Pope Francis’s bold reforms have been frustrated. How did this happen?

(CNS photo)

Whether it is to do with curial reform in Rome, Vatican diplomacy in China, or allegations of sexual abuse in Chile, Pope Francis seems to be fighting fires on all fronts. How did it come to this?

Five years into his pontificate, it was certainly not meant to be this way – Pope Francis began with a mandate for reform and showed himself to be serious about it by thinking big and bold.

In terms of Vatican reform, he set up the C9 Council to look at how the Holy See operates, both in the Vatican and in relation to the global Church. He established the Council for Economic Affairs, the Prefecture for the Economy and the office of the Auditor General to bring some accountability to the curial finances and the Vatican Bank. Smaller Vatican departments were overhauled or joined together, and a new department for Laity, Family and Life was formed.

Recognising the need to build on the work begun by Pope Benedict XVI in preventing any future repetition of the sexual abuse scandals, Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, announced plans for a new judicial section in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and, in 2016, outlined a new legal mechanism for trying bishops accused of negligence in dealing with accusations of abuse against priests.

Time and time again, Pope Francis has shown that he is willing to take big decisions, and that his instincts are in the right direction. Yet none of these reforms are showing very tangible signs of progress on the ground.

The C9 has yet to produce anything of substance, and its head, Cardinal Maradiaga, is fighting accusations of grave financial misconduct – allegations which, it has been suggested, were leaked in part to discredit him and the work of the Council.

Financial scandals remain a depressingly fixed feature of Vatican life. The major reforming efforts have been systematically undercut, first by the cancelling of an external audit by Archbishop Becciu, the second in command at the Secretariat of State, then by the loss of Cardinal Pell, who had to take leave to return to Australia to fight (as yet totally unsubstantiated) allegations of abuse levelled against him there. At almost the same time Pell was leaving for Australia, the Vatican Auditor General, Libero Milone, was sacked. According to Milone, it was because “the [Vatican] old guard that’s still entirely there… felt threatened when it understood that I could tell the Pope… what I’d seen with my own eyes in the accounts.” A statement from the Secretariat of State, issued by Archbishop Becciu, accused Milone of “spying” on the private financial affairs of senior officials.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis’s efforts to strengthen the Church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations have not yet gained much traction. His proposed judicial section for the CDF never materialised, with the Congregation claiming they desperately need more resources, not new structures.

Pope Francis’s recent trip to Chile was eclipsed by his off-the-cuff remark that, until he saw proof to the contrary, allegations of covering up sexual abuse made against the embattled Bishop Juan Barros were “calumny”. Victims of sexual abuse, in Chile and globally, were understandably outraged that their accusations could be termed mere slander until they showed proof. Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston publicly expressed disappointment with the Pope’s choice of words.

While inspiring a papal apology, Cardinal O’Malley’s intervention also drew attention back to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he was appointed to lead. The Commission originally had two abuse survivors as members, but both have since resigned in frustration at the lack of material progress. Worse still, the Commission’s mandate actually lapsed over the Christmas period and has not yet been renewed.

In further response to the ongoing media row over Bishop Barros, and supposedly promoted by “new information”, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the former Promoter of Justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a man with a peerless reputation in handling cases relating to sexual abuse, has now been dispatched to Chile to start an investigation into the whole affair – something which could and should have been undertaken years ago using the very mechanisms Pope Francis set up.

Few people doubt Pope Francis’s reforming intentions, or his willingness to make tough decisions – I certainly don’t. And, judged purely on the moves he has made, his instincts are right. Yet nothing appears to be changing. What is lacking is not bold and dynamic leadership, the Pope has that in spades. Rather, there needs to be constant, forensic, and methodical assessment of how his reforms are being brought to life, or why they are not. Here the Pope’s personal style has let him down. His desire to be a free-range Pope, living outside the Apostolic Palace and relying on a few close advisers and ad hoc, informal meetings to keep him abreast of progress is simply not yielding results. In making himself master of his own diary, he’s lost the traditional mechanisms for controlling his own agenda, and this is becoming increasingly problematic.

Pope Francis is five years into his pontificate, but it is by no means too late for him to see through the reforms he clearly wants. What it might take is a change in his style of governance, one which places a new emphasis on proper process, scrupulous respect for the law, and a zeal for the sometimes tedious minutiae of getting things done. In a perfect world, a leader with Pope Francis’s style and strengths would be able to rely on his team to supply these qualities, but, for whatever reason, those currently charged with implementing his reforms seem unable or unwilling to see them through.

In his Advent address to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis acknowledged the frustrating lack of progress and compared the work of curial reform to “cleaning the sphinx with a toothbrush.” I would respectfully suggest that, rather than more time, he needs a different brush.