Can Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals Still Deliver on Reform?
VATICAN CITY — By most accounts, Pope Francis was elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia, the complex network of dicasteries, commissions and councils charged with the central administrative work of the Catholic Church — a network that, even to insiders and experts, more often resembles a rabbit warren than a well-defined system of governable offices with clear responsibilities.
From the beginning, there were high expectations for Francis and widespread belief that he could succeed in reforming the Curia. His informality and disdain for protocol — his ability to think “outside the box” — led many to believe that, under his leadership, the Curial wilds could be tamed.
One month after his election, he made his first major reform announcement: the creation of the “council of cardinals,” tasked with helping him review and reform the entire governing structure of both the Roman Curia and the universal Church.
Cardinals Maradiaga, Bertello, Errázuriz, Gracias, Marx, Monsengo Pasinya, O’Malley and Pell were informally dubbed the “C8,” later the “C9” (Cardinal Parolin was added to the council when he became secretary of state). Many saw them, and the enormous task they were assigned, as the embodiment of the kind of global perspective the Church needed for Curial reform.
Five years on, Curial dysfunction has been compounded by international crises, and several members of the C9 are themselves mired in controversy. Rather than bringing an end to scandals in the Curia, Rome’s ongoing problems seem, to some observers, to have gone global.
Embroiled in sex-abuse scandals, shady financial dealings, Curial powerplays and even full-blown doctrinal disputes, rather than becoming the engine of reform, the C9 has, to some, begun to look like a microcosm of everything going wrong in the Church. Critics have begun to ask if the council of cardinals, and the whole of Pope Francis’ reforming agenda, still has the credibility to effect any meaningful change.
For example, clerical sexual abuse has re-emerged as a major crisis in the Church, and three of the C9 are connected directly to issues surrounding sex-abuse allegations.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa and a close confidant of the Pope, is the C9’s official coordinator. For months, he has been dogged by allegations concerning his personal finances. At the same time, his auxiliary bishop and his frequent proxy in the governance of his archdiocese, Juan Pineda, was forced recently to resign, after allegations were made public that he sexually approached seminarians and maintained a string of male lovers. And allegations were also made that those behaviors were widely known in the diocese and by the cardinal.
In response to that scandal, several seminarians from Tegucigalpa wrote an open letter to the bishops of Honduras, detailing a culture of open and active homosexuality in the seminary, with reprisals taken against those who spoke out. Cardinal Maradiaga reportedly denounced the letter’s authors and their motivations for writing it (see related Register story).
Cardinal George Pell, another member of the C9, has had to return to Australia to defend himself against “historic” allegations of sexual abuse. While the trial is ongoing, the cardinal is vigorously defending himself in court against the charges, and questions have been asked about the methods of Victoria police during their investigation.
Furthermore, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, a C9 cardinal who was known to be a close friend of the Pope before his election, has emerged as a central figure in the disastrous Chilean abuse scandal.
Though he retired as archbishop of Santiago in 2010, Errázuriz is alleged to have participated in cover-ups of clerical sexual abuse in Chile over a period of years, including the abuse of the notorious Fernando Karadima. It has also been reported that he tried to prevent Juan Carlos Cruz, the most visible and vocal of the Chilean abuse victims, from being appointed as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Young People.
While five Chilean bishops have had their resignations accepted by Francis, and although Archbishop Theodore McCarrick made history recently by resigning from the College of Cardinals in the wake of his own scandal, Errázuriz remains both a cardinal and a member of the C9.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, whose public intervention was credited with the Pope’s change of heart toward Juan Carlos Cruz and the other Chilean victims, is widely considered to be the Church’s most credible voice in speaking out against sexual abuse. Yet the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he leads, has seen the resignation of two high-profile members, both survivors of sexual abuse. One of them, Marie Collins, has spoken often about her frustration that the commission’s recommendations have not been adopted in the Curia or by national bishops’ conferences (see story here).
And Cardinal O’Malley has faced criticism over reports that in 2015 his office received a letter from a priest detailing allegations against McCarrick, but issued only a staff member’s response, saying that the allegation was not the cardinal’s responsibility to address.
If the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a member of the C9, cannot advance binding reforms in the Curia, or even instill a culture of moral responsibility in his own staff, some working in the Vatican tell CNA they are left wondering whether meaningful change can be expected to get beyond rhetoric.
Meanwhile, the structural reform of the Curia rumbles on, with Vatican departments being newly created, combined and renamed.
Initially, the most important of these new developments was the creation of the Prefecture for the Economy, led by Cardinal Pell. But even before Pell had to return to Australia, it became clear that bringing transparency and accountability to the Vatican finances was going to be an uphill slog.
