The Church must stop promoting people just to get them out of the way

Last week, I argued that the specifics of the accusations made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò were less important than the reform of clerical culture which his “testimony” revealed is necessary.

Both Viganò himself and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, inadvertently revealed a culture where – even at the highest levels and involving the most prominent people – uncomfortable or awkward matters are simply not brought up. Cardinal Ouellet never raised the McCarrick matter with either Benedict or Francis, and Viganò did not challenge McCarrick himself when he observed the former Archbishop of Washington violating the instructions given to him.

Now another case has pointed to another reform of clerical culture urgently needed – the use of appointments not for the good of the office, but to solve problems. It’s called promoveatur ut amoveatur: appointing or promoting someone in order to clear him out of the way for someone else, or to provide a soft landing after his current position has become untenable.

In his 2016 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis described the practise as a “cancer” and said that its “definitive abolition” was “essential”.

Nevertheless, a classic example followed the next year. Back in 2013, in one of his first episcopal appointments in his native Argentina, the Holy Father appointed Gustavo Zanchetta as bishop of Orán, a rural diocese. Four years later, Bishop Zanchetta resigned, only 53 years old, on the official grounds of “poor health” – a routine dodge employed when the facts are a bit embarrassing.

It was confirmed by the Holy See Press Office last week that the real reason Zanchetta resigned was because of an “inability to govern the clergy”, “very tense relationships with the priests” and “accusations of authoritarianism”. In short, Zanchetta manifestly lacked the capacity to lead effectively.

So he packed it in after four years and disappeared from Orán in August 2017. What then to do with a bishop, personally shown favour by the Pope, who was only 53 and had so befouled his nest that he had to leave his native country?

In December 2017, Pope Francis appointed him “assessor” of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA), the office that controls the Holy See’s financial assets and is the most important department in the financial reform of the Roman Curia. “Assessor” is the title given to the third-highest ranking official in the Secretariat of State. There had previously been no “assessor” at APSA, but the post was created for Zanchetta.

(When the prefect of the Dicastery for Communications, Mgr Dario Viganò, resigned last year for misrepresenting a letter written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis accepted his resignation but then created the role of “assessor” in the same department and appointed Viganò to it the same day.)

Now there are accusations of sexual misconduct against Zanchetta – unknown at the time of his curial appointment by Pope Francis – and so he has stepped aside from the job specifically created for him in the Curia.

Respected Vatican reporter John Allen characterised the Zanchetta fiasco as a “rare double own goal” for Francis, further besmirching his checkered record on both sexual abuse and financial reform.

Zanchetta’s case shows another aspect of the clerical culture – “clericalism”, if you will – that is urgently in need of reform. Assume that the “poor health” reasons given in 2017 did not include rumours about sexual misconduct. Why would a young bishop who failed so utterly in a remote and insignificant diocese have a comfortable landing spot specially created for him in a key curial department? Why would someone who resigned due to an “incapacity to govern” be assigned a senior post in the key department for financial management? Why did the then head of APSA, Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, not simply refuse to accept the appointment?

Promoveatur ut amoveatur is the reason. Bishops get dumped in convenient places to save face, to look after allies, to exile opponents, to soothe hurt feelings. It was not invented by Pope Francis, who denounces it even as it continues.

St Paul VI had entrusted the liturgical reform to Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, one of the most important Roman dicasteries. Later, his patience exhausted, the Holy Father “promoted” him to nuncio in Tehran in 1976, where he was on hand to represent the Holy See to the Ayatollah. Benedict XVI did something similar when, in order to get rid of St John Paul’s master of ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini, he appointed him the president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses.

Promoveatur ut amoveatur is a worldly technique borrowed from royal courts and government chancelleries. It is rooted in the idea that a prelate or priest who proves incapable of his office cannot return to simple pastoral work, as if that would be a humiliation. So the damaged goods are kept around where, as Zanchetta demonstrates, they live to bring further damage upon the Church.

Rome became the solution to Orán’s problem. No doubt Rome wishes Zanchetta was back in Orán now.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of