Cardinal Farrell as camerlengo: an astonishingly ill-timed announcement

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 15, 2019

The selection of Cardinal Kevin Farrell as camerlengo was noteworthy—not because the cardinal will have new influence at the Vatican, but because the appointment confirms the influence that he already enjoys. However, the timing of the appointment was absolutely stunning.

The role of the camerlengo is essentially symbolic, until the death or resignation of the Pontiff. Then the camerlengo becomes the most prominent official in the Vatican hierarchy. He does not set policy for the universal Church—the “particular congregation” of cardinals present in Rome makes any necessary decisions—but he is responsible for arranging the cardinals’ meetings and executing their plans. He is also responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Vatican, and care for the temporal goods of the Holy See.

Cardinal Farrell was a controversial choice, of course, because he is a protégé of the disgraced former cardinal, Theodore McCarrick. Cardinal Farrell has insisted that he knew nothing about McCarrick’s conduct, although he lived with him and served as his vicar general. He has also said that he knew nothing about the misconduct of the late Father Marcial Maciel, although he also worked closely with Maciel in his days as an official of the Legionaries of Christ.

That the Pope chose Cardinal Farrell as camerlengo, despite these obvious problems in his past, testifies to the Pontiff’s reliance on the Irish-born cardinal. And no one disputes that the Pope can choose his own man for the role.

Still the timing of the announcement is remarkable. There was no rush to fill the post; the previous occupant of the post had died several months ago. This week the Catholic world had been braced for a very different sort of announcement, about the long-rumored laicization of McCarrick. To promote one cardinal, at the same time that his sponsor is defrocked, suggests a complete indifference to public perceptions. To complicate matters still further, the appointment came just a week before the highly anticipated Vatican “summit” on sexual abuse, and the prominence given to Farrell is another reminder that some Vatican officials have gained influence despite their negligence in responding to abuse.

Two other problems with the appointment:

  1. If Cardinal Farrell is telling the truth—if he did not notice any signs of misconduct by either Maciel or McCarrick—then, to put it mildly, he cannot be characterized as a very shrewd observer. As camerlengo he would be responsible for supervising the financial affairs of the Vatican during an interregnum. Especially given the persistent evidence of cronyism and sweetheart deals at the Vatican, and the absence of a Vatican general auditor, the selection of a man who cannot (or will not) see misconduct is a dangerous choice.
  2. The camerlengo, again, is the most prominent public face of the Vatican immediately after a Pope’s death or resignation. Then the spotlight turns to the Dean of the College of Cardinals, who presides and preaches at the papal funeral and at the Mass pro eligendo Romano Pontifice before the conclave begins. The current Dean is the elderly Cardinal Angelo Sodano—who, like Cardinal Farrell—has been identified as one of the prelates most sympathetic to notorious abusers. So at a time when the secular media are (understandably) obsessed with the question of sexual abuse, the two most prominent figures at the Vatican in a papal interregnum would be inviting targets for criticism.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: DrJazz - Feb. 18, 2019 2:29 PM ET USA

    "He cannot be characterized as a very shrewd observer." That's good. Really good.

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 16, 2019 6:41 PM ET USA

    Farrell's unusual promotion is an act of Francis' "complete indifference to public perceptions," which feels as a slap in the face. One after another.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Feb. 16, 2019 12:20 PM ET USA

    The post of camerlengo sits vacant for months, then is filled suddenly at a moment, and with a man, that even Francis must know is awkward. I wouldn’t be surprised if Francis were to resign soon, now that a reliable flunky is on duty to stage-manage the election of a new Pope.