Officials are adrift as the Vatican reels from one crisis to the next
Back in January, the question on everyone’s mind was: will the curial reform finally take shape this year? It was clear that 2018 would be a make-or-break one for Pope Francis – a year in which he would have to decide whether to use his gifts to set his project of curial reform and Church renewal back on track.
That was before Chile, before the crisis of clerical sex abuse and cover-up exploded in his face, and became the focus of new and sustained media attention. By March, the fifth anniversary of Francis’s election, it was clear that 2018 was off to a rocky start. Still, we were in the first quarter. There was time, if there was will, to turn the thing around.
Then focus on the Chilean theatre of the global crisis brought with it scrutiny of one of the “C9” Council of Cardinal Advisers drafting the blueprint for the new, improved Roman Curia, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz. The victims Pope Francis repeatedly accused of calumny and then invited to his house for the weekend, so he could apologise to them and promise firm action after a Vatican investigation, made papal denial of the rot in Chilean Church leadership culture impossible.
The victims accused Cardinal Errázuriz of being an architect of the cover-up. The cardinal denies the claims, and the attention and criticism Cardinal Errázuriz he faced after the investigation were not enough to move the pope to dismiss him from his hand-picked kitchen cabinet advisers.
Other members of the C9 are also in hot water. Cardinal George Pell is on extended leave while he fights abuse charges back home in Australia. The moderator of the C9, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, has faced criticism after an auxiliary was forced to resign earlier this year in connection with accusations of moral turpitude not dissimilar in some respects to those levelled against the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore McCarrick.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston has been placed under pressure over his handling of another letter, this one by the hand of a respected seminary professor, Fr Boniface Ramsey OP, written in 2015 regarding the then Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged proclivities. Cardinal O’Malley in essence said that the letter detailing McCarrick’s sleeping habits (he allegedly liked to share his bed with seminarians) was not the sort of thing with which his office dealt, and so his secretary sent it to the file without passing it to O’Malley.
That’s four of nine connected, in various ways, to major scandals.
Meanwhile, the third quarter of this year is rapidly approaching its end, and things have not improved for Francis, who, whatever the external pressures on him, seems to be plunging headlong into one crisis after another.
The recent trip to Ireland was overshadowed by the McCarrick scandal and the report of the Grand Jury in the US state of Pennsylvania, even without the 11-page “testimony” of the former papal nuncio to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, alleging that Pope Francis sat on information regarding McCarrick for years, and only acted when the Archdiocese of New York returned a preliminary finding that an accusation that McCarrick sexually assaulted a minor was “credible and substantiated”.
Meanwhile, there are suggestions the C9 will be getting fresh blood when it hits the five-year mark later this month. Still, the question of curial reform is very much in limbo. While we wait to see what Pope Francis’s next moves will be in that direction, the Roman Curia we do have is restive.
The curial staff are experienced professionals dedicated to the overarching mission, which is the Pope’s task of teaching, sanctifying and governing the worldwide body of Christians and spreading the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. They certainly aren’t in it for the money.
Even without the scandals, five years is a long time to hang on tenterhooks. The curial rank and file – that is, the lower and mid-level officials who do the work – appear increasingly stressed and strained.
The Pope’s hand-picked head of the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life – which spearheaded the organisation of the event that was the occasion of the Pope’s visit to Ireland, the World Meeting of Families – is wrapped up in the McCarrick debacle. The Dicastery for Communication continues its struggle to find its feet under new, lay leadership, after Pope Francis’s hand-picked first prefect, Mgr Dario Eduardo Viganò (no relation), resigned his post in the wake of a scandal over his handling of a letter from Benedict XVI.
The “new” departments – essentially conglomerations of old departments folded into one another under confusing command structures – continue to work without either a real place in the lame-duck system or a sure understanding of how they will fit into whatever comes. The “old” departments – especially the councils and commissions and even a few of the academies – wait to discover whether they will have missions at all.
Sooner or later, something will have to give.