I suspect the employees of the Roman Curia have come to view the pope’s annual Christmas greetings much as Seinfeld’s George Costanza viewed Festivus. Francis’s 2014 address was, if not an Airing of Grievances, then something very near it, as the pope detailed fifteen—fifteen!—“curial diseases.” In 2015, Francis wished his closest collaborators a merry Christmas with a lengthy, gloomy rundown of “curial antibiotics,” via an acrostic analysis of the Latin word misericordia. (The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy had kicked off a couple of weeks before Francis’s address, which explains why misericordia was on his mind.) In 2016, the pope returned to the topic of the shortcomings of the Curia, detailing the governing principles of his Curial reform and pointing to the specific steps he had already taken. The only thing missing from this dry address was praise of aluminum’s high strength-to-weight ratio.
After three years of this, I imagine the employees of the Curia shuffled in to the Clementine Hall with some combination of dread and embarrassment. In this year’s speech to the Curia, delivered on December 21, Francis taught at length about the diaconal dimension of the Curia. By this, he means an attitude of humble service—humble service to the pope, and humble service to the Church and the world. Francis criticized “those who betray the trust put in them and profiteer from the Church’s motherhood.” He did not explain whom he meant by that, though he noted that some offenders had been “quietly sidelined” because they did not “understand the lofty nature of their responsibility.”
These “quietly sidelined” former employees “wrongly declare themselves martyrs of the system”; they pose as having been undermined by long-entrenched factions at the Vatican who resist the reform of the Curia. Not so, Francis says: The pope is not a “pope kept in the dark,” and anyone who has been sidelined has been sidelined for good reason.
It may be tempting to think of Raymond Cardinal Burke or Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, two young (in Vatican terms) cardinals who have been sidelined. But it seems unlikely that these men were on the pope’s mind, since each was sidelined not-so-quietly and with the pope’s direct involvement. Francis personally sidelined Cardinal Burke even at the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, installing Secretary of State Pietro Cardinal Parolin’s powerful deputy, Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, as special delegate to the Order. And Francis personally sacked Cardinal Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the never-before-mentioned principle that dicastery heads will receive only one five-year term. (If this principle is to be honored going forward, then the next couple of years should feature plenty of interesting retirements, including by some of Francis’s closest collaborators.)
So whom is he talking about? Perhaps the answer can be found in the explosive book The Dictator Pope. The pseudonymous author, “Marcantonio Colonna,” has made numerous allegations, including some concerning financial mismanagement and malfeasance at the Vatican. To a certain extent, such allegations are simply part of the Roman atmosphere. But it is certainly true that an audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers, commissioned by George Cardinal Pell, then the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, was suspended in 2016 by Archbishop Becciu (on Cardinal Parolin’s authority). It is also true that Libero Milone, the Vatican’s first auditor-general, was forced to resign earlier this year under murky circumstances. Milone claimed that the Vatican’s “old guard” had thwarted his efforts to tell the pope and Cardinal Parolin exactly what was going on in the Vatican’s books. Archbishop Becciu responded to these allegations by telling Reuters that Milone had been fired for spying on various Vatican employees, including him.
This December has been bad for Francis on the financial front in other ways. Oscar Cardinal Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, has recently been accused of serious financial improprieties. The Honduran cardinal has long been a tremendously important figure in Francis’s pontificate, serving as chief of his Council of Cardinals. Moreover, Maradiaga has been an extremely public voice on behalf of the pope and his agenda. Among the accusations, first reported in L’Espresso, are that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Catholic University of Tegucigalpa and that one of his deputies in Honduras has lavished Church funds on his friends. According to L’Espresso, the pope sent an Argentine bishop to Honduras to investigate these reports and the bishop’s report has been provided to Francis. Maradiaga reaches retirement age at the end of the month, and it remains to be seen whether or not Francis will keep him in office past 75, as he has done for some of his collaborators.
Colonna, author of The Dictator Pope, claims that the Vatican is hot on his trail, with the pope already having been presented with the Vatican’s list of suspected identities. Whether or not that’s true, it seems likely that Francis’s remarks about those who have been “quietly sidelined” are directed at the allegations in the book. Of course, not even these sackings were exactly “quiet”: There was plenty of coverage when PwC’s audit was stopped, and when Milone went public with his allegations.
Francis’s remarks at least show that the pope is taking direct personal responsibility for the reform of the Curia. He rejects the idea—explicitly raised by Milone, for one—that there is a bloc of officials who are keeping things from him. The pope, Francis says, is not kept in the dark. Francis was elected by cardinals who, in the wake of scandals like that of the “gay lobby” that Benedict found himself too worn-out to confront, recognized the need for Curial reform. Francis, perhaps, is signaling to these cardinals that he has not forgotten them.
And yet, notwithstanding the recitation of motu proprios and decrees that made up Francis’s speech to the Curia in 2016, reform of the Curia has not progressed very far. Francis has consolidated some structures and changed out the membership of some bodies, particularly those that might resist his agenda. But on the whole, the revolutionary reforms many hoped for have not yet materialized. Perhaps a more favorable assessment will be in order at this time next year.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.