Conclaves have consequences.
In his first days since emerging from last week’s secret Sistine Chapel election as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis has charmed the faithful with his humility, won over the press with his warmth and made history as the first Latin American and first Jesuit pope.
But just as important, Francis has indicated an intention to reform a Vatican government that is widely acknowledged as a den of dysfunction and theater of Italian-accented turf wars. Some cardinals have even suggested that back-stabbing in the papal court helped drive Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, into retirement.
As Francis, 76, goes about staffing the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the church, the focus among Vatican officials has shifted from the election of the pope who reigns to his appointment of the secretary of state who governs. With the entrenched forces of the Curia weakened by the election’s result, some cardinals are calling for the avuncular Argentine to finish the job by appointing a reformist second-in-command.
“We’ll see in his appointments how serious he is about tackling this stuff,” said John Thavis, a keen church observer and author of “The Vatican Diaries.” “If the secretary of state is one of these same old guys, the curial cardinals are going to feel reassured.”
On Saturday, Francis gave those same old guys reason to worry. The Vatican said in a statement that the pope would reinstate the Curia’s department heads, but only on a provisional basis.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, was eager for the change. Francis would have the “opportunity” to appoint a new secretary of state soon, “just given the age of Cardinal Bertone,” he said, referring to Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, perhaps the most polarizing figure in the Vatican. As someone outside “the whole circle of Curia,” Francis “might even decide to do things a little bit differently,” Wuerl said.
Before and after the pope’s election, Wuerl said, cardinals have talked about providing the pontiff with more perspective from local churches around the world through papal meetings with leaders of bishops’ conferences. Other cardinals have talked of establishing a system similar to a presidential cabinet rather than a royal court. Wuerl said cardinals expressed interest in holding an annual meeting in Rome to air local issues and having department heads report to the pope and not the secretary of state.
“So you will bypass a lot of the need for what has become a thorn in the side of many today,” Wuerl said. “And that is what is described as Curia engagement in the local church.”
Asked if that could lead to a decentralization of power away from Rome, reversing a trend that accelerated under Pope John Paul II, Wuerl said “decentralization would follow that, if the pope is getting his information directly from lots of sources in the church universally.”
Wuerl and several Vatican officials who spoke on background have suggested that the next secretary of state should come from the diplomatic corps that was sidelined during Benedict’s papacy.
Francis will now weigh who will stay in office and who will lose their posts. Bertone, who at 78 is nearing retirement age, is widely considered to be on his way out.
“Nominations are one of the things that the pope does in the first days,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said at a briefing following the introduction of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis last week on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. “You have to see who is the new secretary of state.”
After the previous conclave in 2005, Bergoglio told an Italian newspaper that “in the Curia I would die,” adding: “My life is in Buenos Aires.” But Francis’s life is now in Rome. And while he called on the news media Saturday to treat the Roman Catholic Church as a holy, not political, institution, the success of his papacy may depend on his ability to handle the politics inside the Curia.
“We try to be the hand, the tool, the arm of the holy father,” said Archbishop Angelo Vincenzo Zani, secretary of the Curia’s Congregation for Catholic Education. In the Curia, cardinals sit at the heads of the departments, but it is the secretaries in the No. 2 positions who keep things moving and, according to American Cardinal Edward Egan, himself a Curia veteran, “really know what is going on.” Zani said the Curia takes the ideas and message of the pope and fleshes them out into concrete policy. But he warned that the bureaucracy “can’t be an organization that is closed and is self-referential” and that it must work with service to the universal church in mind.