoral commitment may suggest that Church have lacked of pastoral care in the past; the continual mentions to the malfunctioning of the Curia may let understand that in the Curia there are no goodwill men, or that everything has been badly managed until now. Obviously, Pope Francis do not wish to let things look so. He simply wanted to address problems.
True, things may be improved – and they are going to be. On the other hand, media should avoid the temptation to portrait Curia as a nest of non professional people, or a place for illicit dealings.
That Benedict’s reform is valid and ongoing can be inferred from the resistance of many bishops and cardinals to its overhaul. The Synod of Bishops – – during which prelates have voiced their concern, in an open debate – has been an important testing ground. Another testing ground was the Pope’s meeting with the heads of Vatican dicasteries on Nov. 24.
Discussing the Council of Cardinals’ proposals for reform, the heads of Vatican dicasteries raised many objections, according to Vatican sources. No problem with the proposal to consolidate two big congregations (Justice and Peace, and Laity and Family) that include five secretariats each (i.e., offices). The issue was – critics stressed – that the reform should only be carried forward according to institutional criteria, taking into account the responsibilities of each dicastery and their valuable contributions. The heads of dicasteries also raised pragmatic issues. For instance: where would employees of the assimilated dicasteries go? All of these issues were reportedly missing from the information presented to the heads of dicasteries.
Not by chance Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, coordinator of the Council of Cardinals, had granted an interview to reiterate their willingness to carry out reforms. But the real issue is that the reforms may not change anything substantial, just the way each dicastery is managed. In the Nov. 24 report, there were many “gaps” and the heads of dicasteries noticed it. This is the reason why the expected, major announcement of the reform going forward did not take place.
The same happened during the synod of bishops. Pressures toward hasty changes – and carried out as if the Church had never known pastoral care – led to a first draft (the mid-term report) that was not favored by the majority of bishops. The final report had to take into account many of the issues raised, especially the absence language quoted from the scriptures. The final report is not however completely liked, but it is an almost accepted compromise.
The way the synod itself had been managed gave the impression that changes were going to be secretly imposed, without taking into account differences of opinion – as proved by the secrecy of the discussions (the General Secretariat of the Synod did not want to make them public) as well as the lively discussion about making public the observations to the mid-term report.
This is something for the Council of Cardinals to keep their eyes on, as they gather on the 9th, for their sixth meeting. Many of their reforms are presented as a real overturn of the previous status quo. One can assume that Benedict XVI’s reforms, based on collegiality and personal responsibility, scared people. They pushed the Church forward, and had a major impact in the international arena. But at the same time, those reforms obliged everyone to be transparent and clear. The big reform of charity; the big reform of Vatican finances; the reform of the Code of Canon Law (which Pope Francis had promulgated)… all initiatives introduced under Benedict XVI. Who saw very clearly the need for a new kind of leadership, and this is why he started his reforms by changes to the criteria of admission to seminaries. Quite ironic that one of his last speeches (and a prophetic one, in light of what happened later) was that delivered to seminarians in Rome.
If the Holy See’s commitment to turn the Vatican into a modern state,while keeping its own specificity, has not been understood, it is because on the opposite side stands a model for a pop, company-like Church aiming to stir consciences with simple words people like to hear.
But the Church is not only pop. The Church is also history, mission and sovereignty. And the sovereignty of the small territory of Vatican City State is crucial for the Holy See to exercise its mission. In times when Europe itself had turned its back to Christian values, sovereignty becomes a main tool to fully act as a moral authority.
Pope Francis’ big challenge is now that of completing Benedict XVI’s reforms. The media’s big challenge, on the other hand, is to go beyond the paradigm of discontinuity.
Media need to understand that between one Pope and another there is a series of reforms that need to be carried out to ber effective, and that Francis cannot carry anything forward without appreciating and valuing the work of his predecessor. For instance, as Francis, Benedict XVI had spoken of a poor Church for poor. He did during his 2011 trip to Germany, when he outlined a Church that had to be less worldy, less appeased on its own structure.
It was a slap on the face, for the wealthy German Church. Benedict XVI revoked the latae sententiae commination of excommunication for those who do not pay the “Kirchensteuer,” the Church tax. The excommunication was an outcome of the fact that when one declared he was not going to pay the tax because he was not Catholic anymore, this declaration was considered the equivalent of an act of apostasy. The German bishops responded with a document which stated that not paying the Kirchensteuer was equivalent to a “grave public sin,” which bore in the end the same consequences of an excommunication. Until now, this is the only “grave public sin” German bishops have listed, while for every other “grave public sin,” included that of being divorced and civilly remarried (which also has a social impact), German bishops (including reformer Cardinals Marx, Kasper and Lehmann) ask to act with mercy.
These small contradictions are food for thought. We should go beyond the paradigm of Pope Francis’ discontinuity. But we should also acknowledge that many, among those who have elected him, have their own agenda – otherwise, why should they be so active? How much will Pope Francis follow this agenda, is yet to be known. But their activism indicates that the Pope, in the end, will not back their every move.