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ROME – Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, detractors of St. Paul VI dubbed him the “Hamlet Pope” for his alleged waffling and the perceived fashion in which he would agonize over difficult decisions. Whether that image of the pontiff was fair or not, it stuck, so much so that it was it featured in the opening paragraphs of many papal obituaries.
Today, one sometimes wonders why Francis, in equal and opposite fashion, hasn’t yet been termed by his own critics the “Lear Pope,” meaning a leader who doesn’t hesitate to act – who, in fact, can come off as perhaps a bit rash or impetuous, but never indecisive.
Francis’s latest such “Lear moment” came Tuesday, when the Vatican announced that he has essentially placed the global Catholic charity Caritas into receivership. He fired its entire leadership team and appointed his own interim administrator, Italian organizational consultant Pier Francesco Pinelli, who will run things ahead of the next General Assembly of Caritas set for May 2023.
The changes came as a surprise even to most Caritas personnel, who were gathered in Rome for their first in-person meeting since the Covid pandemic broke out in 2019. A press briefing with Caritas leaders from various parts of the world was staged Tuesday morning with no mention of the impending papal decree, which came out just as the briefing was wrapping up.
Caritas, whose headquarters are in the Vatican, is a federation of Catholic charitable organizations that operate in more than 200 countries. In 2020 it reported income of $5.2 million and expenses of $4.5 million, though that’s just the Rome budget and does not reflect income and expenses for its various members.
No real explanation was given for the abrupt papal take-over, other than a sort of via negativa – that is to say, we know what the reasons weren’t, as a Vatican statement said there was no evidence of financial or sexual impropriety.
(It’s telling about the Catholic Church in 2022 that if someone gets fired, you have to say out loud that it wasn’t because of money or sex – because if you don’t, everyone will assume one of those two things had to be the reason.)
Beyond excluding those two factors, the statement simply said that an internal review had revealed “real deficiencies” in management, leading to damage to “team-spirit and staff morale.”
Many observers tend to believe that the problems, at least in part, centered around the ousted Secretary General of Caritas, meaning its day-to-day CEO, an Indian layman with French citizenship named Aloysius John.
John came to power in 2019 after other candidates for the top job dropped out, and rumors suggest charges of heavy-handed leadership and suspect management on his watch. In one possible sign of discontent, Vatican News, the official news platform of the Vatican, reported Tuesday that when Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle read the decree aloud to Caritas members, it was greeted with applause.
Speaking of Tagle, his reputation likely will take something of a hit in the wake of the upheaval. He’s served as the elected President of Caritas since 2015 and was reelected in 2019, meaning whatever internal failures led to the decision occurred on his watch. Tagle too lost his position as a result of the decree, although he will continue to serve as a liaison among Caritas members during the interim administration.
Tagle has been a key Francis ally and loyalist, so the fact that the pope was willing to allow him to go down with the ship, so to speak, is one measure of just how much Francis believes is at stake.
It’s worth noting that this is not the first time in recent memory that the Vatican has essentially forced a change at the top in Caritas.
Eleven years ago, the Secretariat of State blocked the reappointment of British laywoman Lesley-Anne Knight as Secretary General, in part over complaints that she wasn’t sufficiently sensitive to concerns under Pope Benedict XVI that Catholic charitable activities shouldn’t partner with organizations promoting activities contrary to church teaching, such as the use of birth control.
Ironically, the big perceived loser of the showdown was Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who pleaded with his fellow Salesian, then-Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, on Knight’s behalf, but to no avail. Under Francis, of course, Maradiaga has gone on to become a core member of the pontiff’s inner circle.
A decade ago, the tensions over Knight led to a new set of statutes clarifying the Vatican’s oversight role with regard to Caritas, among other things emphasizing the authority of the Secretariat of State.
Today, the issues involved seem less about doctrine than about management.
Still, the one thing the shake-ups under both Benedict and now Francis have in common is this: Both are reminders that although Caritas personnel may move in very different circles from Vatican officials, and the day-to-day work flow at Caritas may foster a sense of autonomy, the organization is still under papal authority.
Recent history tells us that popes will find ways, by hook or crook, to make that authority stick.