Damian Thompson

Revealed: The Pope’s war with the Vatican

Francis is firmly set on dealing with the Curia bureaucrats who did for Benedict XVI

Revealed: The Pope's war with the Vatican
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[/audioplayer]If you want to understand how Pope Francis is planning to change the Catholic church, then don’t waste time searching for clues in the charming, self-effacing press conference he gave on the plane back from South Korea on Monday.

It’s easy to be misled by the Pope’s shoulder-shrugging interviews and impromptu phone calls. On his return flight from Rio last year, he said, ‘If a gay person seeks God, who am I to judge?’ What did that mean? Then there was that mysterious telephone conversation with an Argentinian woman apparently telling her it was OK to receive communion despite her irregular marriage. The media has concluded that Francis wants the church to change its stance on divorcees and same-sex couples.

But the media are wrong. Neither of these subjects is high on Francis’s agenda — and, even if they were, he wouldn’t alter Catholic teaching on sexuality.

The first non-European Pope was elected to do one thing: reform the Roman Curia, the pitifully disorganised, corrupt and lazy central machinery of the church. He is determined to pull it off — but he’s 77 and has part of a lung missing. When he looks at his watch during long Masses in St Peter’s, it’s not just because elaborate services bore him. He knows he may not have much time. ‘Two or three years and then off to the house of the Father,’ he said this week. Was he serious? You can never tell.

Jorge Bergoglio has little in common with Joseph Ratzinger apart from an intense, orthodox Catholic faith and a love of classical music. Like many Jesuits, Francis isn’t interested in liturgy. This is actually good news for traditionalists, because it means he won’t clamp down on the Latin Mass (with one baffling exception: the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, a new order whose use of the Old Missal has been brutally restricted).

But there is one big difference. To quote a senior bishop: ‘Benedict allowed the Roman Curia, and specifically the Italians in it, to kill his pontificate. Francis will not permit that to happen.’ He will strike first.

The Pope has declared a spiritual culture war on the bureaucrats who forced the resignation of his predecessor, the most intellectually gifted pontiff for 200 years. Cardinal Ratzinger was once known as ‘the Rottweiler’. How ludicrous that nickname seems in the light of his eight years as Pope, during which he allowed curial officials — including his incompetent secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone — to plunge the church deeper into financial and sexual scandal while they fought their own factional battles. Benedict was too old and too kind to knock heads together.

Pope Francis is far more of a rottweiler. He became a Jesuit because he wanted to be ‘in military terms, on the front lines of the church’. As superior of the Argentine Jesuits, Bergoglio expected instant obedience. He still does, much of the time, even though he has moved to the left and become a ferocious advocate of social justice for the poor.

As a Latin American who didn’t know his way around Rome when he became pope, he approaches the Curia as an outsider. That is why the cardinals elected him. They did not imagine that this previously austere figure, who even as a prince of the church travelled on buses dressed as a simple priest, would turn on the charm for journalists and become a global celebrity. (In Buenos Aires he rarely gave interviews.) But they did suspect that he would kick the living daylights out of Vatican politicians who seal sleazy deals with Italian businessmen while stuffing their faces with saltimbocca alla romana.

Last year Francis described his ‘court’ as ‘the leprosy of the papacy’. By ‘court’ he may have been referring to monarchical trappings — but employees of the Curia suspected that he was talking about them. For those good priests who found themselves trapped in a sclerotic bureaucracy it came across as a needless insult. ‘Morale is tremendously low,’ says a Vatican source. ‘And matters aren’t helped by Latin American clergy swanning around Rome telling us how they’re bringing us simplicity. There’s a new ultramontanism of the left. You can disagree with anything the church teaches so long as you think Francis is fabulous.’

But neither the Pope’s cheerleaders nor his critics grasp the essence of his mission. The battles between liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, defined the last pontificate — not this one.

The Pope has begun his attack on the Curia by placing its scandal-ridden financial structures under the control of a new department with unprecedented powers: the Secretariat for the Economy. Its first prefect is Cardinal George Pell, the conservative former Archbishop of Sydney.

The blunt-spoken Pell is a close friend of Tony Abbott and, like the Australian prime minister, a climate change sceptic. In an interview with the Catholic News Service earlier this month, he said: ‘I remember Margaret Thatcher’s comment, that the Good Samaritan, if he hadn’t been a little bit of a capitalist and had his own store of money, couldn’t have helped. We can do more if we generate more.’ (One can only imagine how this went down with the bishops of England and Wales, whose politics and financial acumen are those of the 1980s public sector.)

