Summer lightning strikes in Rome: the storm surrounding the departure of two senior prelates casts doubts over Francis’ agenda for Vatican reform
The Tablet05 July 2017 | by Christopher Lamb
Curial reformThe last two days of June and the first day of July 2017 will go down as one of the most dramatic periods in Francis’ papacy. Within three days two of the Vatican’s most senior cardinals, one in charge of doctrine and the other of finance, were out of their jobs, and the scandal of clerical sexual abuse of children was suddenly back at the top of the Pope’s agenda.
Francis took office just over four years ago; a great gust of reforming wind was whipped up, pushing the barque of Peter out into fresh waters. The latest events represent a tear in the sail, creating problems for the Pope’s reform agenda. And the question is again being asked: Does Francis have a grip on the sex abuse crisis? His treasurer, Cardinal George Pell, is taking a leave of absence so he can to return to Australia to face charges relating to “historic sex offences”. Pell is the highest ranking prelate ever to be charged with sex abuse. His departure leaves the cleaning up of the Vatican’s finances without leadership or direction. There is no clear timetable for when he might return.
More broadly, the reform of the Roman Curia by Francis, who was elected on a mandate of change, has been edging forward at a snail’s pace. Those close to the Pope say that big, structural changes to the Vatican have never been his top priority; rather, his eye is on the pastoral conversion of the Church, starting with his own role as Pope. Francis has been pushing his agenda forward in a very personal way, often working around traditional curial structures and protocols. His strategy sidesteps, rather than confronts, his opponents, keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. Both allies and opponents are left guessing his next move. So far Francis has been something of a “Teflon Pope”; whatever ball he drops, or wrong call he makes, nothing seems to stick. But was he being too clever by half in bringing the brash and sometime maladroit George Pell from Sydney to Rome to bring order and transparency to the Vatican finances?
Pell is cut from a very different personal and theological cloth to Francis. Though a combative conservative in doctrine, Pell was an eloquent proponent of reform of the Curia, and bringing him inside the tent – despite their differences – was widely seen as a smart move. But with the cardinal now facing court appearances and with the Church in Australia bracing itself for a bruising condemnation later this year from a commission investigating institutional responses to sex abuse, it is looking as though Francis might have brought the scourge of the sex abuse scandal into the very heart of his project.
The difficulty with the Pope’s very personal style of governance is that it sometimes ignores the institutional checks and balances around the papacy. Francis can adopt a consultative approach, as the establishment early on of the international “G9” group of cardinals shows – but his natural instinct is to decide things on his own and then to push his agenda forward with a forthright, determined and even autocratic style.
“There’s a phrase that should never be used: ‘It’s always been done that way,’” the Pope told a gathering in the Vatican a couple of months ago. “That phrase, let me tell you, is bad. We must always be changing, because time changes. The only thing that does not change is what’s essential.” His decision last Saturday to effectively dismiss the 69-year-old Cardinal Gerhard Müller as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) shows that Francis is willing to follow his own advice. Never before has a cardinal in such a key post, five years short of retirement, not had his term of office renewed. The Pope’s decision also represents the downgrading of a department once feared for its investigations into theologians perceived not to be toeing the line. This will not surprise those who remember that soon after his election the Pope told a meeting of religious men and women “not to worry” if they receive a letter from the congregation. Under Francis, the investigations of errant theologians have dried up.
The relationship between Müller and the Pope was never an entirely easy one, although it would be a simplification to label it as a clash between a conservative and someone more liberal. Müller was certainly worried about the disagreements opening up between bishops over the interpretation of the Pope’s family life document, Amoris Laetitia, particularly in relation to whether there are circumstances in which Communion could be given to a divorced and remarried Catholic. The cardinal agonised in his role. Clarity over the teaching of the Church was important to him, yet he never aligned himself with the open dissent of the dubia cardinals. He found the Pope’s opening up of fiery internal debate troubling: as Francis was throwing the balls up in the air, the cardinal was left trying to pick them up and put them back in the box.
With the Spanish Jesuit Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer now in post, it is likely that the CDF will start to develop a new role. It could take on a mediatory role between bishops disagreeing over the interpretation of doctrine; or it might intervene in places where, say, the local bishop refuses Communion or a funeral to Catholics in same-sex marriages who refuse to repent. From being a watchdog, it could become moderator.
The role the CDF should play in addressing the scandal of sexual abuse might also change. It is currently a clearing house for cases of priests accused of sexual abuse, and it is said to have a backlog of around 2,000 of them. Müller was sharply criticised by Marie Collins, an abuse survivor from Ireland who resigned from a papal child protection body in frustration at what she described as a lack of co-operation from the Vatican – though she really had the CDF in mind. Either the CDF does the job properly, in which case it needs vigorous leadership and more resources, or this responsibility is passed to another department.
Müller has stood down gracefully. He told reporters that he intends to pursue his scholarly studies in Rome. He could soon be followed into some of the city’s libraries by others: something of a precedent has now been set for the retiring of prefects of Vatican departments after they have served a five-year term. It is the sort of move that gives ammunition to those who say Francis’ style can be autocratic. “It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems,” the Pope confessed in 2013 when talking about his period as a youthful superior of the Argentine Jesuits.
While cardinals in the Curia may in future be out of their jobs after five years, the Pope – now in the fifth year of his pontificate – is showing no signs of wanting to step down. Quite the opposite. During a Mass with cardinals last week he said that reaching retirement age did not mean it was time “to close our life, to close our story, to summarise our story”.
This summer will see the restless Latin American Pope slow down after a relentless 51-month papacy. It is a chance to drop anchor on his ship of reform and take stock. Francis’ authenticity, his generous help for refugees, the homeless and marginalised, his reaching out in love to the poor and the sick, has won him the respect and affection of the world. He is an inspired leader with a radical agenda.
He is also, however, a “Papa Perón”, modelled to some extent on the style of Argentinian leader Juan Perón. Perón was neither Left nor Right, took his message directly to people, operated a generous welfare state, centralised power and threw in a good dose of religious faith. The Pope is also wary of being put into a political box, and distrusts power systems. In Evangelii Gaudium he writes that “even good structures” are only effective if there is “life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them”. Francis prefers to govern personally and directly.
But what the last days of June show, and what some of his closest aides are now urging him to consider, is that relying on instinct and charisma is not enough. Unless his reforms are given more institutional ballast there is a risk that they will fall away.