Is Pope Francis at War with the Vatican Itself?

Catholics are often told to be in the world but not of the world, meaning that while they carry on ordinary lives, they should never forget their faith and what it demands of them.

In a similar way, Pope Francis seems to be urging the Vatican to be in Italy (or at least, entirely surrounded by it) but not of Italy. While geography and history have led to a dominance of Italians within the Vatican bureaucracy, both among clerics and laity, the Catholic Church is a worldwide institution, and the first pope from the Western Hemisphere is throwing open the gates of Vatican City and letting the world in.

On Aug. 23, The Spectator published a long, thoughtful piece by British writer Damian Thompson, who discusses his belief that the Roman Curia – the administrative framework of the Holy See, through which the pope conducts the Church's business, both spiritual and temporal – thwarted and ultimately derailed the papacy of Francis' predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

It's Thompson's assertion that, behind Francis' quick rise to popularity as a faith leader, moral force, and folk hero, his real business, the reason the cardinals elected this Argentinian outsider, was to clean up the Vatican, mired in cronyism and corruption and hamstrung by scandal.

While Thompson notes that Francis shares a strong, orthodox Catholic faith and a love of classical music with Benedict, he writes, "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."

He also points out, "As superior of the Argentine Jesuits, Bergoglio expected instant obedience."

Although their luster has considerably dimmed in recent years – ironically, because too often Jesuits, especially those in education, have become too much of the world and not enough of the Church – the Society of Jesus once had a reputation as a producer of fearless missionaries, explorers, and martyrs.

During Francis's recent trip to South Korea, it was pointed out that the first Catholic texts that led to the conversion of many Koreans came from Jesuit missionaries in China.

As Thompson writes, "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."

At 77, Francis comes from the pre-Baby Boomer Jesuit tradition of muscular Catholicism (which seems to be making a comeback among younger Jesuits), so he's taking a no-nonsense approach to his reforms, starting with the dodgy goings-on at the Institute for Religious Works, popularly known as the Vatican Bank. In recent decades, it's been somewhat less of a bank and more of a sieve, with money disappearing into pet projects and cronies' pockets.

As quoted in July in The New York Times, Australian Cardinal George Pell, Francis' new prefect for economic affairs, said, "Our ambition is to become something of a model in financial management rather than a cause for occasional scandal."

Speaking to Catholic News Service (CNS) earlier this month, Pell said, "If we are going to help the poor, we need to have the wherewithal, and the better we manage our finances, the more good works we can do. I remember Margaret Thatcher's comment, that the Good Samaritan, if he hadn't been a little bit of a capitalist, had his own store of money, he couldn't have helped. We can do more if we generate more."

While much of the Vatican's wealth is tied up in historic architecture and works of art, world treasures which are open to all visitors, making sure there's a steady cash flow can ensure that when help is urgently needed it can be quickly delivered.

As an example of this, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the pope's personal envoy to Iraq, announced that Francis had made a $1 million donation to help Iraqi Christians and other persecuted and displaced minorities.

Speaking to Catholic News Agency, Filoni said that, when he traveled to Iraq earlier this month, he carried one tenth of the total sum and that "75 percent of the money was delivered to Catholics, and the remaining 25 percent to the Yazidi community."

Francis has also been intent on decentralizing power from the Vatican bureaucracy and returning it to local bishops, which is in line with the original intent for the Church's structure. So even as he wields his papal authority to correct what he sees as problems, Francis has called for synods of bishops, including one on the marriage and the family set for October, for which he's sought information on issues from the parish level. He's also created councils of cardinals from around the world and commissions of lay people to debate issues and advise him.

As the successor of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome has the final say in many things, but individual bishops and cardinals have rights and powers of their own as fellow successors of the apostles.

As Pell explained to CNS, "We're a very flat organization. The individual bishops respond to the pope, and I fully understand this, and I want to maintain this authority and independence. I think it's more congenial to, you might say [encourage] the flowering of the prophetic spirit, rather than having individuals smothered regularly by national or continental conferences."

He continued, "We don't want big Roman bureaucracies, apart from the fact that we couldn't pay for them. But I think, as a matter of principle, practical authority should be exercised by bishops."

Francis has a Herculean task ahead of him, and, as he joked with reporters on the plane returning from Korea, "I know this will last a short time, two or three years, and then to the house of the Father."

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio may have been elected pope to change the Vatican and not the world, but if this spectacularly popular figure can play his cards right in the next "two or three years," Pope Francis just may be able to do both.

Below, see Thompson and others discussing "The Pope vs. the Vatican":


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