There is a certain pleasure one gets when one sees the powerful cut down to size. This might explain the smiles among many in the Church when it was announced Pope Francis had removed the financial independence of the seemingly all-powerful Secretary of State, transferring it to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican’s central bank.
The move followed a scandal involving a shady deal to buy part of a former Harrods warehouse in the Chelsea neighbourhood of London and turn them into luxury apartments. The project seemed to tiptoe around the various Vatican financial laws passed over the past few years, and might end up costing the Holy See hundreds of millions of euro.
The scandal highlighted how the Secretariat of State seems to see itself above the rest of the Vatican: playing with its own money, according to its own rules, and under its own oversight.
State’s twofold role
The power of the Secretariat of State is a function of the twofold role with which the Secretary is tasked: First, the Secretary is a sort of Prime Minister for the Holy See, moderating the Vatican curia and serving as the main advisor to the pope in running the Church; second, he heads the Vatican’s foreign relations, including its diplomatic corps.
Historically, this has made the Secretary of State by far the most powerful man at the Vatican, aside from the pope himself.
Due to the dicastery’s pragmatic focus – running the day-to-day affairs of the Vatican and dealing with its relations with secular states – Stato has a reputation for pushing Realpolitik ahead of the pure Gospel. Hence, for example, it pumps the Vatican’s money into real estate speculation in hopes of a large return on investment.
Traditionally, the counterweight to State was the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – formerly known as the Holy Office, and before that as the Roman Inquisition – but Francis has side-lined the Vatican’s doctrinal office.
When Francis first took over, it seemed he wanted to clip the wings of the Vatican’s most powerful office and use the Vatican’s financial offices to hold the Secretariat in check; but when a draft of the new Vatican constitution was circulated, the Secretariat of State was more powerful than ever.
Even after the latest setback caused by the Chelsea deal, many observers wonder whether the wing-clipping Stato has endured will be anything but temporary. Will Stato wrest back its power – and money – as it has done in the past?
It seems it would take Solomon to figure out how to cut the mega-dicastery down to size, but perhaps the wisest of ancient Israel’s kings has already provided a solution: Cut the baby in half.
In fact, Paul VI juridically split the office in the 1960’s. However, this separation was more de iure than de facto. The Secretary of State had control of both offices, and the institutional separation never really took place. John Paul II ended the fiction in the 1980’s.
The main reason such a separation is difficult is that the two functions of the Secretariat of State are intertwined. To see this, just look at the functions of the Apostolic Nuncios – the diplomats of the Holy See – who are not only ambassadors to the various secular states to which they are accredited, but also the conduit between the local churches and the Vatican. Nuncios are often charged with investigating wayward prelates, to name just one way this arrangement works in practice, and they offer recommendations for new bishops.
In order to diminish the power of the Secretariat of State, the pope needs to figure out what to do with the nuncio: A changing world and changing Church mean the time might be ripe reform the role and function of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps completely.
The clerical sex abuse crisis has highlighted the problem: Nuncios have been the main conduit connecting dioceses and the Vatican when discussing abuse cases, and secular authorities have raised eyebrows. From Australia, to the United States, to Great Britain, investigators into the abuse crisis have cited uncooperative Vatican representatives. In the secular 21st century, the idea that a papal representative can deal with local criminal actions under cover of diplomatic immunity is not going to hold water, and could eventually put the Holy See international status in jeopardy.
If you couple this reality with Pope Francis’s call for a more decentralized and synodal Church, a solution readily presents itself: The local Church can fulfil all the functions of the nuncio that aren’t purely diplomatic.
This could be accomplished either through the bishops’ conference or by the country’s primate, but in either case, all routine communication between the local churches and the Vatican should be through a local office, not unlike what happens with the World Lutheran Federation and other transnational ecclesial bodies.
How would it work?
The nuncio’s role should be confined to the diplomatic activities of the Holy See.
This doesn’t mean nuncio wouldn’t play any role in the local Church, nor that he wouldn’t communicate his observations to the Vatican on issues such as potential new bishops – after all, all ambassadors do similar things – but that his boss would be a proper Vatican foreign minister, answerable directly to the pontiff.
What is now the General Affairs section of the Secretariat of State could assume a Moderator of the Curia role at the Vatican – still powerful, but not omnipotent.
The primary objection to such a move is that it would give more power to local Churches, and lessen Vatican oversight – and micromanagement – of what happens in each diocese.
For Pope Francis to achieve the synodality he has spent his pontificate promoting, he will need to let go of some of the power centred at the Vatican, and splitting the Secretary of State would be a good start.