Is Pope Francis purging the Curia of conservatives?

Pope Francis arrives for a week-long Lenten retreat with members of the Roman Curia in Ariccia, near Rome (Photo: CNS)

There is a story that when Giacomo della Chiesa was elected pope in September 1914, Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val turned to his neighbour in the Sistine Chapel and exclaimed: “This is a disaster!” His interlocutor wryly answered: “For Your Eminence, yes it is.”

Merry del Val had enjoyed untrammelled authority as secretary of state to Pius X, and della Chiesa, who took the name Benedict XV, was the candidate of a rival faction. Merry del Val had vigorously opposed his election and feared the end of his career. In the end, his fears were only partly fulfilled. Benedict was known to detest the Anglo-Spanish cardinal cordially, but he did not feel able to banish his influence completely. Although he was indeed replaced as secretary of state, Merry del Val lived out the remainder of his life as secretary of the Holy Office, a post only marginally less powerful.

Almost exactly a century later, many are sensing a settling of scores of a comparable, but more radical nature at work in the curial nominations being made by Pope Francis. So many heads have rolled, or are said to be about to roll, that one prominent Vaticanologist has written of a process of “de-Ratzingerisation” at work in the Curia.

It does seem at first sight as if several of those closest to Benedict XVI have fallen victim to the change of climate in Rome. First to feel the heat – at least publically – was the genial Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, whose move a year ago from the post of prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy to the post of prefect of the Apostolic Penitentiary is hard to interpret as anything but a demotion. Another high profile change was the removal of the Spaniard Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera from the prefecture of the Congregation for Divine Worship – a congregation whose remit is at the heart of the Ratzingerian project – to become archbishop of his native Valencia. Since Cañizares was known as the “little Ratzinger” – as much on account of his appearance as because of his theology – many were quick to see his departure from Rome as evidence of a purge.

By far the biggest shock waves, however, come with the apparently credible leak that Cardinal Raymond Burke, possibly the most outspoken and forceful advocate of a return to the enforcement of Church discipline in Rome, is about to be unceremoniously removed from the post of prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, which gives him a powerful influence over the interpretation and application of Canon Law, and to which Benedict appointed him in 2008. The most astonishing part of the rumour is that, rather than being moved sideways to head another dicastery, or even receiving what might be perceived as a demotion like Cardinal Piacenza, the change in Cardinal Burke’s status looks like an unambiguous humiliation. It would appear that the American cardinal, recognised as a formidable legal mind and at 66 a relative youngster in the Sacred College, is to be given the largely ceremonial role of patron of the Knights of Malta. This is historically seen as a sinecure filled either by aged cardinals at the end of their career or held by younger ones cumulatively with more substantial responsibilities.

The question which many have been asking since the election of Francis is henceforth unavoidable: is the current Pope engaged in the dismantling of his predecessor’s legacy? Such a process, suspected with a growing sense of foreboding by some and with increasingly unrestrained glee by others, would seem to be a logical explanation for the piecemeal removal of men carefully selected by Benedict and by St John Paul II before him.

Before rushing to judgment, let us look at the facts. Too much has been made of the case of Cardinal Cañizares. It was known well before Benedict’s abdication that the Spaniard was pining to return to his homeland and eyeing the soon to be vacant see of Madrid. So his return to Spain has nothing ominous about it, but it might be significant that he is going to a see of lesser rank than the one many thought he would get as a foregone conclusion.

Cardinal Piacenza’s move raises more question marks, since it seems to be part of a radical overhaul of the dicastery he previously headed. Its secretary, Celso Morga Iruzubieta, linked to Opus Dei and close to Piacenza, is tipped to be named very shortly to a Spanish diocese not of first importance. There are rumours of serious turmoil within this department of the Curia. I have no idea what the origin of this state of affairs might be or whether it is linked with the debacle which unfolded within its area of competency in 2010, when the expected proclamation of St John Vianney as patron of all the priests of the world was suddenly and inexplicably cancelled. Perhaps more information will emerge in the future.

