The Pope’s Curial, Synodal and Cardinalate Appointments: A Three-Year Assessment

Part II: Reform of the Vatican’s operations has been a central priority of the Holy Father’s papacy, but concerns have arisen over some of his picks.

Pope Francis gives his 2016 urbi et orbi Easter address to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square on March 27.
Pope Francis gives his 2016 urbi et orbi Easter address to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square on March 27. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — As well as episcopal appointments, other useful indicators of this pontificate’s direction are Pope Francis’ choices of cardinals, his appointments to the Roman Curia and those he chose to participate at the recent synod on the family.

So far, after two consistories, the Holy Father has purposely chosen not to award so many red hats to traditional cardinalatial sees, especially in Italy.

The Patriarchate of Venice, for instance, for centuries headed by a cardinal, remains unrepresented in the College of Cardinals: Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, who is well known for his orthodoxy, was appointed by Benedict XVI in 2012. Turin is another episcopal see unusually without a cardinal: Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia has led the archdiocese since 2010, the first non-cardinal to do so since the end of the 19th century.

Instead, the Holy Father has gone to the global peripheries for new cardinals, usually choosing bishops from developing countries — a move Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has described as reflecting the “universality” of the Church.

Last year, for example, for the first time in the Church’s history, the Pope gave a red hat to the bishop of Santiago in the Cape Verde, an archipelago off the coast of northwest Africa.

He also made the unprecedented decision to elevate to cardinal the bishop of Tonga.

The Pacific island, whose leaders are concerned about the effects of climate change, has a population of 106,000, most of whom are Protestant. Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, 53, said the Pope was “probably trying to make the point that the Church is composed of all four corners of the globe and not just one,” to make people understand “the existence of the ‘small ones’ and show that the ‘small ones’ can make a contribution.”

Despite being a widely welcomed innovation that focuses on parts of the world where the Church is growing fastest, not all are happy with the move. One senior Church official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Register that emphasis on the peripheries may sound worthy, but it omits the fact that being a member of the College of Cardinals involves “some very weighty responsibilities, in terms of advising the Pope, electing a Roman pontiff.” For this reason, he believes, “a certain respect for the very large sees is logical.”

In any case, the Church official said, the bishop of a large diocese is already “involved in a big way in the peripheries of his own diocese.” Others believe new cardinals from the peripheries will also be taken less seriously and have comparably less influence than those from the traditionally-cardinalatial metropolitan sees.


Curial Appointments

Within the Roman Curia, the Pope has been lauded for a number of appointments. These include making the accomplished diplomat Cardinal Pietro Parolin secretary of state and choosing Archbishop Paul Gallagher, a respected Holy See diplomat with experience in Burundi and Australia, as his secretary for relations with states. Many of Francis’ most prominent successes have been in diplomacy, helped in no small part by the quality of papal diplomats he has chosen.

But he has also courted controversy, most notably in his decision in 2014 to remove Cardinal Raymond Burke, first from membership of the Congregation for Bishops (where other members were opposed to the cardinal’s insistence that orthodox bishops be appointed) and then as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura. The latter action reportedly was largely due to the U.S. cardinal’s opposition to streamlining the annulment process. 

Prior to Cardinal Burke’s removal, the Pope had already dismissed Cardinal Mauro Piacenza as prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, as well as the congregation’s secretary (deputy), Archbishop Celso Morga Iruzubieta, a well-respected prelate who had served 27 years in the Roman Curia. Cardinal Piacenza was appointed prefect of the Apostolic Penitentiary; Archbishop Morga became coadjutor archbishop of Mérida-Badajoz, Spain.

Sources say both of their departures were to avoid the congregation hindering bishops from acting in accordance with Francis’ vision. That vision, say Francis’ closest advisers, such as Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, is for changes that “have a deep impact,” something that can only be achieved if implemented gradually. “You have to realize that he is aiming at reform that is irreversible,” Archbishop Fernandez said in an interview with Corriere della Sera last year.

