Sometimes for excellent reasons, presidents and prime ministers in democracies are prone to suspect plots aimed at removing them or forcing fundamental policy changes. The reign of Pope Francis, now in its eighth year, testifies to the fact that ruthless power struggles go on at the Vatican, too.
The infighting revolves around alleged financial crimes, sexual abuse scandals, doctrinal disputes and Pope Francis’s efforts to reform the Vatican’s administrative apparatus. All are being weaponised in a contest for control of the Roman Catholic Church that has persisted since the death in 2005 of John Paul II, the second-longest-serving pope in the Church’s more than 2,000-year history.
What distinguishes these events from turbulent episodes in earlier eras, such as the Italian Renaissance, is that they are tangled up with political battles and culture wars being fought in the US and other western societies, not to mention Africa and Asia. Rightwing secular politicians are aligned with ultra-conservative clerics in wanting to see the back of the Pope and his reforms. Liberal politicians and progressives among the world’s Roman Catholics, estimated by the Vatican to number more than 1.3bn people, hope that he will succeed.
Matters came to the boil last month when the Argentine-born pope took the unusual step of forcing the resignation of Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, an Italian prelate, on grounds of suspected embezzlement of Church funds. The cardinal, who denies wrongdoing, lost his job as head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican agency that oversees canonisations.
Cardinal Becciu was a very powerful figure from 2011 to 2018 at the Curia, the Holy See’s central administrative organ. As number two at the Curia’s secretariat of state, he was at daggers drawn with Cardinal George Pell, an Australian whom the Pope appointed in 2014 to bring transparency to the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances.
Cardinal Pell was sentenced to prison in Melbourne last year for sexual molestation of two choirboys, but in April Australia’s highest court overturned his conviction. Now allegations have surfaced in the Italian media that Cardinal Becciu tried to influence his rival’s trial by bribing a witness for his testimony. Both the Italian cardinal and the witness reject the allegations as false.
The clashes show how controversies at the Holy See overlap. Cardinal Becciu was behind a multimillion-pound London property deal that is under investigation by Vatican magistrates. Until he lost his job last year, Cardinal Pell’s responsibility was to throw light on precisely such mysterious investments.
Rival Vatican factions and their allies in national Catholic hierarchies are seizing on these and other scandals to discredit their opponents in matters of religious doctrine. During his reign, Pope Francis has put much effort into wresting control of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican agency that enforces theological discipline, from the conservatives who held sway after 1981 under John Paul and Benedict XVI, his successor.
Pope Francis distanced himself from his two predecessors in 2016 by publishing an apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which aired the possibility of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. Conservatives reacted with fury to what would be a sharp break with Catholic tradition.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal nuncio, or ambassador, to the US, called in 2018 for Francis’s resignation. In this US election year, the archbishop has emerged as a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump and has endorsed various dark conspiracy theories dear to the radical right.
It must be remembered that the Pope, though reform-minded, is not the Holy See’s equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev. The former Soviet leader pushed liberal reforms so far that he reformed his country out of existence. It is inconceivable that Pope Francis would take such risks, either in reinterpreting doctrine or in reorganising the Curia.
In fact, many Catholic commentators contend that the cause closest to the Pope’s heart is what the Vatican thinks of as the “missionary conversion” of societies where organised religion is stagnant or in decline. As he put it last year, in an exchange of Christmas greetings with Curia officials, the Christian faith “especially in Europe, but also in large parts of the west, is no longer an obvious premise of our common life, but rather is often denied, derided, marginalised or ridiculed”.
Still, Pope Francis has tried — not hard enough, secular critics say — to tackle the problems of sexual abuse and financial misconduct. These have festered ever since John Paul’s 1978-2005 pontificate. One reason why they are so intractable is that the Polish-born pope is a revered figure in modern Catholic history — in 2014 he was elevated to sainthood.
Francis, the first non-European pontiff since the Syrian-born Gregory III almost 1,300 years ago, is 83 years old. Benedict, his predecessor, resigned as pope in 2013 shortly before his 86th birthday. The dismissal of Cardinal Becciu suggests Pope Francis remains determined to prevail in the Vatican’s power struggles. But the struggles have such deep roots that there is every reason to think they will continue long after the reign of Pope Francis has ended.
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