October 14, 2020

Is Pope Francis moving toward a conclave?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis arrives for his general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Oct. 14, 2020 - credit: Daniel Ibanez / ACI Group
Pope Francis arrives for his general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Oct. 14, 2020 - credit: Daniel Ibanez / ACI Group

There are two ways to interpret the exclusion of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, from the Cardinals Commission of the Institute for Religious Works (the “Vatican bank”), and they are not mutually exclusive.

The first would have it that Pope Francis is now back to the initial project of making the Secretariat of State less central within the Curial system. One of the original ideas was to dismantle the Secretariat of State and split the Church’s government into four different secretariats.

According to the second view, the conspicuous absence of the Cardinal Secretary of State from the new IOR Commission would be at Parolin’s own request. 

In any case, it was not by chance that Pope Francis originally left Cardinal  Parolin out of the group of red hats he formed to draw up the blueprint for his overhaul of the Curia in 2013. Cardinal Parolin joined the meetings from the beginning, and the Pope said he could consider himself a member at one point. However, no document amended the chirograph that established the Council of Cardinals, so there has never been an official document that certified the new composition of the Council of Cardinals. 

Cardinal Parolin worked at the pope's side, and was able to get lots done – indeed, was the only one able to get all the necessary institutional steps taken when it came to implementing the piecemeal reforms we’ve already seen, and Parolin has the papl rescripts – administrative and legislative decrees – to prove it. 

Cardinal Parolin succeeded in having all the papers set for decisions in times of institutional confusion. Pope Francis accepted – for a while, at least – that the Secretariat of State would have a central role, which it appears not only to keep but to see strengthened in the draft of the Curia reform, Praedicate Evangelium

Likely, Pope Francis changed his mind following the recent scandals. He is now getting back to the original project: dismantling the institutional structure for a more pastoral and less State-like structure. 

However, this is just one of the lenses through which understanding the situation. There is another interpretation, as valid as the other, that says that Cardinal Parolin wanted to step down from the IOR Cardinals Commission. 

Cardinal Parolin has been keeping a pretty low profile on institutional issues. The Vatican situation is incredibly confused. Since Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu's Pope-pushed resignation, media have been filled every day with leaked documents of the investigation, analysis of alleged wrongdoing, and interviews with people involved in the Vatican world, as well as attacks, levied against Cardinal Becciu and in general against the Catholic Church. 

Cardinal Parolin has been pondering whether to step in, but so far has kept himself at arm’s length from the tumult. It was risky, though, to stay on the IOR Cardinals Commission, since the so-called Vatican bank could be the target of a series of attacks on Vatican financial issues. 

One of the attacks will be on the Malta trial. The IOR initiated, and is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with an investment fund with which it purchased the former Stock Exchange Palace of Budapest.

Last March, a tribunal in Malta authorized two Maltese investment outfits to seize three-quarters of the IOR 2019 profits: €29,5 million. Although frozen, the money was included among the earnings of the 2020 IOR Report.

The Maltese firms complain that the IOR caused them patrimonial damage. According to the companies, the IOR has first promised to invest 33 million euros in the Budapest Stock Exchange Palace's purchase and renovation and then withdrew the promise. 

The IOR also allegedly twice blocked a sale of shares. Practically speaking, the Maltese society accused the IOR of interfering in the repayment of a debt. They also stressed that the Vatican bank's new management cares more about sullying the old management's good names than they do about doing profitable business.

If this were proven right, it would be pretty serious. However, it would also be another clue to exactly what kind of war is being waged behind the  curtains in the halls of Vatican power. Raisons d'Etat and the necessity to preserve the Vatican as an institution are no longer critical. Instead, it is vital to carry forward a specific narrative to help survive during this stormy end of the pontificate. 

Gossip in and around the Apostolic Palace is rampant.  It was known that Cardinal Becciu was going to be under attack, and the best informed were aware that the situation was going to become problematic. The same people now say that the struggle will be harsh, that information will be leaked, and many stories will be unveiled. 

Il Sismografo, a Vatican news aggregator run by a former Vatican radio journalist, noted that the president of the Vatican City tribunal, Giuseppe Pignatone, , is also an op-ed writer with the GEDI Publishing group, which publishes the daily newspapers Repubblica, La Stampa, Il Secolo XIX, and other 13 local newspapers, as well as the weekly magazine L'Espresso

Il Sismografo underscored that "a good part of these media owned by GEDI has been conducting for weeks an actual campaign against Cardinal Angelo Becciu,” alleging vague wrongdoing on scant evidence and with no trial in sight.  “(The attacks) are levied every day, using documents that might be confidential or secrets, some of which – if true – likely stolen from the Vatican (as in the Vatileaks 2 case) and used these days to provide arguments against the Sardinian red hat.” 

Il Sismografo clarified that there are no suspects, nor might there be, regarding Pignatone’s bona fides. However, it noted that the leak of documents is now making it difficult for Cardinal Becciu to enjoy the presumption of innocence, to which – in all fairness – he does have a right. 

Will there be a leaks  on other Holy See issues? It is probable. Will the IOR’s behavior be analyzed once the papers of the Malta trial are not sub judice anymore? It is possible. 

Given all of these situations, Cardinal Parolin’s exit from the IOR Commission is providential: it helps avoid further erosion of his status as a papabile,  as some observer put it. 

These whispered words shed light on a fact that must not be underestimated: People are waiting for the end of the pontificate, and they are preparing for the next conclave.

Not by chance, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York sent copies of George Weigel's The Next Pope to his fellow cardinals. Nor is it surprising that any red hat should seek to distance himself from the brewing scandals. 

At the same time, whispered rumors say that Pope Francis is preparing his succession, too. Other observers said that Cardinal Becciu was stripped of his cardinalatial prerogative to prevent him from acting like a kingmaker in the next conclave

Other rumors say that Pope Francis may soon summon another consistory to create new cardinals, thus expanding the electoral basis. Currently, the college of cardinals comprises 120 red hats eligible to vote in a conclave; that is precisely the limit set by Paul VI. By expanding the electoral basis, Pope Francis will also expand the influence of the cardinals he created in a conclave. 

In the meantime, the Oct. 13 meeting of the Council of Cardinals signals that the Pope is trying to move forward quickly. In the end, the Pope is setting up his legacy: the encyclical Fratelli Tutti will be his intellectual legacy, the Curia reform will be the pragmatic legacy, the expansion of the Conclave electoral basis will be the icing on the cake of the pontificate. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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