ROME – By now, a great deal has been said and written about the defenestration of Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, once arguably the most influential man in the Vatican after the pope himself, who now finds himself suddenly stripped of both his Vatican sinecure and the rights pertaining to being a cardinal.
Becciu, 72, served for seven years as the sostituto, or “substitute,” in the Secretariat of State, basically the pope’s chief of staff, where his capacity to amass and wield power was the stuff of legend. He became the face of the Italian “old guard” in the Vatican, meaning prelates schooled in a certain way of doing business and tenacious about defending it.
When Francis appointed Becciu as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2018 and named him a cardinal, it was taken by insiders as a “golden parachute,” meaning that Francis had lost confidence in Becciu but wanted to give him a soft landing.
As is well documented, Becciu has been linked to several financial embarrassments and scandals in the Vatican over the years, and it was apparently money that finally brought him down. We now know, thanks almost entirely to Becciu himself, that he was accused by Pope Francis of multiple offenses in a tense confrontation Thursday afternoon, including diverting funds to companies owned by his brothers in deals for fixtures for the Vatican’s overseas embassies. He was also accused of donating Vatican funds to a charity in his native Sardinia run by another relative.
Becciu held a hastily arranged news conference Friday to defend himself, insisting that he’d done nothing wrong and appealing to Pope Francis to give him a chance to prove his innocence.
Inside the Vatican this is, by far, the most significant firing of the Pope Francis era. The ouster of Theodore McCarrick, by comparison, made few waves here, because it wasn’t about how the Vatican is run or who runs it. Becciu’s downfall, however, speaks volumes about the pope’s growing impatience with what he perceives as corruption and obstinate resistance to reform, and it amounts to a clear wake-up call that no one is untouchable.
Three thoughts about the drama suggest themselves.
First, the Vatican announced the news Thursday night at roughly 8:00 p.m. in a terse one-line statement saying only that Becciu had resigned from his office and from his rights as a cardinal. In a certain way, you have to admire Vatican communications personnel; sometimes it’s as if there’s an Olympic event for leaving obvious questions dangling, and these guys are training hard for the gold.
Presumably, the logic for saying nothing more was that Becciu hadn’t been convicted of any crime, at least not yet, and thus deserved the right to his good name, whatever the pope may have privately concluded. The flaw in that logic is that such an announcement hardly protects Becciu’s reputation – on the contrary, it invited speculation about all manner of hypothetical offenses, most of which probably are significantly worse than the truth.
If the Vatican is going to announce that the pope has thrown an official under the bus, it might as well go ahead and say why. It does no one any favors to be coy … unless, of course, there’s concern the actual reason might not withstand scrutiny, in which case you’ve got bigger problems that whatever you put in the official announcement.
Second, Becciu was adamant Friday that he didn’t see any crime in paying his brother’s company roughly $230,000 for fixtures for the Vatican embassy in Cuba where he served as ambassador between 2009 and 2011.
“Excuse me, but I didn’t know anyone else,” he said in a newspaper interview that came out Friday morning. “It was obvious I’d use my brother’s company. The work wasn’t even finished under me but the ambassador who followed me, who was so happy with the service he called the company again when he was later sent to Egypt.”
“I don’t see a crime,” he said during the press conference.
Of course, there’s a notoriously bad word for such deals, which is “nepotism.” Not knowing anyone else who could do the work is no excuse, because that’s what open bidding for contracts is all about. Clearly the operation wasn’t in the spirit of Pope Francis, who decreed a new law in early June specifying, among other things, that no one with a family relationship with a bidder for a Vatican contract can be involved in the decision.
The thing is, though, that tossing contracts to your relatives without any formal review or competitive bidding has been part of Italian business culture for so long, especially for men of Becciu’s generation, that he may be genuinely stupefied anyone would find fault. It would take a moral theologian to parse it all, but we could be looking at the difference between objective and subjective sin – if Becciu honestly didn’t believe there was anything wrong with what he was doing, then this could be what Aquinas called “invincible ignorance.”
Granted, that’s probably not a line anyone wants on their résumé, but it’s possibly applicable nevertheless.
Third, it will be fascinating to see what Becciu chooses to do now.
He could follow the path blazed by Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and emerge as a public enemy of Pope Francis, despite his protestation Friday: “When I became a cardinal, I promised to give my life for the Church and for the pope. Today, I renew my trust and I’m willing to give my life.”
Should he choose to break ranks, Becciu could be a far more nettlesome foe than the conspiracy-minded Viganò, among other things because Becciu knows far more about the Vatican’s dirty laundry and because he’s much better-connected.
However, among the multiple accusations lodged against Becciu over the years, no one’s ever suggested he’s a fool. If being the icon of the old guard means anything, it means taking the long view. Becciu knows that popes come and go but the Vatican endures, and it’s possible that under a future papacy he could find himself in favor anew.
If Becciu keeps his power dry, in other words, it would be a mistake to conclude that he – and the old guard along with him – have thrown in the towel. If discretion is the better part of valor, sometimes patience is the prelude to vindication.
After all, plenty of prelates whose careers seemed dead in the water have experienced a miraculous resurrection under Pope Francis – think Cardinal Walter Kasper, for instance, or Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga. Perhaps Becciu may be willing to bet that the same thing could happen to him, only in reverse.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.