Comment Comment and Features

Whose legacy will last longer?

Benedict XVI and Pope Francis (AP)

Will the reforms of Pope Francis survive his own pontificate? The summer of 2016 brought much activity on the curial reform front, with the Holy Father changing course on the two most important files. Whether that is a strategic advance or represents a setback remains to be seen.

Governance of the Roman Curia is no small matter. In his recently released interview book, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI confesses that it was a weakness of his, grave enough that it was among the factors which provoked his abdication.

On the two files in question – financial reform and sexual abuse – there is a contrast between the approaches of Benedict and Francis. The former favoured a step-by-step approach that proceeded with a working consensus. The latter favours sweeping initiatives, deliberately kept secret until announced, without the relevant parties being consulted.

Benedict’s approach had the disadvantage of being slower and less far-reaching; Francis’s approach advances quickly but without securing a firm foundation. The relative merits of the two approaches will determine the success of the reform agenda that figured so prominently in the abdication and conclave of 2013.

On July 4, Pope Francis signed I beni temporali, the motu proprio which removed authority over most financial administration from the Secretariat for the Economy (SPE) and returned it to the department where it formerly belonged, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (Apsa). The SPE continues to exercise an oversight role.

To review the history, in February 2014, with Fidelis dispensator et prudens, issued motu proprio, the Holy Father established the Secretariat for the Economy, giving it wide powers over all financial matters, previously exercised by the Secretariat of State and Apsa. In July 2014, another motu proprio, Conferma una tradizione, transferred the ordinary activities of Apsa to the new economic secretariat. In February 2015, control over real estate holdings, which had been given to the SPE the previous year, were returned to Apsa. Now, with the latest shift of July 2016, asset management, procurement and administrative services such as IT go back to Apsa.

The bold shift of 2014 towards the SPE as the new financial centre has been undone, not entirely, but significantly. That the latest motu proprio of July 2016 was signed by the Pope before the SPE had even seen it, let alone been asked for any input, was taken by many as a sign that Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the SPE, had been sidelined by Pope Francis.

Perhaps, but it bears remembering that the original motu proprio of February 2014 was signed by Pope Francis without the knowledge of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, even though it removed much of his financial authority. If the Holy Father ambushed Pell in 2016, he had already done the same to Parolin in 2014.

A similar process was employed on the sexual abuse file. In 2015, the Holy See announced that a new tribunal would be established within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to adjudicate cases where bishops had failed to exercise proper oversight in matters of sexual abuse. There would be a special judge, assisted by a college of expert jurists. It was hailed as the key initiative required for the accountability of bishops. True to form, however, the CDF was neither consulted nor informed about this new role, and months passed with nary a practical step to implement the pontifical idea.

On June 4, 2016, with another motu proprio, Come una madre amorevole, the Holy Father dropped the whole idea without further mention, instead instructing the various Vatican departments that deal with bishops and religious superiors – the congregations for bishops, evangelisation of peoples, Eastern churches and religious institutes – to enforce more rigorously the existing canonical provisions about the removal of bishops or superiors for grave negligence, clarifying that such negligence includes matters of sexual abuse.

The commission on sexual abuse, meeting recently in the Vatican, discreetly noted in its statement of September 12 that it had “made a proposal to the Holy Father regarding bishop accountability” in February 2015. That was what gave rise to last year’s CDF tribunal proposal, now abandoned. The commission though “welcomed” the June 2016 motu proprio requiring greater vigilance over bishops and religious superiors.

Does the improvisational, non-consultative mode of the Holy Father’s reforms mean that he can move fast, going back to fix up the details later? Or does it mean that he simply goes back, undoing what he had proposed to do for lack of proper preparation and attention to detail?

An early biography of Pope Francis was entitled The Great Reformer. After this past summer, might that title, like the reforms themselves, have to be revised?

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

This article first appeared in the September 16 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.