News Analysis

Vatican: Cleaning the Sphinx

Meeting of minds? Pope Francis and the C9 (CNS)

The travails of the C9

Pope Francis’s “kitchen cabinet” of nine ranking prelates met again last week. It is tough to say what, precisely, was the news in the briefing that followed the 24th round of the “C9” cardinal advisers’ reunion ­– if, indeed, there was any at all.

Greg Burke, the chief spokesman for the Vatican, briefed journalists in the press office of the Holy See, telling them that the C9 was at work on a draft of a new apostolic constitution for the Roman Curia, and was going over it with a view to its presentation to the Holy Father. We already knew that. He also said the actual drafting process will require “a little [more] time yet” ­– which is about as surprising as a story about a dog-bitten postman.

Five years is a long time to spend on the drafting of any document, especially one that is little more than a glorified organisational chart. To put it in perspective: the committee that drafted the existing law, Pastor Bonus, was done with its work in two years. It is also true that there was broad consultation on what eventually went into Pastor Bonus over several years before and after the drafting, which took place between 1983 and 1985.

One reason the drafting is taking so long is that the consultation is taking place as the C9 – the drafting committee – goes about its work. If this was meant to streamline the process, it may come in under time with respect to earlier iterations of reform, but its success in that regard nevertheless has not been spectacular.

Another reason is that Pope Francis has high expectations of the C9 and its work, which is only part ­– and not the first part – of his vision for reform. In his remarks to the Roman Curia at Christmas 2016, Pope Francis placed the whole reform in the key of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. “Here,” said Pope Francis, “I spontaneously think of the ancient adage that describes the process of the Spiritual Exercises in the Ignatian method: deformata reformare, reformata conformare, conformata confirmare et confirmata transformare.” To reform that which is deformed; to conform that which is reformed; to confirm that which is conformed; to transform that which is confirmed. That is a tall order.

In 2014, he famously gave his list of 15 ills that plague the Curia – really, the officials of the Curia – and the year after proposed a series of “curial antibiotics” with which to treat the diseased members.

All this suggests two things: first, that Pope Francis is less concerned with the reform of the bureaucracy than he is with the reform of the bureaucrats; second, that he does not really conceive of the Roman Curia as a bureaucracy.

In its essence, the Roman Curia is for this Pope an organ or an organ system in the body of the Church, rather than a mechanical system of governance and administration. As for the project of reform and the pains required to advance it, the Pope has quoted with appreciation the maxim of Archbishop Frédéric-François-Xavier de Mérode, who is quoted as having said: “Making reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx with a toothbrush.” One can imagine the difficulty the C9 members have in parsing the instructions and gauging the real desires of a principal who thinks in metaphors and whose speech has a tendency towards Sphinx-like riddles.

There is another factor, which stands elephantine in the centre of all this: the C9 cannot continue to be a credible organ indefinitely, when its membership are in the kind, and degree, of hot water they are in at present.

Over the course of the past year, one member, Cardinal George Pell, has taken leave of absence to fight sex abuse charges at home. Another, Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz, faces serious criticism and intense scrutiny of his role in the Barros Affair and the broader crisis in his native Chile – though he has strongly denied any wrongdoing. A third, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, also played a role in the Chilean crisis as the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and had a role in the episode that led to the exposure of the situation.

Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga has had to publicly deny accusations of financial mismanagement. He has not commented on abuse allegations against an auxiliary bishop in his diocese. Meanwhile, Cardinal Reinhard Marx is in the midst of a very public and ugly spat with a brother cardinal and several other bishops in Germany over whether the bishops can admit non-Catholics to Holy Communion – a row that spilled out of the German bishops’ conference and into the press and is currently awaiting papal mediation.

Whether the C9 can bring the work of drafting to completion is an open question. Whether they will have the confidence of the curial rank and file (among whom morale is very low) is anything but certain. How the implementation of a reform thus conceived and executed will be received by the Church more broadly considered, is anyone’s guess.