Franklin Delano Bergoglio
The sign of a truly inferior mind is thinking by analogy. As the six-month anniversary of Pope Francis’ election approaches, Sept. 13, it strikes me that there are similarities between the situation facing FDR post-inauguration in March, 1933 (not January 20th, check out the 20th amendment), and what the Pope now faces:
Taking office after the eight-year administration of an unlamented predecessor, who is fading into history’s mists;
Chaos in the nation-city’s banking sector; and
The imperative to circumvent an arthritic bureaucracy by creating parallel structures of governance.
According to my Rome contacts it is too soon to draw conclusions about the Pope’s approach to the many doctrinal issues facing the Catholic Church, most of which fall into the category of ‘pelvic issues’, those pesky complexities stemming from the human Eros impulse.
But there are some straws in the winds, namely the New Look in the Vatican; some key personnel moves (personnel is policy); and very high stakes for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, given the Church’s global reach, and its grassroots presence in many parts of the Middle East. Perhaps time for a Vatican Spring?
The New Look in the Vatican
The Pope’s actions to date are a laudable effort to create an entirely New Look, drawing a sharp contract with His predecessor’s lavish display of luxury.
Nothing as yet on the doctrinal front, where the media don’t know whether to categorize Pope Francis as progressive, moderate or conservative. However, the New Look is much more than cosmetic:
It involves sharply increased emphasis on social justice, reaching out to the marginalized in society, and
Peace, the theme of the Pope’s very recent letter to the G-20 world leaders on the ‘futility of war’.
Concerning this New Look, one of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s more counter-intuitive comments reported from Brazil was his ‘irritation’ at the media’s contrast between the opulence of Benedict and the sober style of Francis. Dolan considered this coverage to be “hurtful” and “not accurate.” Well, then, how would His Eminence contrast custom-made Prada shoes with thick-soled black shoes; or compare a solid-gold pectoral cross centered with a large ruby to a pewter cross? Try spotting a prelate in Rome wearing a gold pectoral these days; word gets around rapidamente.
The Pope’s Predecessor
Regarding the Pope Emeritus, it is precisely seven years to the day when Benedict made his first significant post-installation entrance onto the world stage, with his September 12, 2006 address at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria where he had taught theology decades ago. The speech was advanced as a major event, but it turned into a disaster. It also contained the ingredients of what would bedevil (apt word?) his papacy:
A scholarly address touching on a hot-button topic, Islam, but crafted in private without vetting by experts;
Obscure references to an “erudite Byzantine emperor” in the late 14th century, citing an incendiary quote from the emperor about the Prophet;
Genuine surprise at the vehemence (and the violence) of the reaction;
A very lame effort at damage control, by spinning that these were not Benedict’s own words, ‘just a quotation’.
Substitute for the Pope Emeritus’ Regensburg address (a) the lifting of the excommunication on the four Lefebvrist bishops, or (b) his condoms quote, “they make the problem worse,” and you have repeat performances of Regensburg in the later years of Benedict’s reign, in a familiar cadence – one step forward, then two steps back.
The Holy See’s Banking Crisis
Concerning the looming disaster now ticking away at the Holy See’s Istituto per le Opere di Religione (‘Ior’), unless this is handled carefully it could dominate the recommendations for reform entrusted by the Pope to three separate ad hoc groups:
The “Group of Eight” cardinals announced in April, one month after his election, and scheduled to make recommendations to Francis for reform of the Curia at the beginning of October;
A “Pontifical Commission” announced in June, to review the Ior; and
Another “Pontifical Commission” announced in July, to review ‘accounting practices’ across all Vatican financial institutions (plural).
The mandate of the G-8 is quite broad, i.e. recommendations for general structural reform of the Curia Romana, while the tasks of the two commissions are narrower but more focused, with mandates to go into all aspects of finance and administration.
Concerning the third ad hoc group, it cannot be a complete coincidence that this was launched in July, a few weeks after Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, the former chief accountant of APSA (the Holy See’s financial holding entity), was arrested and tossed into Rome’s Regina Coeli jail, where he has been languishing ever since.
This is where things get interesting. As noted above, the first of the three parallel groups may be thought of as horizontal (the G-8, ranging widely across the Curia), while the two commissions are vertical – drilling deep into the specialized areas of finance and accounting (two distinct areas, but let’s not belabor this just yet).
And not to be forgotten, there is still a permanent bureaucracy, the Curia, where the Pope has reached into the ranks of the Vatican’s diplomatic system to name a new secretary of state, essentially the Holy See’s prime minister and chief operating officer. The nominee, scheduled to take over from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in mid-October, is Archbishop Pietro Parolin from the Vatican’s diplomatic service, with a lot of experience in the Secretariat of State, the Holy See’s coordinating center.
More on Archbishop Parolin in a later blogpost. From my own dealings, he is an interesting prelate who has considerable real world experience in the rough-and-tumble of high-level diplomacy in tough arenas such as Rwanda, Venezuela and China where a Roman collar is not a guarantee of anything. The Vatican’s diplomatic service can be thought of as the USSR’s KGB: the tightly controlled interface with external reality.
Just today, The Tablet, an authoritative weekly covering the English-speaking Catholic world since 1840 (!), reports something remarkable: that on the issue of priestly celibacy the Archbishop “is open to argument because it’s not a dogma but a tradition.” OMG!
