On Tuesday, Pope Francis issued a letter reminding aides that even though his council of nine cardinal advisors is pondering a sweeping reform of the Church’s central administration, in the meantime all existing rules and regulations for various Vatican departments still apply.
As the pope put it, there is no “legal vacuum.”
The letter was addressed to Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, with the request that Parolin inform everyone else.
Depending on how one chooses to look at it, this was either:
- A) A fairly routine bureaucratic reminder in a time of transition.
- B) A rebuke of Australian Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s top financial official and a prime mover behind a controversial letter to the pope from roughly a dozen cardinals complaining about the process during the recent Synod of Bishops.
As the pope’s missive made the rounds on Tuesday, one could find variations on both those reactions.
Herewith, three questions and answers about what to make of it.
Why would this be about Pell?
The only specific area of Vatican operations the pope mentions in the letter is hiring and transfers. Theoretically, the Vatican is still under a freeze on new hires decreed by Parolin in February 2014, the major exception to which has been a new financial apparatus created by Francis and guided in part by Pell.
(One has to say “in part,” because those structures also include a ramped-up version of the Vatican’s financial watchdog unit, the Financial Information Authority, and a new auditor general’s office, both of which are independent.)
It’s natural for insiders to assume that if the pope is reminding people of limits on hiring, it must be directed at the departments doing most of the hiring: the financial outfits, including Pell’s.
Then there’s the synod. At the beginning, Pell was seen as the ringleader of the cardinals’ letter to Francis, which was taken by some as a preemptive strike in case the progressive side prevailed. During the course of the synod’s debates, he emerged as a leading opponent of proposed reforms, such as opening Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Pell’s outspokenness sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, among other things triggering a rare public complaint from Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich on behalf of the German bishops at the close of the synod.
Especially given that Marx also chairs a Council for the Economy that oversees Pell’s department, it’s understandable for some people to assume the pope’s letter about hiring may have been payback. (In truth, the letter was in the works before the synod began, but that hasn’t stopped some observers from connecting the dots.)
Is there a reason to think it’s not about Pell?
In a word, “Sure.”
First of all, so far at critical moments the pope has had Pell’s back, including during cycles of criticism in the Italian press in September 2014 related to alleged overspending in Pell’s new office and in June 2015 over Pell’s record on clergy sex abuse scandals in Australia.
Francis and Pell may not see eye-to-eye on everything, but in the run-up to the conclave in March 2013 that propelled Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to the papacy, he and Pell stood shoulder-to-shoulder in supporting a thorough financial clean-up in the Vatican.
Moreover, Pell’s department is not the only one seeking exceptions to the hiring freeze.
In July, Francis created a new “Secretariat for Communications,” and plans call for it to add a handful of personnel. During the synod, Francis also announced that he intends to create a new department devoted to “laity, family, and life,” and it’s possible that it, too, may need to add a few people with specific skill sets.
That new outfit has been dubbed a “mega-dicastery,” which is the Vatican term for a department, and it could be that Francis’ letter was mostly about that. The idea is to combine a few existing offices, and the pontiff’s message could be, “Make do mostly with what you’ve already got rather than planning big-time expansion.”
(As a bureaucratic footnote, the letter could also be seen as an effort by the Secretariat of State, which has seen its traditional power of the purse largely usurped by Pell’s department, to reclaim some of its lost ground.)
How will we know if Pell actually has fallen out of favor?
After the last Synod of Bishops, Francis effectively dumped the Vatican official most prominently identified with the conservative side of its arguments: American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who lost his post as head of the Vatican’s supreme court one month later.
The first test, therefore, will be whether there’s any indication that Francis is contemplating a replacement for Pell.
There’s no hint along those lines so far. Even if there were, it might be difficult, given unconfirmed reports that Pell was elected by his fellow bishops to a council intended to oversee implementation of the synod’s results. Assuming that’s correct, it would suggest that Pell still enjoys the respect of a large swath of the world’s bishops.
(A Vatican spokesman on Wednesday declined to confirm that report to Crux, saying the pope plans to add three names to the 12 elected by the synod and the list won’t be released until that happens.)
Another indicator of a loss of confidence might be if Francis slows down, or balks altogether, as offices such as the Financial Information Authority, the Auditor General, and the Secretariat for the Economy come forward with requests for new hires.
The Vatican isn’t exactly chock-full of people with world-class financial expertise, meaning that if a reform is to be serious, it needs outside help. Francis obviously grasps that, which is why so far he’s given those departments the green light.
If the signal changes to yellow or red, it would hint that Francis may be having second thoughts.
Looking down the road, Pell will turn 75 in June, the point at which bishops typically submit their resignations. A further index of where he stands thus would be whether Francis uses his birthday as an excuse to make a swift transition.
On the other hand, perhaps rumors of the death of the odd-couple partnership between Francis, the maverick reformer, and Pell, the conservative stalwart, have been exaggerated.
As tensions from the synod dissipate, the pontiff may remember why he tapped the Australian in the first place: Because however unsettling his bruising, take-no-prisoners style may have been in the gentleman’s club of the synod, it’s arguably still just what the doctor ordered to cut through entrenched patterns of corruption and cronyism in the Vatican.