Is Archbishop Scicluna Headed for a Leadership Role at the CDF?

The Maltese prelate has served as adjunct secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2018.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta greets Pope Francis.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta greets Pope Francis. (photo: Archdiocese of Malta)

VATICAN CITY — A Maltese prelate who has played a leading role in tackling the clergy sexual-abuse crisis in the Church over the past two decades is being tipped as a possible successor to Cardinal Luis Ladaria as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a canonist who has investigated and prosecuted the crime of clergy sexual abuse in the universal Church, has been concurrently serving as both archbishop of Malta and adjunct secretary at the CDF since 2018. 

Cardinal Ladaria, 77, of Spain, is expected to retire soon, possibly in July, leaving Archbishop Scicluna as his likely successor in running the oldest and arguably most prestigious and important of all the Vatican congregations, responsible for safeguarding and promoting faith and morals throughout the Catholic Church. 

The CDF’s work also includes a disciplinary section responsible for investigating cases of “grave delicts,” the most serious crimes in the Church, such as those against the Eucharist and the sanctity of the sacrament of penance — and, since 2001, the sexual abuse of minors. 

The dicastery also has a third section, which has dealt with marriage cases, but a papal decree, Fidem Servare (Preserving the Faith), signed on Feb. 11, will transfer that office to the doctrinal section. The decree aims to give doctrine greater prominence in the dicastery after disciplinary matters had taken precedence due to abuse cases in recent years.

Born in Toronto on May 15, 1959, Charles Jude Scicluna’s parents soon afterwards emigrated to Malta, where he was educated at Catholic schools before studying law at the University of Malta, graduating as a doctor of laws in 1984. 

After attending seminary on the Mediterranean island, he was ordained a priest in 1986. He then studied canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, obtaining a doctorate with a specialization in jurisprudence in 1991. 

He returned to Malta to work as defender of the bond at the Malta Metropolitan Tribunal, lectured in pastoral theology and canon law at the University of Malta, and served as a parish priest. After a short stint as vice rector of Malta’s major seminary from 1994 to 1995, he was then called back to Rome to work at the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court, as substitute promoter of justice. 

During that time he also served as postulator for the cause of beatification and canonization of Dun Ġorġ Preca (1880-1962), founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine, whom Pope John Paul II dubbed “Malta’s second father in faith” and whom Benedict XVI canonized in 2007. 

 

Clergy-Abuse Investigator

From 2002 until 2012, then-Msgr. Scicluna served under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and later Cardinal William Levada as the Vatican’s promoter of justice, or chief prosecutor, at a time when clergy sexual-abuse cases were causing shockwaves across the world, especially in the United States. 

His investigations during that time most famously included the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. His findings led to Benedict removing Father Maciel from active ministry in 2006. 

In his role as promoter of justice, Archbishop Scicluna was also credited with constructing in 2010 universal norms that extended the Church’s statutes of limitations on reporting cases of sexual abuse and broadened the category of ecclesial crimes to include sexual misconduct with a disabled adult and possession of child pornography. 

As the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, then-Msgr. Scicluna was forthright in condemning the abuse that his investigations had helped to uncover. Addressing priests at a prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica in 2010, he decried the many sins in the Church, such as arrogance, insatiable ambition, and “the tyranny and injustice of those who take advantage of ministry to advance their careers, to show off, for reasons of futile and miserable reasons of vanity.” 

He cited Jesus’ warning against corruption of the young, that those who cause “one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

In 2012, Msgr. Scicluna criticized the tendency to cover up abuse cases in the Church, describing it as a “deadly culture of silence,” a form of omertà (code of silence used by the mafia to protect themselves from prosecution) and called for a greater commitment to accountability.

His reputation assured as a Vatican prosecutor, Pope Francis entrusted Archbishop Scicluna with an investigation into a sexual-abuse scandal in Chile in 2018, sending him to the country to look into allegations — which the Holy Father had initially denied — that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros had witnessed and ignored cases of abuse. 

The Maltese prelate’s investigation led to a 2,300-page dossier of testimonies revealing widespread abuse in the country and Francis apologizing for “grave errors” that he said he had made due to a lack of “truthful and balanced information.” 

 

Return to Malta

The archbishop’s tenure as promoter of justice ended in 2012, when Benedict XVI appointed him auxiliary archbishop of Malta, a position he held until 2015, when Francis appointed him archbishop of the same diocese. 

Some sources speaking to the Register on background question whether a canonist is an appropriate fit to head a dicastery whose primary expertise is theological. But friends and associates in Malta believe he would be an able prefect and describe him as a compelling and compassionate preacher and a bridge-builder with a good sense of humor who takes criticism in his stride and is attentive to people’s needs. 

“Archbishop Scicluna is a man of deep spirituality, integrity, vision and an excellent listener, not just of persons, but of the word of God and the signs of the times,” said Nadia Delicata, a professor of moral theology at the University of Malta.

During his time as archbishop of Malta, he faced a number of crises, including declining Church attendance and vocations, as well as the assassination in 2017 of Daphne Caruana Galizia — an investigative journalist whose murder shone a light on government corruption in Malta, plunging it into the greatest political crisis it has ever faced. 

“Undoubtedly, these crises tested Archbishop Scicluna’s mettle,” André DeBattista, a Maltese political scientist and author, told the Register. “At the height of the political crisis, Scicluna was one of the few — if not the only — national leaders who had the moral authority to speak truth to power.” 

