Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Pope Francis with only one Master

On the agenda of Pope Francis, the chief administrative item is the reform of the Roman Curia.

This was the radical commission he was given by the College of Cardinals at his election.

He has recently been telling friends how difficult it is proving, while being urged to get a move on by Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz, former chairman of the German bishops’ conference.

In fact, with the Roman August shut-down fast approaching and the group of cardinals he has appointed to advise him on curial reform not due to meet until October, it is a little early to become impatient.

The issue he has already been wrestling with is about personnel. He inherited Pope Benedict’s appointments, including the key figures of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as Secretary of State and Archbishop Gerhard Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Cardinal Bertone had become the focus of much of the discontented grumbling that grew inside the Curia as Pope Benedict’s papacy drew to its unexpected close. That problem may solve itself, as at 78 he is overdue for retirement. Whether the position of Secretary of State survives the impending curial reform is for the Pope’s group of cardinal advisers to consider.

But the grand title does not immediately resonate with the Sermon on the Mount, which seems to be the tone in which Francis is trying to restyle the papacy.

Archbishop Müller is a more complicated case, not least because he was the personal choice of Pope Benedict with whom Pope Francis still has regular discussions.

But the archbishop is clearly out of step with the new mood, for instance in his astonishing recent statement that divorced and remarried Catholics who want to receive Communion cannot appeal to God’s mercy. He is not going to be able to live it down. It is well known that many of his fellow German bishops – and others elsewhere in the world – strongly disagree.

One option would be to divide the Congregation in two, one part taking on responsibility for the discipline of the clergy – suitably modernised to avoid a repetition of the disastrous mistakes in handling clerical child abuse – and the other responsible for policing doctrine, an issue that Pope Francis himself has implied need not be taken too seriously.

Thus downgraded, the role of prefect of the CDF would disappear. Both these functions should in the first instance be handled by local bishops’ conferences, with Rome reverting to its traditional role as a court of appeal.

That would demonstrate the principle that under collegiality, the governing body of the Catholic Church is not the Pope and the Curia but the Pope and the bishops, with the Curia in support.

The era of the “one size fits all” decree from the Vatican would have come to an end.

Pope Francis is already encountering resistance, and recently told a friend that the changes he was making in the Vatican had been difficult: “It has not been easy, there were many ‘masters’ of the Pope here and they have been in their positions for a very long time.”

That also suggests the changes he has in mind are far-reaching. If so, he has indeed grasped the measure of the challenge he faces – to save the Catholic Church from itself.
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