ROME – For New Years’ past, I offered an annual list of the most under-covered Vatican stories of the previous twelve months because, in the late St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI years, the media wasn’t really paying regular attention to the papacy, and plenty of important stuff would slip through the cracks.
In the Pope Francis era, all that has changed. Whatever challenges his papacy may have had in 2017, fading out of the global media spotlight certainly wasn’t among them.
On the other hand, anybody who lives near water will tell you that from the point of view of calamity, floods are every bit as dangerous as droughts. When there’s a surging river of news streaming down the line every day, it’s often tough to separate the important from the ephemeral.
Herewith, then, my countdown of the Top Five Under-Appreciated Vatican Stories from the last twelve months, meaning matters whose lasting significance arguably hasn’t yet been fully digested.
5. Nigeria and the Limits of Papal Power
On the Vatican beat you don’t often get the chance to use the word “unprecedented,” but that’s basically the only term that applies to the melodrama still unfolding in the Nigerian diocese of Ahiara, located in Imo State in the southern part of Africa’s most populous nation.
On June 8, Francis announced that every priest in the diocese had 30 days to write him a personal letter, pledging loyalty and apologizing for their disobedience in refusing to accept a new bishop appointed under Benedict XVI in 2012. Should any priests fail to comply, Francis warned, they would be suspended immediately.
Despite that flash of papal muscle, six months later the situation remains unresolved. As Crux’s Inès San Martìn has reported, Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke still has not taken possession of the diocese, which appears to remain divided, and there’s no indication of what the endgame is. One Nigerian bishop recently suggested giving Okpaleke a non-geographic diocese someplace and starting over, bringing rebukes from other prelates who insisted on holding the line.
All of which raises the intriguing question: Suppose a pope tries to crack heads someplace, and nothing changes? Does that say more about the place, or about papal authority? For now, Ahaira would seem proof that Roma locuta est, causa finita est, isn’t always quite the way things work in the early 21st century.
4. Reformers v. ‘Let’s Move On’ on Child Abuse
In early October, Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University hosted a major global summit on “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” cosponsored by several Vatican departments and featuring an audience with Francis.
Participants represented the cream of the crop across a wide range of fields: An epidemiologist from Harvard, the Director of Police Services from Interpol, the Head of Global Safety Policy at Facebook, a former Chairman of an African Union commission on child safety, the Global Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF, and the Chief Online Safety Officer for Microsoft. At the end, they identified a set of “best practices” for the pontiff, with the idea that the Church can use its moral bully pulpit to diffuse them.
Two things became clear at the summit, both worth remembering.
First, despite Catholicism’s notoriously checkered past on child protection, the world’s most committed leaders on the issue, from law enforcement to the corporate sphere to NGOs and academics, now regard the Church as a state-of-the-art laboratory for getting things right. That’s real change in a short arc of time, and many of the organizers of the Gregorian summit deserve eternal credit for making it happen.
Second, that change remains fragile. This was a session about online child safety, after all, which took place at the same moment the Vatican was facing a child pornography scandal involving a papal diplomat recalled to Rome from Washington after being flagged as a possible suspect by American authorities, for whom an arrest warrant subsequently was issued in Canada. Vatican authorities have vowed he’ll be put on Church trial, but so far nothing else has been said.
In essence, the old battles in Catholicism between reformers and deniers on sex abuse are over, but today a new cleft has opened between reformers convinced the job is far from over, and a “let’s move on” crowd that believes the problem is largely in the past. Much will depend on how that contest is resolved, and the October summit at least demonstrated the reformers aren’t throwing in the towel.
3. The Trials of a Vatican Trial
In mid-October, a three-judge Vatican court convicted Giuseppe Profiti, former head of the papally-sponsored Bambino Gesú pediatric hospital, of “abuse of office” for spending roughly $500,000 of hospital funds on enhancements to the Vatican residence of Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former secretary of state under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
It was the first criminal prosecution under new rules intended to promote transparency and accountability, and was seen as a bellwether for the state of Francis’s financial reform effort.
In the end, the result struck most observers as more of a whimper than a bang. Neither Bertone nor the Italian businessman whose firm benefitted from the arrangement, Gianantonio Bandera, were ever charged, and judges rejected defense requests that Bertone at least be heard as a witness.
(That’s not to say everyone thought Bertone was guilty. The attorney for one defendant in the case, who was acquitted, told the court that Bertone was acting selflessly, since he’s now 83 and likely won’t benefit from the upgrades very long himself, so he may have been thinking about whoever comes next. Further, the lawyer said, the apartment was in terrible shape when Bertone moved in and it was made clear he had to cover the costs of fixing it himself, opening the door to something like the Bambino Gesú deal – where that pressure came from, the lawyer didn’t say, but the clear impression was he meant it came from the pope.)
