Contempt for proper procedure in the curia is palpable when dealing with some Vatican departments

Over the weekend, Pope Francis turned 81. All Catholics of good will wished him a happy birthday and, of course, many more. The Pope is now two years past the age at which a cardinal can participate in a conclave, six past the age when curial officials have to submit their resignations, and eight past the age when a diocesan bishop is required to submit his resignation. But he has, I am sure he would agree, still a lot left to do.

The single greatest task still ahead of the Pope is the one clear job before him when he emerged onto the loggia nearly five years ago: reforming the curia. From stamping out networks peddling favouritism and influence, to cleaning up the Vatican finances, everyone agreed that there was an urgent need for some law and order to be brought to the daily operations of the Holy See.

Francis’s first moves appeared big and bold, setting up the C9 Council of Cardinals to advise him on reforming the governing constitution of the Vatican and creating a whole new set of bodies to oversee the finances of the curia. But from these promising beginnings, sadly little progress has been made. Systematic reform of the curia has given way to a mere renaming and merging departments. Financial scrutiny remains a distant dream, as official after official is sacked for “exceeding their mandate.” As we await tangible progress towards constitutional reform from the C9, contempt for the rule of law and proper procedure in the curia is palpable when dealing with some Vatican departments.

Last week Prof. Kurt Martens, an very senior and respected canonist and academic, offered up a textbook example of the way Rome is running. Prof. Martens tweeted out a single line from a decree of the Apostolic Signatura, effectively the Church’s Supreme Court. It said that while the court was preparing its decision on a case before it, the Prefect for the Congregation for Clergy had taken the act under appeal to the Pope, who had been persuaded to sign it, thus making it a papal act of governance and beyond appeal. Sadly, this kind of thing is becoming all too common.

I myself know of one very recent case in which someone appealing before another Vatican department received a phone call from a senior cardinal who told him to drop the appeal because “if [the person being appealed] didn’t have the power to do what he wants, I can get the Pope to give it to him.” The implication is clear, access to the Pope is a serious commodity in Rome, and those few who have it are able and willing to take advantage of it.

One could be forgiven for assuming this was evidence of an over-involved Pope reaching down into specific cases, but, in fact, it seems the Holy Father is, at least at times, unaware of what is happening.

Despite Francis’s stated desire to be a “free-range” Pope, and live in the Domus Sanctae Marta to allow him to be around people on a daily basis, his handlers have eliminated the ordinary mechanisms by which a pope is kept up to date on how the Church is actually being run – the regular udienza di tabella has been swept off the papal schedule, for example, and those out of favour with the Pope’s gatekeepers can find that he doesn’t have a minute to spare for months at a time. Meanwhile, whether it is retroactively authorising the cancellation of the PwC audit of the Vatican finances or okaying the illegal intervention into the Knights of Malta, those few with daily access to the Pope are able to get his signature on a range of measures which go directly against his stated aims.

Two years ago, I wrote here that I feared Pope Francis was becoming a prisoner of his handlers, and this fear seems to have come to pass. Bringing discipline and structural reform to the curia is a herculean labour, and one which requires that the Pope stop presuming the foxes will fix the hen house. There is still time, though, if Pope Francis can break through his own inner circle. If he does so, many in Rome may yet find themselves confronted with an old man in a hurry. I hope they do.