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone
The imminent change of the leadership at the top of the Secretariat of State is very significant:
It comes after years of criticism directed against Cardinal Bertone, the incumbent since 2006 widely viewed within the Curia as lacking the diplomatic skills required to operate the delicate machinery of government within the Holy See, and
The cardinal’s failure to achieve the badly needed coordination among the Vatican’s 21 top agencies: the nine congregations and twelve pontifical councils, somewhat analogous to Washington’s departments and agencies
To continue the Washington analogy, the Curia suffers from the ‘stove-piping’ endemic across Washington’s intelligence community of 16 statutory entities:
The deep reluctance within the Vatican to share information ‘horizontally’, but reporting only vertically to hierarchical superiors might put one in mind of the pre-9/11 botched coordination between CIA and FBI.
Throughout his stormy seven-year tenure, Cardinal Bertone did have the advantage of one dedicated supporter, Benedict himself who is reported to have said, after yet another suggestion that Bertone be replaced,
“Der Mann bleibt wo er ist, und basta” [the guy stays where he is, enough]
However, Cardinal Bertone also had dedicated enemies (not just ‘adversaries’). It is believed that the Vatileaks scandal – the flood of sensitive documents which hit the press beginning in the spring of 2012 – was a stealthy and wide-ranging Curia revolt against the cardinal, involving several high-ranking prelates and not just the ‘butler’ and the IT specialist who were found guilty in a Vatican trial.
Forty years ago, the later phases of Washington’s Watergate scandal showed that this was much more than a third-rate burglary, as first described by the Nixon White House. Watergate led to the Oval Office. Vatileaks reaches well into the West Wing of the Vatican’s White House, the Palazzo Apostolico.
What is ahead for Papa Francesco?
In early October he is to meet with the Group of Eight cardinals. The two commissions on finance and accounting will probably be reporting in, but not through the G-8. And Archbishop Parolin, who will soon be taking over the Secretariat of State, will be an attentive onlooker since he is to execute the recommendations of the G-8, but has not had a hand in developing them.
Management theoreticians might throw up their hands at this diffusion of authority. But realists will probably note that what helped bring about Vatileaks, and then brought down the papacy of Benedict, was precisely the absolute centralization of authority in the hands of Cardinal Bertone. So checks and balances are needed, even in an absolute monarchy with a divine mandate.
The collegiality on display by the Pope does not signal a “Vatican spring” of democracy, but it does indicate clearly a willingness to open up channels of communication. Perhaps this is the most lasting contribution of the Pope Emeritus and of Cardinal Bertone, intentional or otherwise.
What are the stakes?
Those not familiar with the Holy See’s global reach might think that all of this is rather quaint, a made-for-TV drama involving grown men (entirely) who wear long cassocks and jostle for position at the court of a monarch whose ‘nation’ totals 105 acres.
There is much more here. For all of its woes and dysfunction, the Catholic Church is the second largest religious denomination in the world, with more than 1.2 billion adherents organized into some 3,000 ‘Ecclesiastical Territories” of which 10% are Eastern Rite territories in the Middle East and North Africa, a very significant geo-strategic area in the today’s quest for global sanity.
One level beneath these 3,000 territories there are about 220,000 parishes (think of them as local franchises), clusters of sacred and profane buildings. This is the spiritual and material infrastructure of Catholicism’s ability to project global influence. And it is also, perhaps, the most valuable real estate portfolio in the world today, although it does not include Fenway Park and the Boston Garden.
Closer to home there are approximately 70 million self-described Catholics in the U.S., the largest single religious denomination in America, organized into 200 dioceses (196 actually) with a total of 17,700 parishes. Interestingly, almost 20% of these parishes are open and functioning, but without a permanent pastor.
Finally, there is the Pope’s ‘Defense Department’ establishment, including priests (diocesan and religious), permanent deacons, women religious and lay religious, which amounts to more than 1.2 million men and women, about four-fifths the size of the U.S. armed forces on active duty.
And his ‘State Department’ which consists of about 170 bilateral and multilateral diplomatic missions around the world, second only to the size of the U.S. diplomatic machine with about 200 missions.
It is worth keeping in mind that Papa Francesco is one of the oldest men elected pope in the past few centuries, 77 years old at the time of his accession to the Throne of San Pietro on March 13, 2013. So he may have a keen sense of how fleeting time can be. His intense activity, criticized by some as hyper-activity, ins a sharp contract with his predecessor’s disengaged approach. Tempus fugit (the fugit is Latin, not English).
Over the past two centuries, the only cardinal older than Jorge Mario Bergoglio coming out of the conclave as pope was Joseph Ratzinger, elevated at age 78.
It is said that young cardinals elect old popes, in the expectation of short and serene tenures. But this does not always turn out to be the case
Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci was elected in 1878 at age 68, and reigned for almost 25 years as Leo XIII;
Cardinal Giovanni Roncalli was clearly a transitional choice in 1958, elected at age 76, he ruled for less than five years as John XXIII, but fifty years after his death he is still very consequential.
Who knows what is ahead. But the stasis of the Benedict years is over. To paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve, Fasten your cinctures, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.