He did so, DeBattista said, “by calling out corruption, bad governance and rot in the highest echelons of power.” The archbishop’s contribution, although not universally well received, “reinforced the role of the Church in Malta as a relevant voice, which has much to contribute to the national discussion,” DeBattista added. 

During the COVID-19 health crisis, the archbishop made regular television appearances that brought him closer to the people, observed Father Joseph Borg, a lecturer in media and communications at the University of Malta. “Archbishop Scicluna’s best asset is his gift of communication,” he said, adding that “his words are simple but never simplistic” and that he can “articulate the most complex and obscure articles of faith in a clear and very down-to-earth manner.” 

 

Doctrinal Controversies

But the Maltese prelate has faced criticism on a number of issues, most significantly on doctrinal positions. In 2017, he and Malta’s second bishop, then-Bishop (now Cardinal) Mario Grech of Gozo, published guidelines on interpreting Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). The document caused an international outcry among some theologians, canonists and others, who argued that it contradicted previous papal teaching, as well as breached canon law and the Catechism. 

A key contested passage was their interpretation that Amoris Laetitia allowed some remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion after a period of discernment, with an informed and enlightened conscience, and if they are “at peace with God.”

Archbishop Scicluna defended the guidelines, saying they “adhered to Amoris Laetitia” and also “followed the interpretation that the Pope approved.” But many local clergy were unconvinced and complained of a heavy-handed crackdown on anyone unwilling to subscribe to his and Bishop Grech’s interpretation of Amoris Laetitia (Archbishop Scicluna confirmed to the Register that he had told seminarians if they did not agree with Pope Francis, they were free to leave).

In 2019, the controversy was still continuing. Pro Malta Christiana (PMC), a lay Catholic association, produced a 66-page booklet denouncing what it identified as “the clearly heretical interpretation of the apostolic exhortation.” Philip Beattie, the association’s president, told the Register Jan. 21 that neither Archbishop Scicluna nor Bishop Grech “were able to refute one word or comma of our booklet on doctrinal grounds.” 

Father Hector Scerri, associate professor of theology at the University of Malta, insisted to the Register that Archbishop Scicluna has “defended the Church's teaching on Christian marriage, our care for the environment, human dignity, the safeguarding of life from conception to its natural end, and a host of other moral and ethical issues which have cropped up in Malta in the last 10 years.”

He said his position on Amoris Laetitia “shows that he is in perfect unison with Pope Francis” and that the guidelines “focus on the important mission of the Church in accompanying individuals in whatever situation they find themselves in.” 

Archbishop Scicluna has also come under fire for closing churches for two Holy Weeks, in 2020 and 2021, during the COVID-19 crisis. The move was again strongly criticized by Pro Malta Christiana, which took out a full-page advertisement in the Malta Independent on Sunday in June 2020 in which the association argued why it considered the move unjust, harmful to souls, and in breach of the “supposedly complete separation between Church and State.” 

At the same time, the association made a filial plea to Malta's bishops to publicly consecrate the Maltese islands to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, but the archbishop “kept silent on this matter and did not issue any reply to PMC's request,” said Beattie.


Homosexuality

Another recurring controversy has been Archbishop Scicluna’s approach to homosexuality. During the Vatican Abuse Summit in 2019, Archbishop Scicluna, one of the summit’s main organizers, said heterosexuality and homosexuality “are human conditions that we recognize, that exist. But they aren’t something that really predisposes to sin.” He also said that a homosexual subculture in seminaries was not connected to the sexual abuse of minors. 

On Jan. 6, he issued a formal warning against a Maltese priest for what he called “inflammatory and hurtful comments” against homosexuality on Facebook. Father David Muscat has pleaded not guilty to charges of hate speech. Two years earlier, Archbishop Scicluna had allowed another Maltese priest to speak approvingly of homosexuality on television and never publicly denounced the priest’s comments, despite pleas from Maltese faithful. 

The archbishop spoke publicly against “conversion therapy” in 2015 and 2016; and, in 2014, he gave “formal permission” for Drachma, a group campaigning for acceptance of same-sex “marriage” in the Church, to hold meetings. Last month, he again met the group, which praised him for a “positive and flowing conversation.” Archbishop Scicluna also reportedly once gave a special blessing to a former priest who is “married” to another man; and, in 2019, he inadvertently approved a tweet endorsing New York’s “gay pride” parade. 

Father Scerri said Achbishop Scicluna’s approach “vis-à-vis homosexual persons is focused on accompanying them,” adding that, in a recent homily, he “repeatedly emphasised that gays are part of our family, and they deserve all our respect.” Father Scerri said the archbishop had “even apologized for all those instances when the Church or its members have, in any way, hurt these brothers and sisters by insensitive statements.”


Widespread Appreciation 

Despite the concerns, there is widespread appreciation for the archbishop for his record on dealing with the abuse of minors. 

“Quite naturally, his ministry fighting sex abuse is internationally known and acclaimed,” said Father Borg, who added that the Church in Malta “already had clear and effective guidelines, but Scicluna strengthened the structures safeguarding the vulnerable, most of all children.”

“His appointment to the Vatican would be a loss,” he said, “but we all knew that it would happen, sooner or later.”

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