Later this month, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, departs for a four-day trip to Moscow during which he’ll meet both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, thereby turning a neat double-play – advancing both the Vatican’s geopolitical agenda, as well as its desire for closer relations with the world’s 225-300 million Orthodox Christians.
For those with eyes to see, the trip is additional confirmation that there’s no single figure in Pope Francis’s Vatican today more trusted, or more powerful, than the 62-year-old Parolin, the son of a hardware store manager and an elementary school teacher from the northern Italian province of Vicenza.
In the beginning, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
When Pope Francis was elected in March 2013, the expectation inside the Vatican was for sweeping reform, beginning with cutting the all-powerful Secretariat of State down to size. Traditionally, the division of power in Rome was understood as quasi-President/Prime Minister structure, with the pope as the head of state and the Cardinal Secretary of State as the head of government.
However, if your judgment was that the Vatican’s bureaucracy had become sclerotic and dysfunctional – which was the view of not a few cardinals heading into that conclave – then the Secretariat of State was probably where you lodged the lion’s share of the blame.
Right out of the gate, Francis took a number of steps that seemed to indicate a diminished role for the Secretariat of State. Just one month after his election, he announced the formation of a Council of Cardinal Advisers, signaling that important decisions would be made by representatives of the local churches around the world rather than Roman bureaucrats.
Pointedly, the Secretary of State at the time, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, wasn’t invited to the party.
Then in early 2014, Pope Francis created a new department for financial administration and oversight, the Secretariat for the Economy – even the choice of name seemed calculated to remind the older secretariat it wasn’t anything special anymore – and largely lodged the Vatican’s “power of the purse” with Australian Cardinal George Pell, seen at the time as a strong figure who could face down any Secretary of State if push came to shove.
Many analysts were saying that in Francis’s new-look Vatican, the Secretariat of State was destined to become no more than a foreign ministry, useful for arranging meets with other heads of state and issuing communiques on diplomatic situations, but with relatively little control over internal administration.
Thus in October 2013, when Francis chose to replace Bertone with Parolin, who had been serving as the pope’s ambassador to Venezuela after a seven-year stint as the Undersecretary of State for Relations with States, expectations were not terribly high.
I recall attending the receptions the Vatican always throws for new cardinals in February 2014, when Parolin got the red hat, and watching a long line of curial bureaucrats queue up to congratulate him. A veteran Italian journalist standing next to me mused aloud, “Those guys don’t yet understand they’re living in a new world.”
In the three years since that day, however, it turns out that maybe those bureaucrats were onto something after all.
In April 2014, just a few months later, Francis named Parolin an additional member of this Council of Cardinal Advisers, forcing a name change in the popular argot from calling it the “C8” to the “C9.” For insiders, it was a clear signal that obituaries of the Secretariat of State had perhaps been a tad premature.
Later that year, Pope Francis also named Parolin to the Congregation for Bishops, giving him a key role in shaping the next generation of prelates around the world.
In the months to come, Parolin would prevail in a series of power struggles with Pell over the broad direction of financial reform, largely succeeding in requiring control over the decisions that matter. The reemergence of the Secretariat of State also seemed confirmed in September 2016, when Francis issued a set of his statutes for a new Secretariat for Communications that almost seemed to bend over backwards to emphasize the role of the Secretariat of State.
In Article 2, for instance, we find, “In carrying out its own functions, the Secretariat for Communication will collaborate with other competent dicasteries, in particular with the Secretariat of State.” Article 5 states, “When necessary, other offices can be established by the prefect, after consultation with the dicastery’s collegial bodies and after receiving approval from the Secretariat of State.” Article 7 says, “The prefect can propose to the Supreme Pontiff, through the Secretariat of State, the creation of other entities associated with the Holy See …”
Bottom line: Read those statutes, and there’s no missing who’s really in charge.
Today, everyone knows that if you want to put something on Francis’s agenda, light a fire under some project or prevent another from moving ahead, there are some back-door channels to get the pope’s attention, but in the traditional structures, there’s only one game in town, and it runs through Parolin.
To be crystal clear, it’s not as if Parolin is some kind of puppet-master manipulating Francis from behind a curtain. Francis is very much his own man, and doesn’t need anyone to set directions for him. However, when Francis needs advice or a play to be executed, it’s increasingly Parolin to whom he turns.
Why is this steady re-centralization of power happening?
To begin, there’s the root fact that Parolin has Francis’s trust. Parolin was widely seen as the best and brightest Vatican diplomat of his generation, he’s a man of personal integrity, and plus, he’s simply a really nice guy who’s hard not to like. (Some critics would say that’s not universally true of all the people around Parolin, but on the other hand, every administration probably needs a couple of heavies to crack heads when the situation calls for it.)
Beyond that, there are likely three other factors that have assisted Parolin’s rise.
First, Francis is a politically and diplomatically activist pope, who cares deeply about matters such as the Colombia peace process, ending Cold War tensions between the United States and Cuba, and the unraveling situation in Venezuela. That’s Parolin’s wheelhouse, and it’s logical that in a time of dynamic papal diplomacy, the profile of his top diplomat would also grow.
Second, Parolin’s erstwhile former rival, Pell, has been distracted by legal challenges in his native Australia, and is now home for an indefinite period fighting allegations of “historical sexual offenses.” Pell’s star had already dimmed inside the Vatican before those charges were announced, but clearly this hasn’t helped.
Third, the traditional counter-weight to the Secretariat of State long has been the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency once known as La Suprema, or the “supreme” department for its critical role in bestowing (or withholding) theological approval for almost everything the place does.
In the John Paul years, Cardinal Angelo Sodano was seen as a powerful Secretary of State too, but his authority was always balanced by the huge influence of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would go on to become Benedict XVI.
Today, however, the CDF does not play the same role under Pope Francis, meaning that it no longer poses a serious challenge to the preeminence of the Secretariat of State.
Given the intersection of those realities, today a common take in Rome is that Parolin may actually be the most powerful Secretary of State the Vatican has seen since perhaps Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who served under Pope Pius XI in the 1930s before being elected as Pius XII. (Coincidentally, Pacelli was also the only 20th century Secretary of State to be younger than Parolin when he was named to the job – Pacelli was 52, Parolin 58.)
That history might suggest Parolin would have a future himself as a papal candidate, and at just 62, there could be a fairly long shelf-life for that undercurrent of speculation. What’s not speculative, however, is that in the here-and-now, when you look at Parolin, you’re basically looking at the face of authority in the Pope Francis era.