Enemies within and without

Pope Francis is engaged in a generational reform effort

There are not many things Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada and Pope Francis of the See of Rome have in common but they both face a demanding 2014, demanding in that they must deliver on pledges publicly made.

Harper must find a way of either reforming or eliminating Canada’s national chamber of sober second thought, the senate, and Francis must find a way of reforming the Catholic Church’s central governance body, the Curia.  Ireland is not the only political jurisdiction struggling to find ways to make its second chamber relevant and valued.


So far, Francis is winning the race with Prime Minister Harper despite his age—77—and his one lung.  His stamina is remarkable by any standard equalled only by his tenacity.  To date, he has initiated many changes in the Vatican Bank, curiously dubbed the Institute for the Works of Religion, and the myriad other byzantine bodies that oversee the finances of the Holy See; he has ushered in changes in the powerful Secretariat of State (he has replaced the ineffective and unilingual  Tarcisio Bertone with the accomplished polyglot Pietro Parolin); and he has stared down his numerous operatives, papal hangers-on, and cohort of retainers by insisting on pastoral priorities over diplomatic niceties, spontaneity over courtly behaviour, and credible leadership over centralising management. He has his enemies within and without.

Sir Ivor Roberts, President of Trinity College, Oxford and a past British Ambassador to Italy, has cautioned the Pope to pay heed to his security people because he is in the crosshairs of the Mafia as a consequence of his financial reforms.  It is not likely that Francis will pay heed to the prudential and theologically progressive Sir Ivor; it is not in his nature to privilege personal safety over accessibility.  He is, after all, the Fisherman.

Cabinet structure

But the most important undertaking—at least in terms of institutional management—is his shuffling of personnel in the Congregation of Bishops.  It is this senior dicastery or cabinet structure that determines—by way of vetting and recommendation—who among the world’s priests will become bishops and who among the world’s bishops will be promoted archbishops.

Francis understands, like Prime Minister Harper, that when seeking to implement reform and renewal much depends—indeed, all depends—on the capacity of your personnel to implement the directives, define the style, and commit to the vision/agenda of the senior officer.


To that end, Francis has removed the image-obsessed American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a canonist with a taste for ecclesiastical frippery, arcane clerical conventions, and theological nostrums rooted in the 19th Century, with the urbane, pastorally-connected and moderate Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. American Catholics are especially intrigued by this personnel shuffle.

 Burke represents the ultra-conservative wing of the American hierarchy and has demonstrated an uncommon determination to favour a direct, adverserial, and scorched earth approach when dealing with US political figures—read: anyone associated with the Obama administration and with Democrats in general.  His hostility to modernity is amplified by his aesthetic preference for the cappa magna, abundant silk and lace, and waves of incense.  Wuerl, by contrast, prefers dialogue over condemnation when dealing with politicians (he is the cardinal- archbishop of the nation’s capital after all) and is clearly more in keeping with the understated prelatical presence exemplified by Francis than by the latter’s immediate predecessor.

Carefully calculated

But the Pope has retained Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet as the prefect or head of the Congregation itself.  For all the criticism lobbed against Francis, particularly by traditionalists – that he moves far too quickly in making change – he actually moves with carefully calculated moderation.  Ouellet is no game-changer; he is no radical new presence on the Roman scene.  He was papabile during the last conclave, Benedict’s delegate to the Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin, and is an able theologian with extensive seminary experience in Colombia.  He knows South America and has a keen sense of its pressing pastoral priorities.  He is a reflective and intelligent conservative and his removal would be interpreted as a statement against Pope Benedict.  Such an action would hinder rather than help Francis and this Jesuit from Argentina, as we have already seen, is more irenic than war-like in his strategy for reform.

Biggest obstacle

The biggest obstacle the Pope faces in his resolve to decentralise the Church’s governance apparatus is the simple fact that his immediate two predecessors spent decades centralising that very structure, appointed bishops they could rely on to shore up Rome’s hegemonic control, and marginalising dissenting bishops through an unwelcome early retirement plan, the guarantee of living in the shadow of Vatican displeasure or relegation to remote geographical jurisdictions. 

With thousands of bishops to see to, this is a generational reform effort but the signs are auspicious.

He could perhaps accelerate things by offering obscurantist Lords Spiritual to those bicameral democracies that have a place for unelected partisans.