What follows is pure, groundless speculation. The merest fantasy in the hermeneutic of conspiracy. So, it’s worth at most what you paid for it. But the question we pose has been on our mind for some time.
As the whole world knows, on July 5, Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, gave a speech at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London calling for, among other things, a return to ad orientem (versus apsidem) worship. This drew a quick, pointed correction from the Holy See Press Office, no doubt distracting them from the festive-if-bittersweet preparations for Fr. Federico Lombardi’s imminent retirement. Father John Hunwicke suggests that Vincent Cardinal Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and a long-time supporter of the Holy Father’s cause (even before the Conclave, if some are to be believed), was perhaps the prime mover in obtaining an unusual rebuke of a Curial cardinal. All this is, of course, well known among Catholics of all liturgical stripes now.
We were struck, however, by the unusual nature of the very public rebuke to Cardinal Sarah. Certainly he is likely seen by many as a potential leader for next time, in opposition to some candidates more simpatico to the Holy Father’s program, such as Cardinal Tagle. But that was not exactly it. Consider all the things that have not drawn rebukes. Cardinal Müller has criticized at length the liberal interpretation of Amoris laetitia at length. Cardinal Burke called it non-magisterial. And Archbishop Gänswein gave an extraordinary talk that, for a time, called into question just what Benedict thought he was doing when he abdicated. Yet, to our knowledge, none of these comments drew quick, decisive rebukes from official quarters (to say nothing of the rebukes from the Pope’s friends, including dear Father Spadaro). Curious.
But something else was happening at about this time: the Holy Father was handing down his Apostolic Letter motu proprio data on the competences of the Vatican financial organs, I bene temporali. As is now customary for Vatican documents of significant importance, I bene temporali is available in only Italian and Portuguese; however, the Holy See Press Office has provided a capsule summary:
The document published today responds to the need to define further the relationship between the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See and the Secretariat for the Economy. The fundamental principle at the base of the reforms in this area, and in particular at the base of this Motu Proprio, is that of ensuring the clear and unequivocal distinction between control and vigilance, on the one hand, and administration of assets, on the other. Therefore, the Motu Proprio specifies the competencies pertaining to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See and better delineates the Secretariat for the Economy’s fundamental role of control and vigilance.
(Emphasis supplied.) In short, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA, in Vatican lingo) recovered significant responsibility for the day-to-day financial administration of the Holy See, I beni temporali § 3, from George Cardinal Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy.
Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen was blunt about what this means:
There are many ways of analyzing the fault lines in the Vatican, but perhaps the most time-honored (if also often exaggerated) is the tension between an Italian old guard and pretty much everybody else. By conventional political logic, anyway, Saturday saw the Italians notch a fairly big win.
It could turn out, however, to be a Pyrrhic victory – because by taking back control over a range of financial powers, the old guard has also reclaimed the blame the next time something goes wrong.
On Saturday, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio, meaning a legal edict, delineating the division of responsibility between the Vatican’s Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) and the Secretariat of the Economy (SPE). The former is headed by Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, the latter by Australian Cardinal George Pell.
In effect, the motu proprio restores several important functions to APSA that had been given to Pell’s department in 2014. One local news agency bottom-lined the result this way in its headline: “The Italians win!”
(Emphasis supplied.) The Vatican line is more or less that the Holy Father has delineated clearly oversight and management by this action and he has solved the problem of letting the financial watchdog also have control over administration.
And perhaps the Vatican line would be believable, if Pell’s oversight functions hadn’t been undercut recently by Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state, when the Secretariat of State, apparently with the Holy Father’s permission, suspended an audit that Cardinal Pell had ordered. In other words, over the last few months, the independent authority of the Secretariat for the Economy and Cardinal Pell have been undermined significantly, always in favor of the Vatican old guard—generally Italian—that had been in charge prior to 2013. And we know what the finances at the Vatican looked like at about the same time.
In other words, reform of the Curia and the Vatican’s finances, one of the Holy Father’s signature initiatives—indeed, the St. Gallen group notwithstanding, one of the major reasons why he was elected in 2013, has apparently gone exactly nowhere. Certainly new organs have been established, but in the name of separation of powers, the new organs have been stripped of actual control, leaving them with policy and “oversight.” But, as we have seen from the audit kerfuffle, it is unclear that the Secretariat for the Economy will be permitted to exercise complete, independent discretion in pursuing its oversight functions. Certainly the Secretariat of State has shown a willingness to intervene in favor of, well, more traditional Vatican concerns. In other words, after three years and numerous provisions and amendments and restructuring, things have not changed much. Were the Holy Father a secular politician, one might call this part of his platform “not a success.”
And this brings us back to the kerfuffle over Cardinal Sarah’s speech. If we were to adopt the hermeneutic of conspiracy, we would wonder whether the timing of the rebuke of Cardinal Sarah’s speech had something to do with I bene temporali. What would be the best way to ensure that everyone focused on a relatively trivial matter, rather than the serious issue that the Holy Father’s reform of the Curia, including the Vatican’s finances, has not made huge progress, even now, three years after his election? Once upon a time, we were going to get a rewritten Pastor Bonus. Now, we’ll be lucky to get anything. Certainly, keeping the motu proprio locked in those hugely widely spoken languages, Italian and Portuguese, would help. But you would want to change the news cycle, wouldn’t you? And what drives page views—left and right—better than liturgy stuff?
As we say, this is rank speculation, mere fantasy, and a feverish indulgence in the hermeneutic of conspiracy. Sometimes it is helpful to clear the cobwebs with such thinking.