The cardinals who elected Pope Francis hoped for major curial reform. Why isn't it going to plan?

In high summer, Rome may be crawling with tourists, but most of the inhabitants have either fled the stifling heat or are hunkered down behind shuttered windows. In the Vatican, once the celebrations for Ss Peter and Paul are over, there is an aura of winding down.

This year, as is often the case, the feast is being marked by the creation of new cardinals. Ahead of the consistory, there was speculation that, for the second time in a row, Pope Francis would not preside over a plenary session of the Sacred College.

That would be unusual, but not unprecedented. The cardinals are supposed to be the Pope’s chief advisers. Given their number and geographical dispersal, opportunities for wide-ranging consultations are rare. Francis has established an inner circle of nine cardinals who meet regularly to advise him. But it does seem strange that he would consider passing over once more an opportunity to sound out a more representative gathering.

Inevitably, this has led to speculation that Francis is trying to avoid forums in which growing discontent might be expressed. Foremost among the causes of this rumbling unease is the continuing controversy over the interpretation and application of Amoris Laetitia, the 2016 document that has raised debate about the admission of the divorced and remarried to Communion.

Readers will remember that last November four cardinals – Carlo Caffara, Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner – made public four questions, or dubia, seeking clarification of statements in Amoris, which they deemed in potential conflict with Catholic doctrine. They took the unusual step of publicising their doubts when it became clear that Francis, equally unusually, had no intention of answering them, although they were submitted through the proper channels and in time-honoured form fully respecting papal prerogatives.

Rather than take the overtly confrontational step of issuing a formal correction if Francis continued to ignore the questions, as was at one point suggested, the four chose instead to appeal for dialogue. In early May they wrote requesting a meeting with the Pope, saying that the ambiguities were leading to differing interpretations in different countries, and that this was harmful to the unity of the Church. There was no reply.

On June 20, after six weeks of papal silence, they allowed their letter to be published. This does look like a direct challenge to a pope almost unique in modern times.

On one level, Francis’s choice to avoid a meeting of the Sacred College which might degenerate into an acrimonious confrontation is comprehensible. Those close to him maintain that he remains serene in the face of opposition. But the very vocal outrage suggests that many who hope to see him liberalise Church doctrine are anything but serene in the face of opposition.

Changes of pontificate often see adjustments of the pendulum when it comes to the direction of Church policy, but there are those, including some who welcomed the new pontificate enthusiastically in 2013, who now fear an excessive polarisation as a result of Francis’s governing style, which could put at risk both the legacies of his predecessors and his own positive contributions.

The concerns go well beyond the doctrinal row over Amoris. Most cardinals who voted for Cardinal Bergoglio in 2013 were not looking for doctrinal revolution (some were hoping for at least a rapid evolution, although they seem not to have talked that up too much at the time). Many were delighted when Pope Francis emerged as a forceful preacher of mercy and champion of the poor. Nevertheless, almost all expected him to tackle the more mundane task of curial reform.

On that count, four years into this pontificate, there is not only much disappointment about how little has been achieved, but also a growing conviction that little more is to be expected. Some fear that further changes are more likely to promote the ideological agendas of those pushing for them than to tackle the corruption and inefficiency long decried by critics from all sides of the theological divide. So deep is the pessimism that even the famously fair-minded Catholic commentator John Allen is now asking “whether the Vatican, as we currently know it, is essentially irreformable”.

The papacy of Benedict XVI suffered from scandals brought about by vices seemingly endemic in the curia. There were constant rumours and periodic revelations of financial mismanagement, moral scandals and character assassinations motivated by the perennial jockeying for position of ecclesiastics seemingly more intent on advancing their own careers than in serving God’s Church.

The austere, unsmiling figure of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whose conduct as Archbishop of Buenos Aires visibly eschewed the pursuit of such worldly aims, seemed ideally suited to the challenge of the moment. Once elected, his nomination of a Council of Cardinals gave the impression of a vigorous, reforming administration.

Yet today this process seems to have stalled or even, in some respects, to have been rolled back.

