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Pope Francis was elected with a mandate to undertake institutional reform of the Vatican. But as curial reform has proved difficult, Francis seems to have made it a lower priority. Meanwhile, the corruption and inefficiency of the Curia have not prevented him from pursuing his higher priorities. Increasingly, when he has his own ends in view, Francis simply goes around the Curia—for good and ill.

In four years as pope, Francis has instituted a deeply personal (some might say autocratic) regime that is without precedent in living memory. While the popes have always been absolute monarchs—at least theoretically—during the last century they have consistently respected a delicate system of checks and balances, perfected under Paul VI, according to which the pope carefully weighs the advice of the curial cardinals before making decisions. Pope Francis has all but dismantled this fine-tuned instrument. In consequence, he enjoys a plenitude of power unknown to his last six or seven predecessors.

The story of this shakeup at the Holy See begins on the eve of Francis’s election. Prior to his pontificate, Jorge Bergoglio had never lived for long periods in Rome. His knowledge of the central government of the Church was secondhand. He sent Fabiàn Pedacchio (now his personal secretary) to work in the Curia as his eyes and ears, and he managed to make some good friends in the College of Cardinals, but reports from these sources could hardly have substituted for personal experience.

Dissatisfaction with this situation explains why Bergoglio held several meetings, just before the 2013 conclave, with members of the Spanish Section of the Secretariat of State. Bergoglio was then the pet candidate of the diplomats, led by Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, one of the so-called St. Gallen Group—dubbed a “mafia” by Cardinal Godfried Danneels, another of its members—originally created to bring a “progressive” pope to Rome after the death of St. John Paul II. In those meetings, the Spanish informants offered Bergoglio a more comprehensive and detailed portrait of the Curia than he had received before—information that proved valuable soon after his election.

Francis’s first move as pope was easily foreseeable. In the Vatican, the right hand of the pope is the secretary of state. He wields immense influence—so much, in fact, that his excessive power was widely criticized by the cardinals before the conclave. Shortly after taking office, Francis replaced Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict’s secretary of state, with Archbishop Pietro Parolin, a progressive nuncio with ties to Silvestrini’s faction.

As powerful as the Secretariat of State has become, however, there are at least two other offices in the Vatican worthy of a new pope’s full attention. The first is the Prefecture of the Congregation for the Clergy. It controls not only every priest in the world, but every seminary as well. At the time of Francis’s election, the head of this congregation was the highly experienced Cardinal Mauro Piacenza. Francis dismissed him suddenly and without explanation. In Piacenza’s place, he appointed another nuncio, Beniamino Stella. According to some very knowledgeable sources behind the walls, Stella has placed loyalists in every office to inform him who is favorable to the new regime, and who is not.

Then Francis turned his attention to the Segnatura Apostolica and, fatefully, Cardinal Burke. The Segnatura is the highest tribunal in the Holy See, and the last word in all conflicts between priests or religious orders and the Vatican. Burke is a widely respected expert on these matters, and for this reason was always quite independent. But like Piacenza, Burke was summarily dismissed and replaced with a former diplomat—in this case, a mild-mannered man by the name of Dominique Mamberti, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Holy See.

Francis certainly would have liked to change the heads of at least two other congregations—the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, overseen by Cardinal Müller, and the Congregation for the Bishops, led by the Canadian Cardinal Ouellet. For reasons too complicated to elucidate here, he was unable to do this. Instead, he has adopted a new technique to deprive these cardinals of their power—the same method, with slight modifications, that he used to isolate and undermine the Congregation for Divine Worship when his own appointee, Cardinal Robert Sarah, proved too independent.

What is this new technique? Consider the case of the Congregation for the Bishops. It happened that a certain low-ranking employee of the congregation, a Brazilian priest named Ilson de Jesus Montanari, had maintained a longtime friendship with Fabiàn Pedacchio, the pope’s private secretary. Abruptly, Francis appointed Montanari as Secretary of the Congregation, so that Montanari could monitor Ouellet and inform the pope of his activities.

When the congregation held its next plenary meeting to discuss and vote on new episcopal appointments, three names were submitted for a new auxiliary bishop in a Canadian diocese. Cardinal Ouellet, being Canadian, commented that the first one was very good, and the second too, but as for the third (a man he knew personally), there were problems. With the progressive wing of the congregation supporting the third nominee, a debate ensued and the matter was left unresolved. The next day, Fabiàn Pedacchio visited the congregation and declared that the pope had chosen the third candidate, putting Ouellet in a very awkward position.

Francis also appointed, on Stella’s advice, a new undersecretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This appears unnecessary in retrospect, since the pope consistently ignores the congregation’s theological advice anyway. When Francis submitted a draft of Amoris Laetitia for the congregation’s review, Müller returned it with no fewer than two hundred corrections and queries. He received no response, and his suggestions were ignored.

Then came the affair of the three priests. Some months ago, Müller received a letter from the Secretariat of State, asking him to dismiss three priests on his staff. He hesitated, since they were good workers and good priests. But then a second letter followed the first. So Müller asked for an audience with the pope, and after waiting for some time (which would be considered unusual in itself, except that this pope prefers not to meet with the heads of his ministries), asked the reason for the dismissal. Francis was unequivocal: “I am the pope, and I have to give no reason to anyone for my decisions. I said they must go, and go they must.” Then he stood up and held out his hand, indicating that the audience was over. Müller was deeply distressed. It seems possible that he will be dismissed and replaced by Cardinal Schönborn later this year.

A new undersecretary, loyal to the governing party, was also appointed at the Congregation for Divine Worship. But then Francis took the further step—without informing Cardinal Sarah—of appointing a special committee to study the so-called “ecumenical mass,” in which Catholics and Protestants might worship together. Cardinal Sarah is still officially ignorant of the activities of the committee, which works independently and reports directly to the pope.

Lately there have been rumors of another committee, also under the pope’s direct supervision, to study the possible abrogation of Humanae Vitae in light of Amoris Laetitia. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, recently told Catholic News Agency that “there is no pontifical commission called to re-read or to re-interpret Humanae Vitae. However, we should look positively on all those initiatives, such as that of Professor Marengo of the John Paul II Institute, which aim at studying and deepening this document in view of the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.” Paglia seems to say both “yes” and “no.”

Since this pope governs dictatorially, living beyond the law of the Curia, there might indeed be no official commission. There might be only a couple of scholars, like Marengo, preparing the groundwork for radical changes—which the pope will proclaim personally.

Marco Tosatti is a Vaticanist who writes from Rome.

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