Is Francis doing what Benedict could not?

Analysis: Vatican

For Vatican watchers, the inside story of the Easter weekend was Pope Francis’ decision to celebrate a private Mass on Holy Thursday with the disgraced Cardinal Angelo Becciu. 

Some journalists, perhaps taking their cue from Becciu’s own brother, jumped to interpret the event as a pointed step towards rehabilitating the cardinal. Those interpretations were subsequently knocked down by Vatican officials, who insisted the visit was a private act of pastoral mercy towards the cardinal-in-name-only. 

The Vatican’s unofficial clarification was followed by complaints from some commentators, who said, effectively, that the pope brought a media firestorm upon himself by a dramatic and unexplained Holy Thursday gesture.

But another plausible reading of the pope’s striking decision is that Pope Francis has been able to do what his predecessors, Benedict XVI in particular, could not: separate his personal loyalties from the need to act as pope, to address the problematic curial activities of a friend.

Francis fired Becciu from a curial job in September, stripping him of the rights and privileges as a cardinal in the process. That move came after Vatican prosecutors presented the pope with a dossier of allegations and evidence against Becciu, the former sostituto at the Secretariat of State.

Becciu’s sacking, most conceded at the time, was seismic. It was the first time a serving curial cardinal had been deposed for alleged financial crimes. 

The firing was also personally significant for Pope Francis, because Becciu and Francis were, by all accounts, close friends, and Francis has seemed to remain close to the cardinal even while an investigation continues into the financial scandal that surrounds him. 

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During his papacy, Benedict XVI handled a similar situation rather differently. 

After his 2005 election, Benedict appointed as Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, his long-time secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and his close friend. 

Bertone did not have a background in Vatican diplomacy, and his appointment was met with hesitation by many in Rome. 

During Bertone’s time in charge of the curia’s largest department, and the governance of the Vatican City state, his name became synonymous with allegations of financial malpractice, corruption, and the development of a private power base to stymie Benedict’s own attempts at curial reform. 

One of Bertone’s most important appointments was to name Becciu sostituto in 2011, an unexpected appointment at the time, given Becciu’s lack of curial experience. He had only previously served as apostolic nuncio to Cuba and Angola. 

Bertone’s time in charge of curial affairs will probably be best remembered for the Vatileaks scandal, numerous questions surrounding the management of the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), a Vatican bank, and accusations of personal financial misconduct related to the Vatican’s Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome, which he was accused of using to fund the renovation of his Vatican apartment. 

But when evidence mounted against Pope Benedict’s personal friend, the pope by all accounts refused to act against him. One often repeated story has it that a delegation of curial cardinals went to see Benedict at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo to lay out the scale of Bertone’s alleged malfeasance and beg the pope to sack him. 

“The man stays! Enough!” was Benedict’s supposedly exasperated response. 

By all accounts, Benedict could not bring himself to act against his friend, even when his curia presented evidence against him. 

And while the pope emeritus has insisted that he did not resign out of frustration or horror at mounting evidence of corruption, it was widely accepted that curial reform was first on the list for his successor to address. 

Several years later, and in contrast to his predecessor, when Francis was handed a dossier against his friend by Vatican prosecutors, he immediately summoned and dismissed Becciu, their close relationship notwithstanding. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Francis has not received much credit for that. 

In the weeks after Pope Francis sacked Becciu in September, many Vatican watchers, including some who have fallen for the rehabilitation narrative in recent days, mounted defences of Becciu, or accused the pope of doling out summary judgement, punishing the cardinal without giving him due process. 

Few noted that the rank of cardinal and the office of curial prefect is in the free gift of the pope, or that facing a litany of allegations could be said to constitute “grave cause,” the ordinary canonical criteria for removal from office.

Fewer still made much of the pope’s decision at the time to allow Becciu to retain his Vatican apartment and cardinal’s stipend. But, in sum, when confronted with a scandal and serious evidence of wrongdoing by a close friend and high ranking official in his curia, Francis immediately removed him from his positions of power and influence, without taking what could be seen as punitive action against him. 

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While insisting that the Vatican investigation must continue, and while amending Vatican law to aid any eventual prosecution of Becciu or his former collaborators, Francis has remained personally close to Becciu, sympathizing with him as a friend even while (so far) refusing to spare him from formal accountability. While it is not a difficult pattern of behavior to see, it is somewhat unprecedented for a pope, which perhaps explains why so many journalists and commentators find it mystifying. 

Of course, it still remains to be seen if Becciu will face a final reckoning against the prosecution’s evidence in court. Since his dismissal, the scandal around him and his former office has only become wider in scope and more lurid in detail — including accusations that Becciu was being blackmailed by another official at the Secretariat of State.

And there are other significant personnel issues which Francis has not addressed, and has not yet indicated he plans to. But on Becciu, at least, the pope has acted.

If Becciu does go to court, and if Pope Francis is willing to see such a trial through to the end in public, the pope may be due credit for modeling a new kind of governance, and a different kind of friendship, for a pope.

Those are big “ifs,” but so far Francis appears to be on course.