Pope Francis in 2017: Question marks over what counts as 'reform'

Pope Francis in 2017: Question marks over what counts as ‘reform’

Though Pope Francis is seen as a reformer, 2017 brought question marks about what kind of reform he's pursuing, and whether it's working.

[Editors note: This is part two of Crux Vatican correspondent Inès San Martìn’s look back at Pope Francis in 2017. Part one yesterday was devoted to Francis’s foreign trips over the past year. In part three tomorrow, she examines the pontiff’s role as a diplomat and voice of conscience, as well as some odds and ends from the papal beat.]

ROME – From the beginning, Pope Francis has been labeled a “reformer,” and also from the beginning, it’s been a bit unclear what exactly “reform” means in his case. Is it revitalizing the public image of a Church that was emerging from an atmosphere of crisis in March 2013, changing the political and theological orientation of the Church in the direction of what some analysts call a “pastoral conversion”, or the nuts-and-bolts work of cleaning house in the Vatican itself?

Is it all three, something else besides, or none of the above? Indeed, do some versions of reform given above even count, or are they actually dangerous deviations?  Depending on how one answers those questions, judgments on Francis as a reformer can range from a triumphant success to, at least so far, a dismal failure.

In any event, 2017 was another eventful year on the reform front, and here are some of the highlights.

Personnel is policy

When he was elected to the papacy in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina knew that one of the premises of his support was precisely his first-hand knowledge of how dysfunctional and slow the Vatican bureaucracy can be, and also how insular and “inside the beltway” its psychology can be for those who don’t have much experience out in the field.

Soon after his election, he created a group of eight cardinal advisers to help him with the reform of the Roman Curia. Later he added the Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to form what’s now known as the “C9.” The American representative on the body is Cardinal Sean O’Malley, and by now, it’s met more than 20 times.

The prelates come from every continent but Antartica, and have a diverse range of personal, political, and theological backgrounds. They have been tasked with re-writing the Vatican’s constitution, and at this point there’s no news as to when that process might be done.

2017 was a year that saw some progress in at least the staffing of the two mega-dicasteries the pope created last year, following the advice of the C9. One is dedicated to Human Development, headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, and the other for all things family, laity and life, headed by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell.

Another personnel move that shook things up was Francis decision to not to renew German Cardinal Gerhard Müller as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, choosing instead to promote the second-in-command, Spanish Jesuit Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer.

Given that Ladaria is considered as much a theological conservative as Müller, the transition was seen in Rome not as broad ideological statement by Francis, but one about loyalty. Müller, to some extent, had identified himself with the opposition to Francis’ controversial document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, and its cautious opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, while Ladaria stayed out of the fray.

Another element of the shake-up of the Roman Curia that has garnered support were changes in the ad-limina visits, meaning, the quinquennial pilgrimage the bishops from each country make to the Eternal City. Now there’s a meeting at the end involving Francis, the visiting bishops, and the heads of most Vatican offices, and word from the first round of those sessions is that if a dispute comes up, Francis rarely sides with his mandarins in Rome over the shepherds of local dioceses.

Globally, Pope Francis has continued his push of a more pastoral church, visibly through some of his episcopal appointments, including Mexico City and Paris. Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes and Bishop Michel Aupetit each replaced Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera and Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, each of whom led their dioceses for decades.

Child sexual abuse

When it comes to the fight against clerical sexual abuse, Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is currently at an impasse, waiting for the pope to sign-off the new list of members. The current one had a three-year mandate, up Dec. 17.

Seeing that the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors is often considered the worst in the Church since the Protestant Reformation, many observers say that apparent Vatican lethargy in providing the commission with needed resources and assistance is worrying.

In addition, Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins resigned from the commission in March, over frustrations with the Curia. The other survivor who sat on the group, British Peter Saunders, had been put on a leave of absence in 2016, and a few days before his term ended, he announced his formal resignation.

Also generating controversy in 2017 was the case of Australian Cardinal George Pell, who in late June was charged by prosecutors in his native country for “historical sexual offenses.” Pell has vigorously disputed those charges, and is presently back home assisting in his defense, having been granted a leave of absence by Francis from his position heading the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy.

Another critical moment from Francis on the sex abuse front will come in mid-January, when he travels to Chile before heading to Peru. His controversial 2015 appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno, despite the fact Barros was an apologist for Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest, sparked wide controversy, exacerbated by a video recorded in St. Peter’s Square in October 2015 in which Francis is head calling the anti-Barros protestors “dumb” and suggesting they’d been “led by the nose by the leftists who orchestrated all of this.”

While in Chile, Francis will no doubt be pressed to offer an accounting for his handling of the Barros case.

Vatican finances

When Francis was elected in March 2013, some cardinals left the Sistine Chapel saying, “No more Calvis!” as a synthesis of what they expected from the new pope. The reference was to Italian financier Roberto Calvi, who had deep links to the Vatican bank and who died under still-mysterious circumstances in 1982, so invoking his name was a shorthand way of saying the era of Vatican financial scandal would be over.

At the beginning, Pope Francis created three new instruments to lead a comprehensive overhaul of Vatican money management in the direction of great transparency and accountability: A Council for the Economy, to set policy; a Secretariat for the Economy, to implement it; and an independent Auditor General, to keep everyone honest.

By the end of 2017, however, two of those three new agencies appeared moribund, while real power over finances had steadily returned to the Secretariat of State – ironically, the bastion of the Vatican’s “old guard” which the reforms were originally intended to defang.

Pell is in Australia with his return seemingly more and more uncertain, leaving the secretariat without a cardinal at the top. Meanwhile, the Auditor General, Italian layman Libero Milone, ended his Vatican service in June without any clear explanation as to why.

In November, Milone was joined by the adjunct director of the Vatican bank, Italian layman Giulio Mattietti, who was unceremoniously escorted off the physical territory of the Vatican City-State, again with no explanation given.

A high-profile Vatican trial for financial crimes in 2017 also left many unsatisfied, as it ended with the conviction of an Italian layman for diverting $500,000 of funds intended for a papally-sponsored children’s hospital to remodel the apartment of a Vatican cardinal, but no charges at all, and not even an investigation, of the cardinal who benefitted from the expense.

All that has left some observers prepared to pronounce the financial reform dead on arrival, meaning that if Francis wishes to revive it, he may have work cut out for him in 2018.

Decentralization and liturgy

Pope Francis also furthered his push for decentralization, with the biggest note on this regard being his September amendments to Church law governing liturgical translation, the net effect of which is to shift a considerable share of the power away from the Vatican and to local bishops’ conferences.

This decision put the pope in more-or-less open opposition with his chief liturgist, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Ghana, with the pontiff correcting the prelate after Sarah had stated that Rome would continue to have the final word.

Though some saw the move as a victory for Catholic liberals, particularly thinking of the ongoing German and Italian translations, Francis soon cut in the opposite direction on another contested liturgical issue, siding with his predecessor Benedict XVI by insisting that the proper phrasing in the Mass is that Christ died “for many,” instead of using the phrase “for all.”

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