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Revealing comments from Vatican Secretaries of State, old and new

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 12, 2013

Both the outgoing Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and his incoming successor, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, have made interesting public comments recently. Let’s take a closer look.

Cardinal Bertone defended his own performance, and lashed out at the “crows and vipers” who leaked critical stories about him, in an outburst shortly after his resignation was announced. It’s quite understandable that Cardinal Bertone would be unhappy with the treatment he has received in the past several months. When people think about the Vatican bureaucracy, they think first about the Secretariat of State. So the many complaints about the Vatican bureaucracy that have been aired recently are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as indictments of the man in charge of that powerful office.

It’s simplistic at best—actually quite misleading—to think that all the troubles might be traced to one office and one prelate. The odd, byzantine way of doing business at the Vatican was in place long before Cardinal Bertone took the helm at State, and unless there is a thoroughgoing effort at reform, the old bad habits will persist long after his departure. It is telling that the cardinal’s predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the quintessential Vatican insider and manipulator, was reportedly present at the meeting at which Cardinal Bertone told Pope Francis that he wanted to resign. If Bertone is leaving and Sodano is still on the scene, that is not a step forward for Vatican reform.

As Cardinal Bertone prepares to leave, then, it is not surprising that at least one Vatican official is defending the departing prelate, hinting that he, Bertone, was the real reformer, whose plans were thwarted by other Vatican insiders. Certainly it is revealing (if the story is accurate) that Cardinal Bertone tendered his resignation early because he was frustrated that no prominent Vatican officials had given him public support.

Was Cardinal Bertone part of the problem, or part of the solution to the bumbling of the Vatican staff? That debate has now begun. To date only one Vatican official (or maybe two officials, speaking in confidence to one reporter) has come to his defense? For now he is a convenient scapegoat. But as Pope Francis moves forward with his plans, and other prelates feel the pressure for reform, I suspect we’ll discover more evidence that Cardinal Bertone, whatever his shortcomings, was stymied in his own efforts to make the Vatican more efficient and accountable.

Meanwhile Archbishop Parolin—who was in the Western hemisphere when the Vatican infighting became public, and presumably was not involved in the squabbles—made some revealing comments of his own in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. He pointedly welcomed the forceful Vatican diplomatic offensive against American intervention in Syria—indirectly calling attention to the fact that no such forceful activity in the international sphere was evident during the tenure of Cardinal Bertone, the first non-diplomat to serve as Secretary of State in decades. Archbishop Parolin also called for “collegial leadership” and a “more democratic spirit” in Vatican governance—a statement that could be taken as critical of the current style of leadership, in which the Secretariat of State always has the last, and sometimes the only, word.

Archbishop Parolin provided some food for thought in that interview: some hints at how he will approach the job, and how his style might contrast with that of Cardinal Bertone. Oddly, though, most of the media coverage of the El Universal interview centered on comments that I did not find particularly interesting. Archbishop Parolin observed that priestly celibacy is not a matter of Church doctrine, but a discipline that could be changed. He did not call for change—in fact he seemed to lean against it—but he acknowledged that “the Church could review this question.” That’s simply a statement of fact, not material for a news headline.

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