Decoding the Vatican

  • New cardinals from the church's 'periphery'

    With today’s announcement of 20 new cardinals, Pope Francis has moved decisively toward making the College of Cardinals a truly global institution.

    The cardinals come from 14 countries on five continents, including Cape Verde, Myanmar, Panama, New Zealand and even the Kingdom of Tonga, a Pacific archipelago that is home to a mere 15,000 Catholics.

    They will receive their red hats at a consistory in Rome in mid-February. The list of appointees included no one from the United States or Canada. Pope Francis, in fact, has yet to appoint a cardinal from the United States, which today has 18 cardinals, a relatively high number.

    There are several things to note in the pope’s selections:

    -- By choosing prelates from eight dioceses that have never had a cardinal, Francis is clearly shaking up the geographical mix of a group known as the church's "senate." In effect, the pope is removing the expectation of red hats that have attached to many established major dioceses for centuries. This new policy – enunciated explicitly today by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi – sets in motion further globalization for the future: expect fewer Europeans, and more cardinals from the Catholic “periphery.”

    -- Of the 15 new cardinals who are under age 80, and therefore able to vote in a conclave, the pope chose two Italians. That means Italy would continue to have great influence in a potential papal election, with more than one-fifth the number of voting cardinals. But as he did last year, the pope selected Italians from smaller dioceses, passing over traditional cardinalate sees like Venice and Turin. Once again, the effect is to remove the customary expectation of a red hat.

    -- Only one new cardinal comes from the ranks of the Roman Curia: French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, who recently succeeded Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Vatican’s top tribunal. The number of Vatican officials among voting-age cardinals has dropped under Pope Francis. After February, they will make up about 27 percent of the total, compared to about 35 percent in the conclave that elected Pope Francis.

    -- The pope demonstrated that the limit of 120 voting-age cardinals is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. After the next consistory, the church could have 125 cardinals under age 80. Pope Francis has chosen, like his predecessors, to stay close to the 120 ceiling. But there’s no reason why, in the future, he could not simply decide that the fastest way to increase geographic diversity in the College of Cardinals is to increase the number of its members.


  • Pope's Christmas gift to Roman Curia: a harsh diagnosis of careerism, self-interest

    Pope Francis did not play Santa Claus today when he addressed the officials of the Roman Curia in their annual pre-Christmas get-together. Instead, he issued a blistering critique of "curial illnesses," ranging from the "terrorism of gossip" to the search for worldly profit.

    It was another sign that this pope is trying to change the culture inside the Vatican, and not simply reform its bureaucratic structures.

    Here is the pope's list of what he described as 15 of the most common illnesses and temptations that are found in the Roman Curia:

    1. Feeling oneself as “immortal,” “immune” or even “indispensable,” a sense of superiority that results from a “pathology of power” and narcissism. To put things in perspective, the pope advised making visits to cemeteries to read the names of the once-powerful.

    2. Working too hard, forgetting to take time for rest, reflection and spiritual revitalization.

    3. Mental and spiritual petrification, causing one to lose touch with people and develop a “heart of stone.”

    4. Excessive planning and an overly pragmatic approach to one’s mission, turning apostles into “accountants” and closing off the action of the Holy Spirit.

    5. Poor coordination with colleagues, with the loss of a sense of communion and a team spirit.

    6. “Spiritual Alzheimer’s,” in which the primary encounter with the Lord is forgotten and progressively replaced by obsession with one’s own projects. These are people, the pope said, who build walls around themselves with their own habits and activities.

    7. Rivalry and arrogance, when humility gives way to selfish interests, and when honors and awards become a primary objective.

    8. “Existential schizophrenia,” a hypocrisy that comes from spiritual emptiness and that often strikes those who leave pastoral service for strictly bureaucratic activities. The pope said these people proclaim severe truths to others but often lead hidden, dissolute lives.