With regard to Cardinal Burke, I think there is little doubt that his coming defenestration, if confirmed, does demonstrate a desire by Francis to steer a course distinct from that of Benedict. It is true that it may be due in part to a project of curial retrenchment which involves the amalgamation of various dicasteries and a consequent shortage of posts for those whose departments disappear. But Burke’s status was diminished already when the new Pope dispensed with his services as member of the Congregation for Bishops in December 2013. This was not only a humiliation for the cardinal but also a serious setback for the “Ratzingerian” agenda he and others had pursued in that dicastery with energy and success.

In fact, I have suspected from day one that Francis was elected in order to pursue an agenda different from Benedict’s and that he himself consciously desires a change of course. I am still not sure how radical the desired change is, at least in the Pope’s own mind, but I will hazard a guess. A glance back to my starting point might help us understand the contemporary scene.

At the conclave of 1914, there was a curial faction which intended to pursue vigorously the anti-Modernist policy pursued under Pius X, spearheaded by Merry del Vel. Then there was a faction of “liberals” (I use the inverted commas because by today’s standards their “liberalism” was moderate to the point of invisibility) which was opposed to this campaign and wished to pursue a policy of openness to modernity. There was, however, also a third group, no less orthodox in reality than Merry del Val, but who were concerned that the latter had led an over-zealous witch hunt where loyal theologians and bishops were being targeted unjustly (some will remember that St John XXIII discovered on his election that he had been among the suspects).

In the end, the first two groups could not get their men elected and della Chiesa, the candidate of the third faction, was elected as a compromise candidate when “liberals” and moderates united against the diehard ultras.

I am increasingly persuaded that the 2013 conclave was played out along similar lines.

A long-awaited nomination made last month may help to illustrate my point. The new Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, is a disappointment to the culture warriors of the Catholic component of the American religious Right. He eschews the confrontational approach in which prelates like Cardinal Burke seemed to delight, and yet he has defended Catholic doctrine on all of the controversial points clearly, but without ire. Pope Francis is said to have taken an unusually active role in securing Bishop Cupich’s promotion. Significantly, he recently remarked that “Pope Francis doesn’t want cultural warriors, he doesn’t want ideologues”.

Seen within this context, Cardinal Burke’s nationality is not without significance in his presumed downfall. The standpoint of many American Catholics who have embraced political neo-conservatism seems dangerously ideological to many Europeans, even those with no sympathy for doctrinal laxity. To stridently uphold the Magisterium when it upholds traditional sexual morality and the sanctity of life, while relativising it when it condemns the excesses of capitalism and upholds a role for the state in redistributing wealth and providing healthcare, for example, looks like selective moralising. Cardinal Burke has not fallen into the extremes of certain US commentators who dismiss the teachings of successive popes on social justice as mere personal opinions. But he has publicly relativised the magisterial authority of Evangelii Gaudium, while adopting uncompromising stands on issues like Communion for politicians who dissent from other moral teachings. I suspect that this has caused concern to influential persons in Rome, including those who are far from liberal on doctrinal issues. Perhaps it has irritated the Pope himself.

So perhaps Francis, if he does remove Cardinal Burke, intends to send a message to the US Church that ideologies like neo-conservatism must not be allowed to use Catholic doctrine as a weapon. Of course, this must also apply to those who would use it in the service of a liberal ideology. There are certainly those in Rome who wish to dismantle the legacy of Benedict and of St John Paul II. There are also those who wish to see a slight rectification of the line of fire and, rightly or wrongly, believe that that legacy needs to be pursued with more caution. The present Pope may be closer to the second group than the first. The outcome of the upcoming synods on the family will tell us more.

Of course, popes can make mistakes, and the present pope has admitted candidly that he can and has. If Cardinal Burke is made a scapegoat, that might well be a papal mistake. If Francis seriously undermines Benedict’s legacy – whether intentionally or as the unwitting tool of a faction in the Curia – then that will certainly be a mistake, for Benedict gave us a rational account of our faith and an analysis of the problems besetting it, both of unequalled cogency. But history, under Providence, has its way of evening things out. Aspects of the career of Merry del Val remain controversial. But few would deny that St Pius X’s legacy to the Church is more significant than that of his successor.

Fr Mark Drew is a priest currently working in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. He holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris, and has also studied in Germany and Rome