In 2016, the Secretariat of State canceled an external audit of Curial finances that had been arranged by Cardinal Pell’s department. The cancellation was ordered by then-archbishop, now-Cardinal Angelo Becciu. It was widely seen as an old-fashioned powerplay; neither Becciu nor anyone else at the Secretariat of State technically had the authority to overrule Pell and the Prefecture for the Economy. That Francis was persuaded to back the move, granting it legal authority after the fact, was seen as a serious blow to financial reform in the Curia.
In June 2017, Pell’s departure for Australia coincided with the dismissal of the first Vatican auditor-general, Libero Milone. Milone was fired in dramatic fashion by the Secretariat of State, once again through Becciu, while being accused of “spying” on the finances of senior officials and facing the threat of prosecution.
Milone maintained that he was fired for being too good at his job and because he and the reforming work of the Prefecture for the Economy were a direct threat to the Curial old guard. In May of this year, the Vatican quietly announced it had dropped all charges against Milone, but the financial reforms he and Pell were working toward appear to have been effectively dropped, as well.
Despite expectations that the C9 would deliver a comprehensive reform of the Roman Curia, the results have been decidedly haphazard. New “super-dicasteries,” like the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, were announced with much fanfare, but, thus far, without clear mandates of responsibility and processes for oversight, changes to the names of departments appear to be about as tangible as the reforms have gotten.
Meanwhile, as other departments like the Prefecture for the Economy have had their wings very publicly clipped, the Secretariat of State has seen its influence grow under Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to the point where virtually all Vatican business, either formally or informally, comes under its purview.
Ironically, some in Rome claim that Cardinal Parolin’s greatest coup was arranging for his personal rival and nominal deputy, Becciu, to be made a cardinal and moved to the far less influential Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Cardinal Parolin has also been known to take a personal interest in high-profile disciplinary cases handled at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “checking in” with the CDF to monitor its progress — something unthinkable in previous decades. Outside of Rome, bishops in far corners of the world have been awakened by phone calls from the cardinal weighing in on local issues of Church governance that may have caught his attention.
A capable diplomat and politician, Cardinal Parolin has managed to thrive in a Vatican where foundering structural reforms have disrupted traditional spheres of influence and centers of power, and the day-to-day authority he has centralized in his own department is considerable.
If the reformed Curia under Pope Francis has become, perhaps accidentally, ever more administratively centralized, doctrinally the pull is in the other direction.
On a whole range of issues, most notably the pastoral implementation of Pope Francis’ 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia, bishops’ conferences have begun articulating very different approaches to what were, until recently, universal points of teaching and discipline.
Many of the more radical approaches have begun, or at least been strongly championed, in Germany, where the national bishops’ conference is led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx. As de facto head of the German Church, Marx has been closely associated with some highly controversial pastoral policies, most notably the recent proposal to allow Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Communion.
The way in which the German bishops have effectively refused to take No from Rome as an answer is seen to demonstrate how weak the CDF has become and how little Parolin’s pre-eminent state department can do, for all of its administrative clout, on matters of discipline.
Some have noted that Marx and the German Church can act with a level of autonomy, even impunity, because of their vast financial resources. It is certainly not coincidental that Cardinal Marx also serves as the coordinator for the Vatican’s Council for the Economy.
The Church tax, by which the German government awards the local Church a proportion of the income tax of every citizen who registers as Catholic, has kept German dioceses fabulously wealthy, even as actual church buildings empty at a staggering rate.
The German bishops send millions of euros abroad each year, and with the Church in some parts of the world, and even parts of the Vatican, depending on Teutonic largesse, Cardinal Marx can publicly muse about theological issues in a way that progressive bishops elsewhere would not dream of doing.
The result of the peculiar Parolin-Marx dynamic is that, under Francis, the Church has inched toward a federalized approach to teaching and discipline, even as administrative power in the Curia becomes more centralized.
It is possible that this situation will be reversed, or at least placed into some more coherent context, if and when the C9 produces a final version of a new governing constitution for the Vatican’s departments. A first draft was apparently presented to the Pope in June of this year, but there is no clear indication of when a final document might be made public, let alone brought into force.
In the meantime, Curial politicking and scandal continues to rumble on, and the global sex-abuse crisis shows no signs of meaningful resolution.
Five years ago, the C9 was created to reassure the world that the best leaders from the global Church were hard at work to deliver on the Franciscan promise of reform. Today, with several of its members directly implicated in personal scandals and others publicly maneuvering for their own agendas, the “council of cardinals” seems every bit as tainted as the structures it was tasked to reform.
Famously reliant on people he knows and trusts to work his will, Pope Francis may be fast running out of credible collaborators, and that is likely to create a whole new problem for the universal Church.
Ed Condon is the Washington, D.C., editor for Catholic News Agency.