The Vatican won’t be winning a Best Places to Work award any time soon. At least according to Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was released as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this summer. He has claimed that curial officials are “living in great fear”. “If they say one small or harmless critical word,” he told an interviewer last week, “some spies will pass the comments directly to the Holy Father, and the falsely accused people don’t have any chance to defend themselves.”
The cardinal’s comments came shortly after Libero Milone, the ex-Vatican auditor general, broke his silence over his departure in June. Milone alleged that he was forced out by an “old guard” which panicked when it realised what he had uncovered.
We should, of course, be cautious about the testimonies of aggrieved former Vatican employees: they may have an interest in depicting the Vatican as a snake pit. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. How could the Holy See still be a den of gossip and financial intrigue after four years of energetic reform by Pope Francis?
The answer is that, despite piecemeal changes, the Roman Curia remains essentially the same as it was at Francis’s election in 2013. The Council of Cardinals has been preparing a total overhaul of the Curia since it was founded that year. But it has discovered how hard it is to turn one of the world’s oldest bureaucracies into a modern administration serving a global body of more than a billion people.
The task is so complex that the last big shake-up was in the 1960s, when Paul VI reorganised Vatican departments. Neither of Francis’s immediate predecessors were overly preoccupied with curial reform. Instead, John Paul II poured his energy largely into missionary journeys and Benedict XVI into teaching the flock. It is to Francis’s credit that he is tackling the Curia when he would clearly rather spend the time outside Vatican walls.
Bishop Marcello Semeraro, secretary of the Council of Cardinals, says the long-awaited blueprint for reform is almost ready. But expectations are perhaps too high: the cardinals are likely to recommend gradual change, rather than a “shock and awe” approach. In a few years the Vatican may be more streamlined, but it is unlikely to have eliminated its besetting sins. The reason is that the Curia is, at heart, a kind of royal court (the meaning of curia in Latin). Gossip and intrigue are in its DNA. Even if a pope were to shut down the Curia and create a new one in, say, Nairobi, it would soon take on the character of a court, with officials jostling for the papal ear.
That doesn’t mean we should be cynical. Partial reform is better than no reform. The Vatican may never be as transparent as a Scandinavian government. But we can hope that it will be closer to the ideal in 2020 than it is today. With this kind of realism, we can spend less time worrying about Rome and more on the most important task of all: evangelisation.
A Spanish own goal
If one wanted a lesson on how to turn political difficulty into a full-blown crisis, then one need look no further than Catalonia, and the way the Spanish government has handled the recent referendum.
The independence vote, which the Catalan separatist autonomous government was by no means guaranteed to win, had been declared illegal by the Spanish constitutional court. Instead of declaring any vote non-binding and urging people to abstain (which might well have killed the initiative), the government of Mariano Rajoy tried to stop the vote using the mailed fist of police intervention. The resulting scenes, all captured by television cameras, provide the separatists with propaganda gold: this is the state that people are being invited to leave, a state that sends riot police in to beat up old ladies. Mr Rajoy has scored a spectacular own goal, and the prospect of Catalonian independence just got that bit closer. Indeed, this may be a watershed moment: Mr Rajoy may have made independence for Catalonia inevitable.
Spain, already weighed down by financial difficulty, now faces an even more uncertain future, something that all friends of the country must view with foreboding. The Cardinal Archbishop of Barcelona, Juan José Omella, has called for a peaceful and democratic resolution of the conflict. Let us hope that all sides heed his words. Another Spanish civil war is in no one’s interest, and the same must be said about a disorderly secession. The cardinal did not say anything about the merits of Catalonian independence, and it is right that the Church should stay neutral on this matter; but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the many of the clergy are Catalan nationalists.
The parallels with Scotland are interesting, and we must all be grateful that something similar has not happened there, thanks to the good sense of all parties. As for Spain, the best way forward now is an immediate de-escalation, as part of which Mr Rajoy might consider whether he is the right man to lead the nation at this time of intense division.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund