Pretty much everything a pope does is important from the point of view of shaping culture in the Catholic Church, but there’s almost nothing more critical than his personnel moves – the sort of bishops he appoints, the people he puts in charge of Vatican operations, and so on.
Personnel is key in the Church, in part because of the wide latitude bishops and Vatican officials enjoy, and also because of their longevity. The pope gives a press conference, and the echo of it may be over tomorrow; he names a bishop, and that person will be exercising influence for the next quarter-century.
Somewhat surprisingly for such a loquacious pope, Francis really hasn’t said much about his approach to making those crucially important personnel moves. One of the few insights we have comes from an interview he gave in June to the journalist Joaquín Morales Solá, who writes for La Nacion in Argentina.
The question put to Francis was how he handles Church officials who may not be fully on the same page, or simply not his kind of man.
“Nails are removed by applying pressure to the top,” the pope said, “or, you set them aside to rest when the age of retirement arrives.”
In other words, sometimes Francis removes someone directly – the best known for-instance being American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who lost his position as head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court in November 2014.
More often, Francis appeared to suggest, he prefers to wait it out, holding on until the person in question reaches the normal retirement age and then making a natural transition.
The question is, what’s a pope supposed to be in the meantime, since things still have to get done in the here-and-now? In the Pope Francis era, one can supply a proper name as the answer to that question: He’s adopted what we might call the “Nunzio Galantino” solution.
In a nutshell, it means formally keeping people in place while entrusting the real responsibility to somebody else and thus rendering the original official, if not quite irrelevant, certainly less consequential.
Galantino, 68, is the prelate plucked from obscurity by Pope Francis in the small southern Italian diocese of Cassano all’Jonio in December and made the secretary, meaning the number two official, in the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, known by its acronym of CEI.
Formally speaking, CEI is led by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, a figure generally seen as a classic sort of Italian prelate – doctrinally conservative without being extreme about it, and tightly connected to the world of politics, and comfortable with a fairly top-down approach to exercising clerical authority.
I recall when I moved to Italy in the 1990s, it was a revelation to discover that whenever the Italian government would release its annual budget proposal, the first reaction newspapers in the country would seek was from a spokesman for CEI. That mindset reflects Italy’s history, in which prelates often have been more important than politicians in terms of wielding influence and determining the course of national affairs.
Bagnasco, who turns 74 in January, is very much at home in that world.
One certainly can’t blame Bagnasco for following the script that his entire life and experience have imparted to him, but it’s not quite the Pope Francis style.
Francis has a more progressive theological vision, he’s uncomfortable with churchmen being perceived as politically aligned, and he’s famously more inclined to a “synodal” than a “pyramidal” understanding of the Church.
One option for the pontiff would have been to remove Bagnasco and name someone else as president of the conference. Instead, he’s chosen to leave Bagnasco in the job, while putting his own man in the number two slot and making it so clear that Nunzio enjoys his favor that everyone understands he’s the real papal point of reference in the Italian episcopacy.
That perception is so strong that in a recent press conference Galantino was compelled to say, “There’s not just one man in command,” dismissing interpretations to the contrary as a “fantasy.”
For the record, anytime someone is forced to deny that he’s the only one running the show, it probably means his role is pretty significant.
In general, Galantino is a more apolitical figure than Bagnasco, and a bit more on the liberal side of most intra-Catholic debates. While Bagnasco was openly supportive of an anti-gay marriage uprising called “Family Day,” for instance, Galantino kept his distance.
He was back in the headlines this week, presenting a new book that collects several of his essays called Beati quelli che non si accontentano, “Blessed are those who aren’t content,” and calling on Italians to “lay down their axes” after a bitterly contested constitutional referendum that led to the fall of the government of leftist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Galantino is not the only example of the pope’s preference for working around people rather than removing them.
On his much-vaunted financial reform, for instance, Francis clearly has shifted the center of gravity in terms of policy-setting away from the new Secretariat for the Economy led by Australian Cardinal George Pell to others, especially the Secretariat of State under Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Francis had a natural opportunity to replace Pell, who turned 75 in June, but instead confirmed him in office while clearly trimming his sails in terms of Pell’s original vision for what a revamped and more 21st century Vatican financial operation would look like.
One could go down the line citing examples, but the point is clear: Once in a while, to use the pope’s own phrase, he’ll pull a nail out by the head. More often, however, he’ll simply find another tool.