Perhaps partly for this reason, the Pope also includes among his choices of Vatican officials those closely associated with doctrinal orthodoxy: He selected Australian Cardinal George Pell to serve as one of the leaders of his Vatican reforms, as the head of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy. Similarly, African Cardinal Robert Sarah was named as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Equally significant, the Holy Father has retained Cardinal Müller, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 to serve as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the key Vatican office that Benedict himself headed for more than 20 years during the papacy of St. John Paul II. Keeping Cardinal Müller in the role wasn’t perhaps surprising, as he had only been in the position barely a year, but the Pope nevertheless swiftly gave him a red hat, at Francis’ first cardinal-making consistory in February 2014.


Lower Level and Synodal Appointments

But in the lower ranks, where much of the legwork is carried out and where, according to some, much of the real influence lies, the Congregations for Divine Worship and Clergy have seen significant changes. A dozen officials have been replaced in the former and 10 in the latter. It’s not unusual for popes to put their favored officials in Curial positions, but Vatican sources stress that the majority removed were known for their orthodoxy and sound doctrine.

Many of the replacements are not experts in theology or canon law, but in such disciplines as sociology or psychology. One official told the Register this is aimed at making the Curia more “human,” but the newcomers’ way of looking at the life of faith “is more natural rather than supernatural.”

A further criticism has been the decision to keep certain questionable officials in place, such as Msgr. Battista Ricca, whom Francis appointed as prelate of the Vatican Bank in 2013 and who continues to run the Domus Santa Martha guesthouse where the Pope lives. Msgr. Ricca is alleged to have had a series of homosexual affairs during his career as a Vatican diplomat.

At the recent synod, too, the Pope’s personal choices of 45 participants caused concern, most notably the inclusion of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Brussels, who is accused of covering up an abuse case and who last year admitted to being part of a secretive group opposed to Benedict XVI.

Critics charged the Pope with allowing the synod to be heavily weighted to elicit an outcome not endorsed by proponents of upholding Church teachings in areas of controversy, such as reception of Communion by civilly divorced and remarried Catholics. But he also appointed Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, a synod father who publicly expressed concerns about the synodal process during its first meeting in 2014, as one of the co-presidents of the 2015 synod, in a bid to make the leadership more representative and to give the African Church more of a voice.


What the Church Needs Most

For the duration of this pontificate, Francis’ future appointments — episcopal, Curial and cardinalatial — will continue to stir discussion, given what they represent in terms of direction and priorities.

They are “bound to reflect his vision of what the Church needs to be and do at this moment in her history,” said Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington. “Those who like the direction his pontificate has taken naturally look forward to those appointments. Those who believe he’s confused matters and may be inviting heterodox developments feel some nervousness at the prospects.”

Royal noted that, in the United States, for example, the appointment of Archbishop Blase Cupich to Chicago and his subsequent actions “have drawn no little attention” from both camps. “And yet there have also been appointments such as Father Robert Barron as auxiliary in Los Angeles that suggest the Pope’s influence on the Curia and episcopacy may be more complex and varied than some hope or others fear,” he said.

Professor John Rist, who holds the chair in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, believes a bishop “should be orthodox,” as the Church, especially in the West, is in need of doctrine and theological substance. Any ordinary should have “a serious knowledge of theology and Church history and be willing to speak out with what the ancients used to call the ‘parrhesia’ [candid speech] of a Christian man, even before God, and unwilling to pander to populist anti-intellectualism,” he said. Pope Benedict XVI, he added, often said “‘We should think within the Tradition,’ but how can this be done if people — especially bishops — do not know what the Tradition is?”

What the Church needs most are “holy bishops, bishops of prayer and fidelity to the teaching of Christ,” said Cardinal Sarah. They should not be “compromising the Gospel,” but “teaching what Christ said in the Gospel, what the Church has taught from the beginning.”

Bishops, he told the Register, “must teach, not only by talking, but through their lives,” and not be “good at social work,” but live close to Jesus, “like Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II.”

The world, Cardinal Sarah stressed, “needs God right now.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

Part I of this article can be read here.