Pope Francis inherited a flawed Church organization from Benedict and his predecessor Pope John Paul II, but is making strides in changing things. CNS photo

Glen Argan: Francis is making slow but sure progress

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  • September 17, 2018

In the current state of distress highlighted by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s claim that Pope Francis has long known about accusations of sexual abuse against former American cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the story of the previous pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, should be recalled.

In 2012, Gabriele was arrested and convicted of stealing sensitive documents from the office of Pope Benedict XVI and leaking them to the press. Those documents revealed a morass of clerical careerism, in-fighting and greed within the Vatican’s civil service. Gabriele’s revelations sparked the so-called VatiLeaks scandal, with documents showing a variety of intrigues being leaked from an apparent variety of directions.

The documents might best be classified as gossip about a dysfunctional organization where ladder-climbing and backstabbing are the norm — not criminal behaviour, but an unflattering picture of the Church’s highest bureaucracy.

Within a year of Gabriele’s arrest, Pope Benedict had resigned and Pope Francis elected. Pope Benedict-Joseph Ratzinger was one of the great theologians of the 20th century as well as a holy man. However, his administrative skills were sorely lacking and the poor advice — or lack of advice — he received led to a string of embarrassing incidents during his eight-year pontificate.

His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had been a great pope in many respects, but was less than scrupulous in overseeing the Vatican curia. So, for at least 34 years, the Vatican’s internal affairs had run amuck without sure guidance from the top.

Benedict’s resignation as pope had been the result of his declining health, and no reason exists to doubt that. Nevertheless, VatiLeaks had fostered the perception that the Pope was the captain of a ship of fools. The cardinals entering the March 2013 conclave were resolute that, among other qualities, the next pope should be a man who would sweep the deck and impose clear discipline on the ranks.

That man chosen was, of course, Pope Francis. Francis was from well outside the Vatican club and owed no debts to those within it. He immediately set up his Council of Cardinals, nine diocesan bishops who advise him on running the Church’s internal matters. His annual Christmas greetings with the Curia also became an event filled, not with sweet remembrances of the year past, but chastisements and moral advice to avoid the sins that can occur in an entrenched bureaucracy.

Many say real reforms to that bureaucracy have been slow to arrive. Still, Pope Francis has made more than his share of enemies. To those who want reform, this is a good sign, but to those whose careers are rooted in the curia, the negative papal attention can lead to resentment.

So it should be no surprise that some have publicly tried to discredit the Pope and even force his resignation. To those in the bureaucracy, he represents a formidable threat to their established way of life. It would serve their purposes to have Francis disgraced and rendered ineffective, if not totally out of the picture.

None of this posits a judgment about the truth or falsity of allegations by Viganò and Cardinal Raymond Burke, but it does place them in a fuller light. Burke’s charges about Pope Francis’ remarks about whether divorced and civilly remarried couples may receive the Eucharist are a matter of theological discussion. Viganò’s allegations about papal complicity in the coverup of sexual abuse claims need to be corroborated in a substantial manner. So far, none has been forthcoming.

Pope Francis’ Christmas remarks to the curia have included calls for greater holiness. Structural reforms are needed, but will be of no avail if those implementing them are cut from the same cloth of careerism and in-fighting which has been the norm. Earlier this year, the Pope even issued a letter to all the faithful — Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad) — underlining the universal call to holiness.

The failure of so many to respond to that call has not only disgraced the Church, but ruined the lives of untold thousands of children and adults who have been victims of clerical sexual abuse. As the Pope wrote in his recent letter, holiness is the most attractive face of the Church. An evident lack of holiness is the Church’s repulsive face. 

Whatever his faults, Pope Francis has pointed us in the right direction, a direction opposite from the deplorable situation indicated in the butler’s leaked documents.

(Glen Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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