Pope Francis raised great expectations when, on April 13, 2013, one month after being elected to Peter’s See, he created a council of cardinals (then eight, now nine) to study and implement a great reform of the Curia and the Church. Reform was his mandate. During the discussions that took place prior to his election, many cardinals had called for a deep reform, especially of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Its power was too great, they said, not least in its influence over the pope. Since the formation of the council of cardinals (now often referred to as “the C9”), eighteen meetings have been held, many lively debates have taken place, and ambitious projects have been drawn up. But four years on, the results remain unimpressive. Not to say disappointing.
Some criticism must have reached the ears of Cardinal Maradiaga, the C9’s leader, who said in a recent interview: “Sometimes they ask us, ‘What is this council of cardinals doing? Why do we not see results?’ The results are there, but you do not see them.” One of the C9’s major tasks has been to reform the pontifical councils, often by merging them. Old hands in the Curia know that it’s not enough to put new labels on old items. To get results, you have to make things work—which is a little harder.
For instance: On September 1, 2016, the Council for Laity, Family, and Life ceased to exist—formally—and was merged into a new ministry. The pope chose Cardinal Kevin Farrell to lead it. But not until a few days ago was a secretary named: Alexandre Awi Mello, a Brazilian priest. The undersecretary’s role is still vacant. And since Mello lives in Brazil, it will be some time before he comes to Rome and starts working. In every Vatican ministry, the secretary and undersecretary are vital—and here we are, in June 2017. Nor has anything changed at the lower levels of personnel. The staff of the defunct council are still there, waiting for something to happen. Every morning at the Vatican, people go to their desks who officially should not be there anymore. They are waiting to be dismissed.
“It’s a placid, quiet chaos,” says one smiling veteran, speaking of the Palazzo San Callisto, where the new ministry has its abode.
Very similar is the story of the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which was created last August (effective January 1) out of the merger of four pontifical councils: the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers; and Cor Unum. The staff of these councils from before the merger continue to be employed in their old roles. There are a couple of priests who spend their days in front of huge television screens, monitoring the NGO ships that ferry people from Africa to Italy. It is still unclear, even to Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the new dicastery, what the dicastery is supposed to do. Turkson is a biblical scholar, with no specific experience in managerial positions. Some suspect that he was appointed because he comes from Africa. Francis himself has assumed responsibility for directing the dicastery’s work on behalf of migrants. To his friends, Turkson says that he is doing what he did before: waiting for marching orders.
So much time has been spent on the reform of the pontifical councils, and so little has been accomplished. We heard by chance a cardinal and an archbishop, both of whom have worked in the Curia for many years: “Such a reform! We could have prepared it ourselves, in the space of one morning, sitting at a table.”
Another of the C9’s tasks is more complex: the restructuring of the Vatican’s media operations. Monsignor Dario Viganò is the mastermind of this reform, which involves several different structures inside the Vatican. During the last C9 meeting, Viganò explained the merging of Vatican Radio and Vatican Television Center, the plan for the radio frequencies, the policy for renewing the Social Network, and the future of the Vatican Printing Library. There are problems here, too. Many have criticized the decision to abolish the short-wave system. Some African bishops protested, because the short-wave is one of the few reliable methods of reaching the faithful in their countries. It remains one of the only ways to reach Catholics in countries under oppressive regimes. This Vatican decision comes at a moment when the BBC and the Japanese NHK are working to strengthen their short-wave systems, even asking the Vatican’s permission to use its Santa Maria di Galeria aerial antennas.
Another important initiative, the proposed reform of the Vatican’s finances, has produced few results. In 2014, Francis created a secretary for the economy. Everything related to money and personnel, from every ministry in the Vatican, was supposed to come under the power of one of the C9 members, Cardinal George Pell. The remit was staggeringly large, encompassing Propaganda Fide (which has a budget greater than the Holy See’s), APSA (the Vatican finance office), and the Governatorate of the Vatican City State, as well as the money controlled by the secretariat of state (which is richer than the Vatican Bank). Of course, not everyone was happy. And slowly, working on the pope in personal encounters, one by one, they took away from the secretary for the economy their treasures great and small. Now Pell is confined to give general guidelines, and exercises a post-facto check on the budgets. He was not very happy as, leaf by leaf, his onion was reduced to nothing.
Now the C9 is working on a new proposal of Maradiaga’s. The pontiff does not seem to like it very much. The idea would be to unify under the title of “Deaconry of Justice” all the Vatican Courts: the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Rota Romana, and the Apostolic Signatura (the High Court of which Cardinal Raymond Burke was the prefect). The proposal seems a little strange. What has the Penitentiary, which deals in confessions and indulgences, to do with the others? And since the Signatura must hear appeals of cases from the Romana Rota, how can the two courts merge without creating a conflict? The same people would give judgment in both the first and second instances.
And we are still only talking about the comparatively small departments. The large congregations have not yet come under the examination of the C9. Nor has the C9 addressed the main question put by the cardinals in the pre-conclave sessions: the reform of the secretariat of state.
One of the specific requests stated by the cardinals before the conclave was this: The head of the ministries must be allowed to meet the pope regularly and frequently, as was formerly guaranteed by a fixed schedule of meetings, called “udienze di tabella.” If you were the head of a ministry, you knew that at least twice a month, at a certain hour on a certain day, you would meet the pope. For instance, the prefect of the CDF (or his secretary) met the pope every Friday afternoon. Now, since the udienze di tabella is no more, every head must ask the secretariat of state to fix a meeting; and very often, they are told that the pope is too busy. In the case of the three CDF officials dismissed by the pope without explanation, Cardinal Müller had asked many times for a meeting to plead for them. He was finally granted one, two or three months too late.
When the cardinals urged reinstating the udienze di tabella, their idea was clear: to prevent the secretariat of state becoming a gatekeeper through whom all business must pass. Without this regular schedule, the secretariat of state becomes a filter between the pope and the Curia. And so, despite the calls for reform, the secretariat of state is more powerful than ever. So long as that is the case, real reform seems unlikely.
Marco Tosatti is a Vaticanist who writes from Rome.