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The Vatican’s most powerful office grows even more influential

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 29, 2017

By creating a new division within the Secretariat of State, Pope Francis has enhanced the power of an office that already holds sway over every other office at the Vatican. More specifically, he has augmented the power of the Vatican diplomatic corps. Is that a healthy development?

Before answering that question, let me take a quick look at recent Vatican history. For many years, it has been standard practice for apostolic nuncios—the prelates who represent the Holy See in different countries—to meet privately with the Roman Pontiff when they returned to Rome. Under Pope Benedict XVI that practice changed; the nuncios reported to the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. That new arrangement was not popular among Vatican diplomats, for two reasons. First, they naturally preferred meeting with the Pope himself. As anyone involved in a large organization knows, a one-on-one conversation with the Boss is a much better opportunity than a meeting even with the #2 man. Second, Cardinal Bertone himself was unpopular with Vatican diplomats; many resented the appointment of a Secretary of State who had no background in diplomatic service.

Remember that the Vatican Secretariat of State is not analogous to the US Department of State. In the US, the State Department is responsible solely for foreign affairs. It is certainly a powerful office, but it does not control other Cabinet offices. At the Vatican, the Secretariat of State has (until this month) been divided into two sections: one section that handles relations with foreign governments, and another that supervises all the other offices of the Roman Curia. In effect the Secretary of State is the Vatican equivalent of a prime minister. For decades that post has been held by a prelate with a background in Vatican diplomacy.

During the days between the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis, a number of cardinals suggested that the new Pontiff should institute a new position: a moderator of the Roman Curia, or chief of staff, who would not head any particular office, but would take responsibility for coordinating the work of existing dicasteries. That proposal slipped off the agenda, however, when Pope Francis and the Council of Cardinals began planning structural reforms in the Vatican bureaucracy. The Secretariat of State retained its supervisory role.

Now, back to the question of the new section within that Secretariat. The problem, according to several Vatican journalists, is that Vatican diplomats felt their role had been diminished under Benedict XVI, when they lost their personal meetings with the Pontiff. That problem could have been resolved, it seems, by restoring those meetings. Instead Pope Francis created a new, third section within the Secretariat: an office designed “to assure on my part a more fraternal attention and a more diligent human, priestly, spiritual, and professional accompaniment” for Vatican diplomats. The new section underlines the importance of the apostolic nuncios. But notice that the prelate assigned to head the new section, Archbishop Jan Pawlowski, still serves under the Secretary of State.

The increased clout of the Secretariat of State is problematical, in my view, because of all the offices at the Vatican, the office responsible for diplomacy—for making deals with foreign governments, for accommodating the desires of secular leaders—seems clearly to be the office most subject to the temptations of temporal power. Aren’t there inherent risks involved in giving career diplomats the authority to influence the Vatican offices that supervise the selection of bishops, the evangelization of mission territories, the training of clerics, and even the teaching of Catholic doctrine? If papal nuncios were dismayed that they met with Cardinal Bertone rather than Pope Benedict, other Vatican officials, in other dicasteries, could justly complain that their plans have been thwarted by the overarching power of the Secretariat of State.

There is another reason for concern about the creation of a new section within the Secretariat. As the Vatican journalist Andrea Gagliarducci pointed out, the structure of the Vatican bureaucracy is governed by the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus, which clearly states that the Secretariat of State is divided into two sections. Pope Francis has the authority to alter Pastor Bonus. But he did not do so; he did not issue a motu proprio to establish the new ecclesial structure. He created the new section by issuing a letter to the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Thus the Pope has again shown an unsettling tendency to make ad hoc decisions without apparent consideration for formal rules: to ignore the “letter of the law” even when he has the unquestioned power to change it.

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 See full bio.

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