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Consistory mathletics, the Vatican’s bank, and ‘He’s just not that into you’

Cardinals concelebrate a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Nov. 2018. Credit: Shutterstock

Happy Friday friends,

And welcome to consistory weekend. 

All the cardinals of the world (at least those able to travel) are descending on the Vatican ahead of tomorrow’s opening session, when the pontiff will create 20 new members of the college, the majority of them young enough to expect to vote in the next conclave, whenever that may be.

And boy have we got some consistory coverage to get you in the mood. Brendan Hodge has been running the numbers and turning the College of Cardinals inside out to answer every possible question you could have on who’s in, who appointed them, where they come from, what they eat for breakfast — the works.

For starters, here’s his analysis of the demographics of the college: People often talk about how Pope Francis has named many new cardinals from the “global peripheries,” so is it true? And if it is, is Francis breaking new ground or is he part of a much longer trend? 

So, where are the cardinals from, and are they representative of the global Church? Read it here to find out.


Next up, consistories are fun and all. But let’s be honest, when we talk about the College of Cardinals, most people are only really interested in one thing: the conclave. And fair enough, electing a pope is — by far — the cardinals’ most famous and most important job.

After a decade of the Francis pontificate, the college that will one day elect his successor is, as you’d expect, very different from the one that elected him. 

But what are the numbers? How many cardinals has Francis appointed, how many of them are young enough to vote? And if there were a conclave tomorrow, how would the Francis slate of electors stack up against those appointed by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI?

Brendan has you covered. Read it all here.

The consistory is, even apart from the naming of 16 new voting-age cardinals, a big deal. For the first time in years, all the cardinals will be in one place at one time and actually have a chance to talk — to meet for the first time, in many cases.

The theme of the meeting is to reflect on the pope’s recent constitution on the Roman curia, Praedicate Evangelium, but a lot of speculation has been going around that there is going to be some “big news” this weekend.

What that “big news” is meant to be depends on who you talk to. 

Some people still think Francis might be planning to resign, or maybe issue some new laws governing and better defining the status of “resigned popes” for the future. Others have heard a wild rumor that the pope might be about to name a co-adjutor for himself, effectively nominating his own successor.

I’ll be honest with you, I think all of these theories are overheated. But that doesn’t mean I don’t expect that some kind of news from Rome will break out and put me back at my desk over the weekend.

There’s no doubt that some parts of this weekend will have a whiff of papal beauty pageant to them, with cardinals taking a look around to decide who among them fancies himself next in line. And I’d say it’s a safe bet that a few cardinals, probably from Europe or North America, will break out to offer their own more-or-less informed take on the state and future of the pope’s reforming agenda and what the Church needs next. 

But keep your eyes on the new guys from Africa, India, and Asia, most of whom tend to keep lower media profiles, but have a very different experience of the life of the Church than their more camera-friendly brothers. Those are the guys to watch.

They’re the ones who will, in all likelihood, be the key votes - maybe even candidates - come the next conclave. 

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Of course, the consistory isn’t the only news. It’s a big Church out there and there’s a lot going on. So here’s a look at some of it.

As Pope Francis looks set to announce his decision for the constitutional reform of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, his cardinal delegate to the order and the knights’ new interim leader have been on the end of some withering criticism from the knights.

Earlier this summer, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi and Fra’ John Dunlap reshuffled the assignments of the first-class knights, and appointed new heads of the order’s Grand Priories around the world. But many of the knights were not happy, calling the move illegal, and a bid to stack the vote at the next Chapter General. Since then, the divisions have only deepened among the knights themselves.

At the core of the dispute is a fundamental question: are the knights a Catholic religious order, with all that entails, or are they a sovereign international body that is legally independent of the Holy See? 

For centuries, the answer to this question has been “yes.” The ability of the Order of Malta to think and act as both fish and fowl, depending on the circumstances, is part of what has made it such a unique Christian and humanitarian institution for so long. But that looks set to change.

Increasingly, the reform process seems to be demanding the knights choose which they’d rather be: Catholic or sovereign. Some say it’s an impossible choice, since the order is defined by its Catholicism, and its work depends on its sovereignty. 

It’s a very complicated story, but we have a longread to get you fully up to speed here.

Despite repeated warnings from Rome, the German synodal way is pressing ahead with a vote to create a permanent synodal council to act as a kind of national governance board for the Church in that country.

The Vatican has repeatedly said the German “synodal way” isn’t a synod at all, and plans like these cannot possibly have any force. But this hasn’t stopped the plan from advancing, or stopped German bishops from promising to implement it if and when it is given a positive vote.

To give you a flavor of how beyond the pale the whole idea is, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was considered the bleeding edge of Catholic progressive ecclesiology way back in 2015, has called the plan “an outrageous innovation” with “no support in all constitutional history” of the Church.

It’s unclear how far the Germans intend to press ahead with their departure from the rest of the Church, but the consensus seems to be that they are fast approaching the point of no return. 

