ROME – Although the drama triggered by the sudden fall from grace of Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu is far from over, things nonetheless have reached the stage where it’s also possible to stand back and ponder the bigger picture.
I say “possible,” not necessarily likely, because frankly the story is just too riveting at the micro level. Becciu, fairly or not, comes off as a character straight out of Hollywood central casting as a suave and charming villain, and it’s awfully tempting to pass time imagining a Vatican version of the hit TV show “Blacklist” with Becciu in the Raymond Reddington role.
Such diversions aside, there is at least one big-picture insight confirmed by the Becciu affair: “Accountability,” in the full American sense of the word, is finally crossing the Tiber in the Pope Francis era.
To recap, from 2011 to 2018 Becciu, now 72, held arguably the most powerful job in the Vatican other than the papacy, which is the role of sostituto, or “substitute,” in the Secretariat of State, making him more or less the pope’s Chief of Staff. He was then elevated to the College of Cardinals and made prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. On Thursday he was shown the door by Pope Francis, who demanded his resignation not only from his Vatican post but from his rights as a cardinal. The reasons have to do with various financial irregularities with which Becciu has been linked over the years, though he vigorously insists he’s done nothing wrong.
Becciu is merely the latest recent firing under Francis.
Back in May, the pontiff summarily dismissed five Vatican officials implicated in a controversial London real estate deal, even before any of them had been convicted or even charged with criminal activity. (It didn’t escape notice here that the firings came on May 1, which is observing in Italy as “Labor Day,” in part to enshrine workers’ rights.) Earlier this year, the pope basically fired German Archbishop Georg Gänswein from his responsibilities as Prefect of the Papal Household, though he retains the title, reportedly upset over Gänswein’s role in a meltdown involving a book initially presented as co-authored by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI that fed perceptions of a conflict between Benedict and Francis.
In 2018, of course, Francis also demanded that Theodore McCarrick resign from the College of Cardinals over allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct, ordering him to observe a life of “prayer and penance in seclusion,” and later removed McCarrick from the priesthood.
For Americans, it seems a no-brainer that someone caught in a scandal or who’s responsible for a failure would be fired. That’s what we mean by “accountability” – coaches whose teams lose get fired, CEOs whose companies under-perform get fired, politicians caught with their hands in the cookie jar get fired, TV stars whose ratings go down get fired, and on and on. It’s the heart of capitalist psychology, really – success brings rewards, failures bring punishment.
Yet Italian culture, which is the matrix in which the Vatican is set, hasn’t always rolled that way. Indeed, there’s not even an exact Italian translation for the English word “accountability.” Put it into Google Translate and you’ll get responsabilità, “responsibility,” but that’s hardly the same thing. In general, Italian labor laws make it exceedingly difficult to fire someone for perceived non-performance. Underlying that, at least in part, is a more communitarian culture, which implies that success or failure rarely rests on the shoulders of a single individual.
Moreover, the Vatican over the years has taken a dim view of American-style “accountability,” regarding it, at best, as more suited to a corporation than a family, and, at worst, as typically immature American over-reaction, blood lust and hysteria.
In the traditional Vatican understanding, a Church leader’s accountability is not to shareholders or the people, but to God and the pope. Further, the Church is understood as a family, and a bishop as a father of that family. This isn’t a job, but a sacramental bond between a bishop and the people entrusted to his care akin to a marriage. Just as Catholicism doesn’t condone divorce, bishops historically weren’t “divorced” from their ecclesiastical spouses either but rather encouraged to live up to their responsibilities.
As a practical matter, accepting a bishop’s resignation when things fall apart traditionally has been seen as letting them off the hook. A retired bishop, especially in Rome, enjoys all the privileges of rank but none of the burdens.
A classic case is offered by the late Cardinal Michele Giordano of Naples, who died in 2010. In 1997 he was a target of a police investigation for giving money from the archdiocese to a loan-sharking operation run by his brother, and Giordano eventually was indicted and put on trial. (In the end he was acquitted because the judge believed he was hoodwinked, making him guilty of naïveté but not fraud.) Through it all – when the investigation was announced, when Giordano was indicted, when the trial began, and all the way up to the verdict – there was speculation Giordano might be fired, but it never happened. He continued to serve as the Archbishop of Naples until his resignation for reasons of age in 2005.
In reality, Pope Francis has never been entirely beholden to that tradition, occasionally jettisoning people he came not to trust. In 2017, for instance, he personally fired Swiss layman Eugenio Hassler, the son of a Swiss Guard who held a senior position at the Government of the Vatican City State, for allegedly creating a negative work environment, and signed off on the dismissal of Italian layman Libero Milone, the first General Auditor of the Vatican, over charges of financial irregularities and spying on Vatican officials. (Those charges eventually were withdrawn by a Vatican prosecutor.)
Yet there’s no question that Francis’s willingness to pull the trigger has accelerated lately. So, what to make of it?
It could just mean that Francis is losing patience about the progress of his Vatican reform. Perhaps he feels that he’s tried moral suasion, personal example, exhortation and even rebuke, and it isn’t working, so he’s more inclined to make heads roll.
Whatever the explanation, let’s pause for a moment and savor an aspect of all this that shouldn’t be lost.
Francis is well known for his antipathy to many aspects of capitalism and American culture, born in part of the decidedly checkered history of US involvement in his native Latin America. Proving once again that God has a keen sense of irony, who would have predicted that it would be this pope, of all people, who would carry American-style accountability across the Tiber river and bring it home to Rome?
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.