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Different Francis, Same Mission

2013 October 4
by Paul Vallely

In the year 1206 a rich young man named Francis Bernadone was at prayer before a painted crucifix in the crumbling chapel of San Damiano near Assisi.  The man who was to become St. Francis reported that he heard a voice issuing from the figure on the cross saying: ‘‘Francis, rebuild my Church, which has fallen into ruins.’’

On Friday, a pope of the same name was in Assisi to celebrate the feast of St. Francis, convinced he had been charged with the same mission.

Pope Francis was accompanied by the eight cardinals from around the world who on Thursday finished a closed three-day meeting on how to renew the dysfunctional and scandal-hit Vatican bureaucracy which sits at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. The eight constitute a new Council of Cardinals, which one ecclesiastical historian has described as the ‘‘most important step in the history of the Church for the past 10 centuries.’’

The winds of change are blowing through the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is proving a pontiff of surprises. He may be conservative on doctrine but he is the opposite in style.

First came his grand gestures of humility  —  carrying his own suitcase,  making calls on his cell phone, staying in a hostel.  Next came his series of appointments to top positions within the church, replacing reactionary or traditionalist figures with more open-minded officials. Accompanying all this has been a series of increasingly radical statements which make clear he wants change on a far wider scale.

In an interview last month, the Jesuit pope accused the Church of having grown ‘‘obsessed’’ with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. He rejected its preoccupation with ‘‘small-minded rules.’’ Then on Tuesday, in an interview with a leading Italian atheist, the pope said: ‘‘Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy … . This Vatican-centric vision neglects the world around it and I will do everything to change it.’’

The Catholic Church runs on the model of an absolute monarchy.  Its governance template is still essentially as it was fixed by Pope Sixtus V in 1588.  Officials in a series of departments, known as congregations, act as papal courtiers. In theory the members of this Curia discharge the wishes of the pontiff. But in practice they often work at cross-purposes or intrigue as clerical careerists to arrogate power to themselves.

Attempts at reform have been made in the past. But they have been undermined by this self-serving bureaucracy.  In the 1960s the Second Vatican Council decreed new models of collegiality which would cede power to bishops, locally and collectively in synods. Ever since, the Curia has connived to undermine the plan and draw power back to itself.

In the discussions before the election of Pope Francis, cardinals from across the globe made clear their dissatisfaction with a Curia whose officers routinely acted as the masters rather than the servants of local churches.

The new Pope set up this new Council of Cardinal Advisers in response, and hand-picked its members from cardinals around the globe who had been the most prominent critics of the Vatican bureaucracy.

Little has emerged about the deliberations of the council this week.  We know from their consultations with local churches, before they went to Rome, that they have looked at key institutional issues, like the reform of the Curia and Vatican Bank.

The cardinals produced scores of  documents for internal discussion  —  the chairman of the group, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, told an interviewer there were 80 documents from Latin America alone. They touch on pastoral issues like lifting the ban on remarried Catholics taking Communion, creating a greater role for women in the Church and reopening the debate on compulsory clerical celibacy.

Pope and cardinals alike know that institutional changes are needed to ensure that Francis’s reforms are not reversed by a conservative successor.  That requires concrete ideas to transform the curial court into a modern civil service. These might include bringing in outside management consultants to make recommendations; as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis brought in an accounting firm to sort out a malfunctioning church bank.

Yet they must do more. The cardinals should consider recruiting top lay administrators to run Vatican departments. There is no reason these have to be overseen by cardinals or bishops; indeed top outsiders with lay backgrounds might think in creative ways beyond the experience of clerical insiders.

Nor is there any reason why women should not do such jobs. And if department heads do still have to be cardinals, there is no church law forbidding a female cardinal, even if she could not be a priest.

To prevent such reforms being unpicked, the Synod of Bishops should be empowered to supervise and vet all future appointments of personnel to the Curia. And the group of eight needs to institutionalize itself as a permanent body.

Change will not come quickly or easily, so the cardinals need to show both imagination and resolution. They should take as their inspiration a pope who is named after a saint who was lacking in neither.


The New York Times


Paul Vallely, a British journalist, is the author of the recently published ‘‘Pope Francis  —  Untying the Knots.’’  


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