I am told that last week’s consistory was the occasion for sumptuous celebrations in more than one Roman ecclesiastical institution. A priest remarked to me that Pope Francis, who had asked his cardinals elect to eschew extravagant celebrations, was perhaps like Our Lord Himself: much quoted but destined to be very imperfectly followed in practice.
Paradox, in fact, has been one of the salient points of the pontificate so far. Francis flees ostentation and yet is arguably more in the public eye than the charismatic John Paul II, and certainly put on a pedestal more than Benedict XVI. In choosing him, the conclave was above all determined to bring about a radical reform of a Roman Curia which was widely seen as an inefficient and bloated bureaucracy. And yet, a year after his election, while radical changes in tone and style have been remarked in almost every aspect of his ministry, the area of curial reform has perhaps been the one in which the pace of change has been slowest and the implementation of change most cautious.
Last April, the Vatican announced the creation of a council of eight “Super-Cardinals” to advise the Pope on the reform of the Curia, and on the governance of the Church in general. The council met for the first time in October, and again last month, but so far few concrete changes have emerged. One problem is that the redrafting of John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus of 1988, the effective “constitution” of the Curia, would require a massive collaboration of expert canon lawyers needing years to be carried through. Pope Francis, for now at least, seems to prefer piecemeal change.
In terms of personnel, there has been no momentous ringing of the changes. True, a few prominent Ratzingerians have been demoted. The new secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is a curial insider, highly regarded for his skills in administration and diplomacy. While he emerged from the school favouring realpolitik over anything that might be construed as the aggressive promotion of the Church’s own political agenda, he is no revolutionary. In fact, many see him as a guarantor of institutional stability in a papacy whose keynote seems to be unpredictability. Probably the other most significant appointment so far is that of the Australian Cardinal George Pell to oversee a consolidation and reform of the Vatican’s financial organisation. Cardinal Pell, usually seen as a theological conservative, is charged with the direction of a new dicastery, the secretariat for the economy, which will oversee the functioning of the disparate entities currently responsible for the finances of the Holy See. The drive for greater transparency and accountability is thus being managed by a figure who represents continuity with the previous pontificate.
It is, then, perhaps another irony that one of the first substantial changes involves the creation of an entire new department, whereas many were expecting a slimming down of the Curia. The same irony seems to be present in the persistent rumours that another new congregation is to be created, dedicated to the promotion of the role of the laity. It is true that there are congregations for bishops and for the clergy, whereas the laity represents by far the largest section of the Church. The idea of grouping the various pontifical councils for the laity, for migrants, for the family and for justice and peace under the aegis of a single congregation does seem like a rationalisation. However, consider that there is also talk of creating a new congregation for culture and the new evangelisation, to include the present councils for culture, new evangelisation and social communications. Then there is the creation of a commission for the protection of minors, already underway. However vital these priorities are, one is left wondering how the impression of profusion can give way to one of retrenchment.
There is certainly a retrenchment underway, however, in the existing departments. A freeze on recruitment has been announced, some officials have already left Rome to re-join their dioceses of origin, and an overtime ban apparently enforced. Economy and efficiency are the new watchwords. In fact, it is persistently rumoured that the secretary of state is soon to lose its function of coordinator of the entire curial machine, and of spearheading reform, with the creation of a role of moderator of the Curia at the head of his own secretariat. There are strong rumours that the first incumbent will be Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, presently responsible for the governance of the Vatican City State. Cardinal Parolin’s department would thus lose its pole position in the Curia and become a department like any other, with its competence reduced to that of running the Holy See’s diplomatic service.
What would be the overall effect of such a change? Doubtless to make the Pope a freer agent. The impression many outsiders have
of the Church is as an extremely monolithic organisation with absolute power vested in the Pope. In fact, the Curia has historically displayed tendencies to exert a counterbalancing power with which successive popes have often had to struggle and compromise. The present Holy Father seems quite ready to override resistance in matters close to his heart. In the matter of choosing bishops for his native Argentina, for example, he has apparently disregarded the usual procedures and chosen his own preferred candidates directly. There are those who suggest that his preferred strategy is, in fact, to surround himself with a few trusted men and, rather than wait to reform the existing structures, render them irrelevant.
So, in the end we return to the theme of paradox. The Pope who talks so much of collegiality, who shows such little patience with the trappings of power, is not afraid to act decisively on his own authority and to impose forcefully the agenda he believes that God has chosen him to implement. I believe that he knows precisely what he is doing, but apart from a few close collaborators, few others do as yet. The coming months may be as full of surprises as the last 12 have been.
Fr Mark Drew is a priest currently working in the Archdiocese of Liverpool
This article is one of nine featured in this week’s Catholic Herald analysing the first anniversary of Pope Francis’s election. To subscribe to click here.