The Secretariat for the Economy has taken control of the Vatican Bank, formerly run by Cardinal Bertone as Benedict XVI’s second in command. The mess he created is illustrated by his decision — against the advice of the bank’s directors — to invest €15 million in Lux Vide, a Catholic television company. The Vatican has now had to write off the investment.

‘The zeroing of the Lux Vide investment is emblematic of Pope Francis’s effort to loosen ties between the Holy See and Italy’s business and political world, a long-standing network of relations the Argentine pontiff considers improper to the church’s religious mission,’ wrote Philip Pullella, a leading Vatican reporter.

Bertone has been replaced as Secretary of State by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who has no authority over money and is definitely not ‘deputy pope’. The Pope has also sacked the five board members of the Vatican’s financial watchdog, the Financial Information Authority. All were Italians.

This abrupt change of regime has created space for Cardinal Pell to introduce what he described in his interview as ‘international standards for accounting and money management… Before the end of the year we hope to appoint an auditor who’ll be completely independent here and to whom anybody can have recourse.’ Pell will also reform the Vatican’s dire media operation. In this he’ll be advised by Lord Patten of Barnes, though fortunately the smug former chairman of the BBC Trust will have no influence on the church’s message.

No single person will be allowed to conduct significant financial business. Every Vatican department will be held accountable for overspending. ‘None of this is rocket science,’ said Pell, ‘but we’re very well aware that when people donate to the church they expect the money to be used wisely, for good purposes.’ Financial policy will be proposed by a Council for the Economy whose lay members held top jobs at KPMG and McKinsey; one of them was the Singaporean finance minister. The new superintendents of the Vatican Bank include Sir Michael Hintze, a hedge fund billionaire. He’s also a major Tory party donor. This may feel far removed from ‘the church of the poor’ — but the changes were ordered by Pope Francis, who believes that the poor are not best served by old-style cardinals who manage money about as effectively as the Co-op’s Revd Paul Flowers.

When it comes to reform of the entire Curia, Francis is advised by the so-called ‘C9’ committee of nine cardinals, of whom George Pell is one. It’s chaired by Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras — a charismatic pastor who is unremittingly hostile to ‘neoliberal’ America. He shoots from the hip. In January he told Archbishop (now Cardinal) Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to stop seeing the world in black and white. This was a bit rich coming from Rodriguez, who in 2002 suggested that America’s Jewish-controlled media was playing up the paedophile scandals to punish the Catholic church for its support of Palestine.

How will the C9 reform the bits of the Curia covering doctrine, evangelisation, clergy, foreign affairs and so on? To repeat: major changes on marriage and homosexuality aren’t on the agenda. In October, a synod of bishops will discuss the family: since it’s almost certain to reject calls to admit divorced people to the Eucharist, Francis needs to lower expectations. He doesn’t want to find himself in the position of Paul VI, who provoked a hysterical reaction when he vetoed proposals to allow artificial birth control.

What is on the agenda is ‘decentralisation’, the current buzzword. The problem is that, while taking power out of the hands of Vatican bureaucrats is a good thing, giving authority to national bishops’ conferences isn’t much better. Consider the mediocrity of the English hierarchy, made up of grey, jargon-spouting liberals. Here we encounter one of Francis’s weaknesses: his ignorance of the Anglosphere. He doesn’t speak English. He has never been to the United States.

‘The Pope is hungry to spread the Gospel and in Latin America he sees that being done most effectively by left-wing priests in the slums,’ says a Vatican insider. ‘What he doesn’t realise is that in North America and other English-speaking countries, it’s the conservatives who have fire in their bellies, who evangelise, often with minimal encouragement from their bishops.’ And no one is likely to explain it to him.

So, given the cruel pressures on this old man, what reform can he hope to achieve beyond a shake-up of finances? Let’s return to the aspect of Francis’s identity that the media keeps overlooking — his membership of the Society of Jesus. The decline of the Jesuits is one of the biggest disasters to have hit the church in recent decades, emptying countries of their brightest missionaries and leaving schools and parishes in the hands of jobsworths. Pope after pope has tried to reverse it, but perhaps only a Jesuit pontiff can force the order to start training its priests properly again.

Sorting out the finances and reviving the Jesuits: these may not sound like the apocalyptic reforms predicted by Francis’s more excitable supporters. In fact, they would be remarkable achievements. And if the church is lucky, they will form part of a long-overdue culture change. ‘Fingers crossed,’ says a seasoned Vatican commentator, ‘but it looks as if the sort of Italian cardinals who brought down Benedict have been chased out. Whatever happens, they mustn’t be allowed back.’

Damian Thompson is an associate editor of The Spectator. His books include The Fix and Counterknowledge.