Read all about it here.

Meanwhile, in Poland, the bishops have released a national synthesis of their own synodal process, concluding (unlike their Teutonic neighbors) that while Catholics in Poland want the Church to change the way it functions they don’t want it to change its doctrine or structure.

But you’d be wrong to think it was smiles all around during the two-year Polish process. Catholics were unsparing in their criticism: “old, timid and tired,” “a concubine of the state,” “something for the older generations,” and “detached from life,” was some of the more pointed feedback received.

It was, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, the bishops’ conference president said, “criticism that does not come out of hatred of the Church, but a criticism out of love for the Church.” How the Church there internalizes and reacts to that loving criticism will be quite a challenge.

You can read all about the report, and Gądecki’s response, here.

If you’re wondering what the US synodal report looks like, you’ll have to wait a bit longer. As we previously reported, the USCCB was granted an extension by the Vatican until the end of August to get its own national synthesis ready.

But individual American dioceses are continuing to release their own reports — as of yesterday, 86 of the country’s 176 Latin Catholic dioceses have released their own synodal summaries. 

We’ve put together a comprehensive list, with links to all of them, here.

Look at all this news. It’s great isn’t it? Sure would be a shame if anything were to happen to it… So, please, help us keep this work going.

Episcopal resignations usually fall into one of two news brackets - boring, when they take place on schedule at 75, or scandalous, when they involve scandal. 

Well, here’s one that breaks the mold: This week, an auxiliary bishop in India resigned to become a hermit.

Fifty-nine-year-old Bishop Jacob Muricken first asked to be released from his duties as a bishop five years ago after receiving what he considered to be an undeniable call to the eremitical life during his prayers. 

He went to his bishop asking to be allowed to resign, then to the cardinal, then to the synod of the Syro-Malabar Church, but no one knew quite what to do with him — it had been a few centuries since a serving bishop had made such a request. He was asked to wait five years, and those five years were up this week, and off he went.

So, what kind of a bishop does this? Luke Coppen talked to one of the bishop’s friends and collaborators to find out. 

It turns out Bishop Muricken was already embracing the ascetic life for years: getting up at 3 in the morning to pray through the night, walking around the city barefoot, eating only one (strictly vegetarian) meal a day.

He was well-known in the diocese for giving his possessions away — including his own kidney, which he donated to a local Hindu man who’d lost his home trying to cover his medical costs. 

This is a fascinating profile of a kind of bishop we, sadly, don’t see very often. 

Pope Francis made a curious change in the law this week. At first glance, it appeared to be just a “hurry up” legal memo to Vatican departments, giving them a month to bring their cash and investments back into the Vatican’s own institutions from outside banks and accounts. But there was a lot more to it.

While issuing the deadline, the pope also made an “authentic interpretation” of a section of his own brand new curial constitution, Praedicate Evangelium, which had given control of all curial assets to APSA, and required APSA to bank all its money and transact all its business with the IOR, Vatican City’s commercial bank. 

That section is now to be read, the pope said, as giving the IOR “exclusive competence” to act as curial asset and investment manager — stripping the responsibility away from APSA, instead of merely transacting its business.

It is, as I wrote this week, kind of a big deal to announce in such a curiously roundabout way. So much so that a couple of people I spoke to about it suggested it might even have been a mistake. If that’s so, we can look forward to an interpretation of the interpretation, I guess. 

But in the meantime, the plain text of what the pope has ordered guts APSA of a major responsibility that Francis spent years building the department up for, on apparently no notice and with no reason given. While the IOR is now widely considered to be the most credible financial institution the Vatican has, it isn’t even a curial department, strictly speaking, and Francis has given no particular indication of holding it in special esteem.

Even more curiously, Francis made the change in a rescript issued after a meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin — meaning it was a clarification the Secretary of State asked for. 

If there’s no obvious reason for the pope to suddenly favor the IOR, Parolin’s department has every reason to positively hate the bank: It was the IOR’s director and president who first flagged the secretariat’s now infamous London deal and asked the pope to authorize the investigation into it which led to the still ongoing Vatican financial trail.

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If the motives for the move are a mystery, the effects are not. And they are kind of a big deal. The IOR is the only financial institution in the Vatican subject to European banking regulations and external anti-money laundering inspections. By ordering it to act as the investment manager for the whole Vatican, Francis has just brought every bit of curial business onto its books — which are open to Moneyval for regular inspections.

Again, it’s such a big deal I have to wonder if this is what they meant to happen. We’ll see, I guess. In the meantime, it looks like the IOR has finally earned its long informal, but previously inaccurate title: the Vatican bank.

You can read my whole analysis here.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa is still in custody in Nicaragua. Although Pope Francis has said he is “following the situation closely, with concern and sorrow,” many in the country and further afield have wondered why he hasn’t been more direct in calling for the bishop’s immediate release.

