By any standard Pope Francis’ Brazil trip was a great success. Enthusiastic crowds clogged the routes of the papal motorcade and reportedly more than a million people were present for the pope’s final Mass on Copacabana beach. The media no less than Catholic pilgrims seemed enchanted by the new pontiff and his appeals for dialogue, conciliation and social justice.
For this pope, who presents himself above all else as a pastor and teacher, the achievements of this first international foray must be satisfying. Now, though, it’s time for Francis to put away his bags, step out of the international spotlight and tackle the job of administering the church of which he is the head. At this moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis can do more good working at his desk than waving from the popemobile.
For papal functionaries, the positive headlines from Brazil may have been especially welcome because they displaced several less edifying Vatican story lines. In June, Italian police arrested a priest working in the office responsible for overseeing Vatican properties and investments, charging him with conspiring to illegally move about $27 million from Switzerland to Italy. After the priest’s arrest, the director and deputy director of the Vatican bank resigned and became objects of criminal investigations by the Italian police. Next the media turned to reports that a Vatican diplomat, recently appointed to a senior post in the Vatican bank, dispensed favors to a Swiss army officer with whom he allegedly maintained an inappropriate relationship.
These stories are playing out against a background of persistent rumors of money laundering at the Vatican bank, of corruption in the award of contracts for various works and services inside Vatican City, and of vicious infighting among factions and cabals in the Vatican administration.
The problems confronting the Vatican have many causes, not the least of which is that for a long time no one has been minding the store. Although the modern papacy has never been the highly centralized, authoritarian, top-down organization of popular imagination, the “monarchical” model has been particularly discredited since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The image of the commanding Supreme Pontiff has been replaced by that of the softer, gentler Holy Father. Ministry has displaced management in the papal job description.
Like his immediate predecessors, Francis prefers to be seen as a simple priest and confessor rather than a busy administrator. The problem is that the papal office is multifaceted and requires a pope to be many things, not only a simple priest. Whether he likes it or not, the pope is also the chief executive of an international organization, and perhaps it’s time that he start doing his job.
By forsaking their administrative responsibilities, recent pontiffs have allowed authority to flow down and out to the senior officials in the various congregations, councils, secretariats and commissions that make up the central administration of the Catholic Church and Vatican City. Without central direction, these offices have become semi-independent fiefdoms, each jealous of its powers and prerogatives. Without central oversight, they have evaded scrutiny and accountability.
If the Vatican is to be reformed and modernized, only the pope has the standing and the authority to make it happen. When the College of Cardinals met to elect a new pontiff, many prelates spoke on behalf of more transparency and accountability in the papal administration.
There are signs that Francis shares their concern. He has publicly commented on the need to reform the Vatican bureaucracy and, more important, he has moved, albeit tentatively, from words to deeds. In April he created a special commission of eight cardinals to advise him on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy. Right before the June arrests, he established a commission to review the activities of the Vatican bank and, in July, one to investigate the accounting practices of various Vatican offices. In the latter group, seven of the eight members are laypeople, including one woman.
Whether Francis has an appetite for the hard and often unpleasant work required to fix an entrenched bureaucracy remains to be seen. Commissions, after all, are well-known gambits to deflect attention and postpone action. The bigger question is whether Francis will be able to balance his roles as pastor and manager when the former role is, in many ways, so much more attractive.
It’s clear that if Francis wants to meet challenges to morality and justice, he doesn’t need to go on the road to find them. He can stay put at the Vatican and have his hands full. But will the Holy Father be willing to forsake the big stage, adoring crowds and fawning media for the lonely desk, stacks of files and constant meetings that today, more than ever, are an integral part of his responsibilities? If he can’t, he may go down in history as one of the most popular but least effective popes of the 21st century.
David Alvarez is a professor of politics at St. Mary’s College of California. His latest book is “The Pope’s Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican.”