Despite rhetoric, Pope Francis treats cardinals like princes

by Thomas Reese

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In his pre-Christmas talk to the cardinals and bishops of the Vatican Curia, Pope Francis shocked his audience and the world by his scathing words on the failings of those working in the Vatican. He warned them against 15 separate "diseases" in their work and attitudes.

In this "examination of conscience," among other sins, he spoke of "spiritual Alzheimer's," "existential schizophrenia" and the "terrorism of gossip."

"They are diseases and temptations which weaken our service to the Lord," he said.

"The list paints a picture of an institution full of gossip, backstabbing and lack of contact with the reality lived by most Catholics around the world," Joshua J. McElwee wrote.

The pope argued that these sins were rooted in a feeling of indispensability that often stems from "the pathology of power, from a superiority complex."

News stories of this talk naturally connected it with Pope Francis' plans to reform the Curia, but the speech notwithstanding, little progress has been seen except in the area of financial reform.

After such a speech, one would have expected heads to roll, but they did not. Despite the rhetoric, curial cardinals are still treated like princes.

True, Cardinal Raymond Burke was sidelined to the Knights of Malta from being the head of the Apostolic Signatura, the church's highest court. But no other curial cardinal was removed from his job in a way that looked like an embarrassing demotion. For example:

  • Cardinal Mauro Piacenza went from being prefect of the Congregation for Clergy to being head of the Apostolic Penitentiary in 2013.
  • Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, was transferred in 2014 to his home archdiocese of Valencia, Spain.

These cardinals can continue to serve the church with their heads held high.

Most turnover of cardinals in the Curia has come about through the natural process of people reaching 75, the age of retirement:

  • Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone retired from the Secretariat of State in 2013.
  • Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro retired as head of the Apostolic Penitentiary in 2013.
  • Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski retired as prefect of the Congregation for Education in 2015.

Possible additional retirements this year include Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio (age 77), head of the Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. His office will probably be merged with another as part of the reform of the Curia.

Likewise, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, head of the Council of Legislative Texts, and Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, are both over 75. The work of Legislative Texts might be given over to the Vatican tribunals. Saints will probably remain unchanged, although prior to 1969, it was part of Divine Worship.

Even when a Vatican office is going to be closed as part of his reform plan, Pope Francis finds another position in the Curia for the cardinal if he is under 75 rather than using it as an excuse to retire him early:

  • Cardinal Robert Sarah went from head of Cor Unum to being prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
  • Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi went from head of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs of the Holy See to prefect of the Congregation for Education.

If the pope continues to follow this pattern, I would not be surprised to see another cardinal from a closing dicastery made prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints when Amato retires.

For example, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko from the Council for the Laity and Gianfranco Ravasi from the Council for Culture may need new jobs if their councils are closed or merged into another dicastery. One of them might even be made prefect of a new Congregation for the Laity. 

In short, despite what the pope says, this is pretty gentle treatment for the leaders of a diseased organization. Francis is the kind pastor even with the Curia. 

Cardinals Sarah (age 69) and Versaldi (71) are, however, interesting cases. The pope could have found new people for Education and Divine Worship, but then he would have had to eventually make them cardinals under the current rules. Prefects of congregations must be cardinals according to Pastor Bonus, the 1998 apostolic constitution governing the Curia.

By taking cardinals from the bench, Francis avoids increasing the number of curial cardinals in the College of Cardinals. At the time of his election, curial cardinals made up 35 percent of the College of Cardinals. Today, they are only 29 percent. Another 7 percent were (and still are) curial officials who became heads of local churches.

If this downward trend continues, the Curia will have significantly less influence at the next conclave. 

While I would prefer to see no curial officials as cardinals, Pope Francis does not see it that way. He believes his closest collaborators should be cardinals.

On the other hand, perhaps his most important reform of the Curia will be to reduce the number of offices that can be headed by cardinals and therefore the percentage of curial cardinals in the college. That in itself would be an achievement worth mentioning in the history books.

One downside of this strategy, however, is that if the pope had appointed younger men to Education and Divine Worship, they would have continued in office for years after he left the scene. Now his successor will most likely appoint their successors. But if his successor is chosen by a conclave with fewer curial cardinals, that may not matter. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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