In an analysis this week, our Latin American correspondent Edgar Beltran took a look at the pope’s relatively measured tone when addressing the Ortega regime in Nicaragua compared to previous popes, and asked what, if anything, Francis hopes to gain by it.

It’s an interesting analysis, and Edgar asks if the pope is, as some have accused him of being, reflexively more easygoing on leftist regimes, even when they are persecuting the Church — or if he’s pragmatically understood that picking a public fight with Ortega won’t get him anywhere.

For myself, I tend to want to give the pope, and Vatican diplomacy, the benefit of the doubt in cases like this. 

It’s one thing to denounce a dictator (left or right leaning) as St. John Paul II did, accept some kind of government hostility as part and parcel of the Church’s prophetic witness, and reject the kind of Ostpolitik that argues for formal Church cooperation with a manifestly oppressive regime — as many would argue the Church is currently engaged in doing with China. 

It’s quite another to call out someone like Ortega on the world stage when he has a bishop in custody, and several of his priest companions are in gen pop in the country’s most notoriously violent prison. Put simply, the wrong tone from Rome could end up with making martyrs very quickly.

That said, there’s a difference between initial prudence and simply refusing to acknowledge a dire situation you can’t dialogue out of, and it’s important that the one not slide into the other, as it arguably has in other places — like China.

You can read Edgar’s whole analysis here.

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He’s just not that into you

Pope Francis meets with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba, in 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Max Rossi via Alamy

Speaking of Vatican diplomacy, Pope Francis’ September schedule took a serious hit this week. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill announced he isn’t going to a meeting of world faith leaders in Kazakhstan next month; Francis had repeatedly committed to making the trip so that he would be able to meet Kirill there. 

It would have been only their second in-person encounter, and the first time the two would see each other face-to-face since the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, and it is no secret that the pope has been very eager to meet with Kirill ever since.

Indeed, Francis’ eagerness for a chance to press for peace in person has led him to publicly fish for an invite from Moscow for months, and make every effort to not demonize Russia, Kirill, or Putin over the invasion. Those efforts have come at a cost.

Francis' public reputation has taken repeated hits for his attempts to talk about “both sides” when condemning the horrors of “war” in Ukraine. Earlier this week, the pope lamented the killing of Darya Dugina, the Russian right-wing media personality and daughter of the ultranationalist Aleksandr Dugin, who was killed in a car bombing last weekend. 

Despite her frequent appearances on Russian television, well-known political stances, and the at least possibility that she was assassinated by Russian forces, the pope mourned her as though she were a child blown up in the family minivan, listing the “poor girl” among the other “innocents” whose lives have been claimed by the “insanity of war” in Ukraine.

Ukrainians were, perhaps understandably, outraged. 

For one thing, Ukraine’s government denies Russian accusations that Ukraine had anything to do with Dugina’s death — accusations of which even Russian state media have been skeptical. 

More broadly, Francis’ repeated efforts to both-sides the suffering of a conflict in which there is only one aggressor, only one side invading, and only one country’s government keeping the war going, led Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See to complain this week that the pope doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between “rapist and raped.” 


The problem Francis seems to have is this: He understandably wants to recognize that a lot, a lot, of Russians have died and will continue to die in this war — and many of them, to say nothing of their families, will not be committed believers in the invasion. 

The traditional way for a world leader to recognize the humanity of the “other side,” even there is a single and obvious aggressor, is to distinguish between the people and the leaders who started the war. 

In Russia’s case, this would be President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, who has repeatedly used his office to preach in favor of the invasion, pitching a kind of Russian manifest destiny to conquer Ukraine as a bulwark against a sinful and decadent West. But Francis has not, and will not, denounce these men as responsible for the war because those are the very people he is desperately trying to meet with to plead for peace.

In a sense, I sympathize with Francis’ efforts and intentions. He clearly feels an overwhelming urge to meet Kirill face to face, I assume to appeal to him as a brother bishop, in the name of all that is holy, to help end the war. 

But Kirill has been clear he’s not backing away from his caesaro-papist commitment to the Russian president and his invasion. And he’s not going to put himself in a room with Francis to hear whatever appeal the Bishop of Rome wants to make.

Meanwhile, for all his frustrated efforts to meet with the Russians, Francis has had an open invite to Kyiv since before the invasion even began, and the pope is fast becoming one of the few European leaders not to visit and show his solidarity. 

The pope’s efforts to get in the door in Moscow are convincing more and more Ukrainains that he’s less interested in their suffering than he is in a photo op with their invaders — however unfair that might be to Francis’ real intentions.

While the pope’s obvious desire to be an envoy of peace is understandable, at a certain point, he will need to accept that an encounter with Kirill isn’t going to happen, and the Russian patriarch just isn’t interested in what he has to say.

If he doesn’t, there is a chance he could turn around and discover he isn’t very welcome in Ukraine, either, and that would be a tragedy.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon


The Pillar

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