In any event, the take-away was that this trial was less an exercise in getting to the truth than in having at least one conviction for financial crime, however nominal, to present to evaluators from Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency, when they came calling in December.
If so, it would suggest the quest for transparency remains a work in progress.
2. Politics Turn Personal
Politics always has been something of a blood sport at the Vatican. In eras past, wags joked that character assassination ought to be declared an eighth sacrament of the Church, given how much time clergy in Rome seemed to invest in perfecting the art.
Even by that standard, however, doctrinal and policy tussles in Catholicism seemed to take on a strikingly nasty personal edge in 2017.
The latest example comes with charges of financial mismanagement and corruption in Honduras against Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, seen as one of Francis’s closest allies. Time will tell how much merit the charges have, but the delight that Francis critics are taking in circulating them seems unmistakable.
The same pattern happened earlier in the year, when Vatican opponents of Australian Cardinal George Pell and his financial reform campaign breathed easier in June when news broke that Pell was being charged with “historical sexual offenses” and would have to take a leave of absence to defend himself.
Again, Australian courts will determine what substance there may be to the accusations, but in the meantime, there’s little question of which forces in Rome took most pleasure in publicizing them.
Similarly, when two Vatican financial officials departed in 2017 under mysterious circumstances, both later dropped hints of dark forces blocking reform who were behind their ousters. That brought a direct personal rebuke from Francis himself in his Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, saying that rather than trafficking in gossip, those ex-officials should be saying mea culpas.
All of which suggests a troubling new standard for Catholic debate: It’s no longer enough, apparently, to say, “X is mistaken.” Now one has to add something like, “X is also corrupt, immoral, and suffers from a variety of personality disorders.”
That may be no more than the temper of the times, but if you’re interested in seeing Catholicism handle its differences constructively, it’s still not terribly encouraging.
1. Who’s the Pope’s Real “Opposition”?
From the beginning, the media narrative about Francis has been that he’s a liberal maverick, making it a natural assumption that his main opposition has to come from conservatives and traditionalists, and it has to be premised on faith and morals.
God knows there’s been enough such blowback, from the “dubia” cardinals to theologians accusing the pope of heresy and blogs hammering away day and night, to sustain the left v. right narrative. Moreover, although polls show Francis enjoys overwhelming approval at the Catholic grassroots, conservative anxiety about the papacy still represents a significant share of the Church and can’t just be dismissed.
Yet what became increasingly clear in 2017 is that measured against the kind of reform he was actually elected to achieve, Francis’s real problem isn’t with conservatives, it’s with a basically non-ideological “old guard.”
In March 2013, cardinals leaving the Sistine Chapel said they had great hopes Francis would prove a “reformer,” by which they meant, in the first place, cleaning up long-festering problems in the Vatican.
Much has been done along those lines, including, for instance, a new climate of respect for local churches and bishops. Francis has overhauled the system for ad limina visits, meaning the trips to Rome bishops from around the world are required to make, and those bishops report their concerns now are being heard and acted upon to a much greater degree than in the past.
Yet when it comes to ending the Vatican’s depressing history of financial scandal, ambitious reforms launched in 2013 largely stalled over the past twelve months. Meanwhile, real power of the purse has gravitated back to the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s all-powerful overseer, in a flagrant reversal of course from just four years ago.
As Crux and other media outlets reported throughout the year, those outcomes have been influenced by a handful of Vatican heavyweights who’ve managed to win Francis’s ear, such as:
- Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, President of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, the Vatican’s main financial powerhouse.
- Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, former head of the now-defunct Prefecture for Financial Affairs, who remains an important behind-the-scenes figure.
- Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, President of the Government of the Vatican City State.
- Perhaps above all, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the “substitute,” or number two official, in the Secretariat of State, and, according to many observers, the most powerful man in Francis’s papacy after the pope himself.
None, in any sense, are “opponents” of Francis in terms of his pastoral vision, or his doctrinal or moral leadership. All profile basically as “moderates,” without clearly defined stances on most questions in Church affairs.
Yet all are also Italian, all veteran Vatican personalities invested in the way things always have been done, and the seeming result of their labors so far has been what many Italian experts on the papacy dismissively call una riforma gattopardesca, a reference to a famous Italian novel whose key line is: “Everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.”
In other words, the left v. right theatrics under Francis may be entertaining, but they’re arguably not where the action is. If you see it instead as change v. the status quo, then ideology is a less reliable guide to who’s on what side.