One significant, concrete reform was the creation of a Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, under Cardinal Kevin Farrell, and a Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, under Cardinal Peter Turkson, both replacing a plethora of existing pontifical councils. This was meant to promote a unified direction, and avoid an overlapping and hazy distribution of responsibilities.

Getting on for a year down the line, vital staff are not yet in place, and officials from bodies that are now officially dissolved remain at their desks, not knowing whether they will be employed in the new structures. Impressions of chaos reportedly generate frustration among the most loyal of papal collaborators – which opponents of reform do not fail to exploit.

Confidence in the new set-up was hardly boosted when it was disclosed that the Pontifical Academy for Life, which has been entirely overhauled since it came under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Farrell’s new dicastery, had appointed a member who had spoken in favour of abortion in some cases. Anglican philosopher Nigel Biggar is on record as supporting termination up to 18 weeks. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the head of the academy, said he had been unaware of Biggar’s opinions. Some defended the appointment as an example of openness to dialogue in the Jesuit tradition in which Pope Francis is schooled. Others simply saw incompetence.

Curial reform may be experiencing problems in the detail, but the general direction of travel also disappoints many. The Secretariat of State, whose overweening power, combined with an institutional resistance to rocking boats, was seen from the outset as a principle factor in curial dysfunctionality. But it now seems certain to retain its hegemony.

There had been talk of splitting the Secretariat of State up when Francis was first elected, hiving off the oversight of the Roman Curia to a new department, with the diplomats retaining control only of relations with states. But the secretariat has, if anything, strengthened its hand, overseeing access to the Pontiff by senior officials from other dicasteries. This produces smouldering resentments and the suspicion that entrenched interests are reasserting themselves.

Another area where vested interests seem resurgent is finance. The combative Cardinal George Pell, who was appointed to push through financial reform and given sweeping powers over almost every aspect of Vatican finance, has seen his remit progressively reduced as, one after another, dicasteries and departments have clawed back control of resources and budgets.

Impressions that the Curia remains resistant to transparency were further strengthened on June 20 when Libero Milone, the Vatican’s chief auditor, resigned without explanation. His appointment to the newly created post in 2015 seemed to herald a desire to overcome the notorious opacity of Vatican finances. His departure hardly indicates success.

Francis’s precise role in these manoeuvres, and his attitude towards both progress and setbacks, is unknown. Access to him is a huge issue. Yet the Secretariat of State’s control over this is only partial, since Francis has his own networks of trusted advisers outside the Curia. His decision to reside at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guest house, was motivated in large part by the desire to bypass curial channels. Yet this aspect of his pontificate also generates questions.

It is clear that Francis, like a true Jesuit, is used to making decisions alone, after consulting a handful of people. However, this puts a great deal of power in the hands of a few individuals whose identity and motivations are to some extent shielded from being accountable to the wider Church, including the College of Bishops with whom the Pope governs collegially.

So far, Francis’s popularity has prevented these contradictions from being exploited to damage him and the Church. Doubtless many in the media see in him a chance – perhaps the last – for the Church to accommodate itself to the mores of the secular world, and they are willing to cut him some slack on that account, whereas they gave no quarter to his predecessor.

There are some in the Church who nourish the same hopes. However, they risk making a tactical error if they promote a culture of personality and cry outrage at every perceived criticism, however respectful and moderately expressed. A resurgent ultramontanism, fostered today by those who bemoaned it yesterday, can be turned against them too.

It is a strange thing in the Church to see those who but recently were zealots of orthodoxy cast as dissenters, and erstwhile rebels visibly enjoying a power they were supposed to disapprove of. Some of the former were certainly excessive in their ferocity at times, but it is neither just nor healthy for them to be excluded from the conversation.

The obligation to listen and engage in dialogue is incumbent on all in the Church, including at the very highest level. The Pope should be ready to talk to any and all of those who exist to advise him. The service of Church unity through the clear teaching and defence of the Deposit of Faith needs to be reasserted as a priority.

Likewise, the Pope’s support for the poor and the marginalised – surely the most impressive and necessary of the priorities he brings to the papacy – will look hollow unless it becomes clear that there is no room in the Vatican for those who are not committed to transparent probity.

This article first appeared in the June 30 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here