The cardinal who oversees the Vatican's relations with other
countries has served as the top ranking official in the Holy See's
bureaucracy since the 17th century. And in recent decades the office
accumulated increasing authority over finances and job hires, taking
on roles analogous to prime minister and chief of staff in the papal
court, as well as that of top diplomat.
During the reign of retired Pope Benedict, critics blamed then
Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone for failing to prevent
the missteps and scandals that marred the German pontiff's eight
years as Roman Catholic leader.
Now, however, Francis is reducing the power of the job, reshaping
the department as one primarily involved in diplomacy like the U.S.
State Department or foreign ministries elsewhere, stripping it of
authority over finances and giving it a smaller role in internal
He has chosen a frugal, publicity-shy career diplomat — Cardinal
Pietro Parolin — who, according to those who know him, is the
antithesis of his most recent predecessors in the post.
Bertone, and before him Cardinal Angelo Sodano, were driven around
in limousines with their aides. Parolin walks alone in and around
In one of his first interviews, Parolin, whom a Catholic newspaper
described as being "alien to clerical exhibitionism," said Vatican
bureaucrats should be "more evangelical".
Redefining the secretary of state's role is a central part of
Francis's agenda to clean up the Curia, the administration of the
Holy See, following a series of scandals in 2012, the last full year
of Benedict's pontificate.
A new department overseeing Vatican finances will now report
directly to the pope. To head it, Francis chose an Australian who
had never worked in Rome, Cardinal George Pell, a man far removed
from the Italian-dominated Curia.
Insiders say that in another potential move aimed at power sharing
the pope may also create an office of a coordinator of the Curia, a
sort of chief of staff.
The ageing and frail Benedict was unable to deal with the internal
upheaval that engulfed his papacy. In 2013 he became the first pope
in 600 years to resign.
The so-called "Vatileaks" affair — in which Benedict's butler leaked
sensitive documents alleging corruption in the Curia — was on the
minds of many cardinals as they entered the Sistine Chapel in the
conclave that elected Francis a year ago.
The non-Italian cardinals, in particular, believed that reports of
turf battles and infighting in the central administration of the 1.2
billion member Church were undermining its credibility in dealing
with issues such as sexual abuse of minors by clerics.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that there was a systemic disorder
in the Curia under Benedict," said Alberto Melloni, a Church
historian and director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious
Studies in Bologna.
"The view of cardinals who came to Rome to elect a new pope last
year was of a Secretariat of State that had accumulated too much
power over the years," said a top Vatican official who spoke on the
condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the
During Benedict's papacy, the Curia was broadly divided into
factions: supporters of Bertone and of his predecessor Sodano.
Sodano, a longtime diplomat, had served as secretary of state from
1991 to 2006. In the final years of the papacy of John Paul II, who
died in 2005, Sodano essentially ran the Church as the pontiff's
Bertone had no experience in diplomacy when he replaced Sodano in
2006. He had a disproportionate influence on internal Vatican
affairs, insiders say, and alienated some who believed he had
lowered the Vatican's international profile.
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One of the letters leaked by Benedict's butler in 2012 revealed a
clash between Bertone and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. Vigano went
over Bertone's head and wrote a letter to Benedict complaining of
corruption in the Vatican. Bertone later transferred a reluctant
Vigano to Washington.
Bertone brought in Italian banker Ettore Gotti Tedeschi in 2009 to
become president of the Vatican Bank with a mandate to make the
bank's finances more transparent. But then Bertone resisted attempts
to put the bank under more independent oversight, according to
several Vatican officials. Gotti Tedeschi was ousted in 2012.
"In the end, things were starting to get very dangerous, because all
of the financial activities were concentrated in hands or in the
hands of men loyal to him," said Massimo Franco, columnist and
author of the new book "The Vatican According to Francis".
Bertone, 79, has denied accusations of being power hungry and a bad
manager, telling reporters last year that he had been the victim of
"vipers" in the Vatican. He could not be reached for comment because
he was out of Rome on a spiritual retreat. Sodano, 86, was also
unavailable for comment.
CLIQUES AND SOCIAL CLIMBERS
"Francis is trying to make deep reforms in the Curia ... but this
will take some time," said Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, one of
the three prelates who wrote a secret report for Benedict on the
Since Francis's election, the pope has publicly warned his cardinals
to shun intrigue and cliques. Last May, he said in a speech that
there was no room for "social climbers or careerists" in the Church
hierarchy. He has urged cardinals not to behave as if they lived in
"a royal court".
"He said: 'Don't take this (being a cardinal) as an honor, don't
take this as a promotion, don't take this as a privilege,'" said
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster in London.
Francis fired his first salvo across the bow of the Vatican
bureaucracy just one month into his papacy when he named an advisory
board of eight cardinals from around the world to help him govern
the Church and reform the Curia.
The board has an open-ended mandate and reports directly to the
pope. Six months later Francis appointed Parolin.
A 59-year-old who has worked in the Vatican's diplomatic service
since 1986, the new secretary had served as deputy foreign minister
under Pope John Paul. His last post was nuncio, or ambassador, in
Venezuela, where he guided the Vatican's delicate relations with the
late President Hugo Chavez.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper after his appointment,
Parolin said it was unfair to depict the Curia as "a place where
conspiracies and power plays prevail".
But he said Vatican bureaucrats should "work hard to become more
humane, more welcoming, more evangelical, which is what Pope Francis
Those who know Parolin say he will have no difficultly sharing power
with others at the top in the Curia and helping reshape the
secretary of state's role into that of a first among equals rather
than an all-powerful "vice pope".
"I think that one of the most important things about Parolin is that
he doesn't have any interest in power for its own sake," said Nigel
Baker, the British ambassador to the Vatican.
(Additional reporting by Alessandra Galloni;
editing by Alessandra Galloni and Peter Graff)
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