    9. The “terrorism of gossip,” an illness that begins perhaps with idle chatter and gradually takes over one’s personality, sometimes leading to the “cold-blooded murder” of the good name of colleagues. “This is the illness of cowards who lack the courage to speak directly, so they speak behind one’s back,” he said.

    10. Deifying one’s boss, in the hope of gaining promotion or favor. These are wretched and selfish people thinking only of their own career advancement, the pope said, but they are often abetted by their superiors, who reward such flattery.

    11. Indifference to others, often exhibited when information is kept for oneself rather than shared with colleagues, or when one takes joy in a colleague’s misfortune.

    12. Long-faced, theatrical severity with others, who are deemed to be inferior in some way. The pope said such arrogance and pessimism have no place in the life of an apostle. “A heart full of God is a happy heart that radiates and infects with joy everyone around him,” he said.

    13. The accumulation of material goods, which only slow down the journey to holiness.

    14. The “closed circle” mentality, in which belonging to a select group is more important than service to the church and to Christ. The pope called this disease a type of cancer that can harm the church from within.

    15. The search for worldly profit, in which positions of service to the church are used to obtain power and wealth. “This is the disease of people who seek insatiably to multiply powers and to that end are capable of vilifying, defaming and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines,” the pope said.

    Ever since his election, Pope Francis has been asking officials of the Roman Curia to make a serious examination of conscience about their attitudes and practices. By raising these issues in such forceful terms today, he was telling them that he intends to follow through on his designs.

  • Report on U.S. nuns emphasizes 'gratitude,' reflects changes at Vatican

    Today's Vatican report on the investigation of U.S. women's religious orders was largely positive in tone, in contrast to statements issued when the investigation began in 2009.

    At that time, Cardinal Franc Rodé, who headed the Vatican congregation for religious orders, said the study was aimed at identifying "secular" and "feminist" attitudes that had infiltrated the nuns' orders and helped cause a drastic decline in membership.

    Today's report didn't go there. Instead, it delineated real challenges facing religious orders while thanking the sisters repeatedly for their service to the Gospel.

    This balanced approach reflects a changing of the guard at the Vatican -- but it's a change that began under Pope Benedict. In 2011, Benedict named Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz to replace Cardinal Rodé. The Brazilian cardinal took over the investigation of women religious, but adopted a much more conciliatory approach.

    I think today's balanced report was pretty much a foregone conclusion, given Cardinal Braz de Aviz's continued leadership at the Vatican's congregation for religious orders, and given that Pope Francis clearly wants peace with U.S. sisters.

    Yet there seems to be a "good cop, bad cop" dynamic that still lingers on at the Vatican. A separate Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest association of U.S. sisters, was carried out by the doctrinal congregation, and it has been far more critical. In 2012, the doctrinal congregation issued a "doctrinal assessment" and insisted on major changes in the LCWR to ensure that the organization aligns with Catholic teaching in areas like women's ordination, homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia.

    The tug of war over implementing those changes continues. Last year, in a rare display of divergent views at the Vatican's highest levels, Cardinal Braz de Aviz criticized the way the LCWR review was conducted. That prompted a quick statement from the Vatican that tried to downplay any disagreement between Braz de Aviz and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the doctrinal congregation.

    Cardinal Muller has not let up, however. Several months ago, he rebuked the LCWR for adopting ideas that he said lead to "fundamental errors" about "the omnipotence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the reality of original sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ."

    The LCWR is working with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who was appointed in 2012 to implement the doctrinal assessment. After meeting with the archbishop last August, the LCWR issued a statement that said in part: "We will continue in the conversation with Archbishop Sartain as an expression of hope that new ways may be created within the church for healthy discussion of differences."

    At America magazine, Sister Mary Ann Walsh has a good take on today's report.

     

RSS Feed

John Thavis

John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is known in the trade as a “Vaticanista,” a calling that became clear only after a circuitous career path.

Read more about John 

Media

John Thavis was in Rome during the recent papal resignation and conclave, and is available to media for interviews about the pope and the Vatican.

See what's happening now!