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Personnel is policy: Pope Francis’ next big reform

Pope Francis greets cardinal in St. Peter’s Square. Credit: REUTERS/Alamy

Pope Francis’ landmark constitution on the organization of the Roman curia, Praedicate Evangelium, made headlines across the Church this month by clearing the way for laymen and women to head Vatican departments.

The text also combined a number of curial departments into larger dicasteries, in some cases consolidating existing work, and in others appearing to form new mega-departments.

The reforms are historical in theory, but “personnel is policy” in the Vatican, and the document’s promulgation did not come with any announced changes in leadership.

The real scope of Francis’ changes will be seen when the new constitution comes into force on June 5, when the pope will likely clarify who is running the new combined departments. He might also replace the several cardinal prefects who have already passed the canonical retirement age of 75.

So, looking ahead, who’s set for retirement, and whose job is being merged out from under them? And what might that mean for the shape of the Vatican?

Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, S.D.B., Coordinator, Council of Cardinal Advisors

One of Francis’ first acts as pope was the creation of the Council of Cardinal Advisors, a kind of kitchen cabinet of cardinals drawn from around the world to assist him “in the governance of the universal Church and of studying a project for the revision of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus on the Roman Curia.”

While the body’s main project has been producing Praedicate evangelium, there has been no indication Francis intends to do away with the group now that the document is complete.

And although the membership and number of the cardinal advisors has shifted over the last nine years, Cardinal Maradiaga has been a fixture at its head, coordinating the group’s meetings and helping shepherd Francis’ reforming agenda, despite illness, scandal, and advancing age.

Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, S.D.B.

Maradiaga is known to be a long-time friend of Francis, but he is also 79 years old and will age out of his voting rights in the next conclave at the end of this year. There is no obvious contender for succeeding Maradiaga, in large part because there is no precedent for the role — the only obvious criteria would seem to be personal closeness to Francis and residence outside of Rome.

The pope might decide to let the group quietly lapse, now that its main project is complete, or abolish it altogether. But if he does decide to keep it going, whoever he picks to follow Maradiaga will immediately find themselves designated as the pope’s newest “closest advisor.”

Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, SJ, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Cardinal Ladaria’s department saw probably the least amount of change in Praedicate Evangelium of any major Vatican department, with the pope having clarified and updated its internal structures just weeks before the new constitution was rolled out.

Now sitting behind the Secretariat of State and the new Dicastery for the Evangelization, the former Holy Office is no longer La Suprema in the curial pecking order, at least nominally. But in the day-to-day mechanics of Rome, it is still one of the biggest jobs there is — the department still has to vet anything touching faith and morals coming out of other departments, as well as handling the case load for canonical crimes against the faith (including the abuse of minors) from around the world.

Ladaria is 77 years old, and his five year term of office is set to expire in July, one month after the new constitution comes into effect. The prefect has steered a steady course during his time in office, at times acting as a lightning rod for the pope on controversial issues which have crossed Francis’ desk, like the decree last year restating the impossibility of the Church blessing same-sex unions.

Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, SJ

While attracting criticism for issuing statements on the pope’s behalf unpopular with the radical progressive wing of the Church, he’s avoided the reputation for being “doctrinaire” which traditionally attaches itself to his job.

Francis might be minded to leave Ladaria in position for the time being, but he would be an unworkable 82 years old by the end of a second five year term, meaning he’s most likely to be replaced. The hottest tip in Rome to succeed him is still Malta’s Archbishop Charles Sciccluna, the department’s former chief prosecutor and Pope Francis’ go-to man for addressing sexual abuse cases around the world.

Cardinal Séan O’Malley, President, Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

Created by Pope Francis as an independent body to address the Church’s sexual abuse crisis in 2014, the comission has been the key Roman body for promoting best-practice to dioceses around the world, while coming in for its share of criticism from victim-surviors for not going far enough in its policy recommendations.

Under the norms of Praedicate Evangelium, the council is now to be folded into the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, though it keeps its name and its own “president-delegate” appointed directly by the pope, unlike other bodies within the department which are chaired ex officio by the prefect.

At 77, Cardinal O’Malley could be looking to retire in the near future from his day job as Archbishop of Boston, but given the prominence of the job in the Church in the US and O’Malley’s personal profile, he may continue in that position for another year or two — if he does, he seems likely to remain at the head of the commission through then end of his current term, though his eventual successor seems likely to be Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, one of the commission’s members, who is currently the most visible face of the commission’s work.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect, Congregation for Bishops

While much of the attention in curial affairs falls on the leaders of the departments of state, doctrine, and the evangelization, arguably one of the most important Vatican jobs in the day-to-day life of the universal Church is the prefect of the Congregation (soon to be Dicastery) for Bishops, which compiles and vets the candidates’ lists for episcopal appointments around the world and manages complaints of misconduct made under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi.

Cardinal Ouellet is one of the few Benedict XVI appointees still in-post, and he has been hotly, and prematurely, tipped to be replaced for years. At 77, the Canadian cardinal is two years past retirement age, but by no means the oldest curial cardinal still in harness.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet

While there is probably a less than 50/50 chance Pope Francis opts to leave Ouellet in place, speculation on possible replacements has been muted, outside of a steady drip of stories suggesting Cardinal Cupich of Chicago as a contender for the job — though those stories appear almost exclusively in the English language press and seem to emanate from America, rather than Rome.

Within the Vatican, the name more often suggested as a possible replacement is the Brazilian Archbishop Ilson de Jesus Montanari, who has been Ouellet’s number two at the department since 2013 and also currently serves as the secretary of the College of Cardinals. Montanari has long been said to favor a return to his native Brazil, rather than looking for promotion in Rome, but if Francis asks, he might not be able to say no.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect, Congregation for the Oriental Churches

Effectively unchanged by the new apostolic constitution, and traditionally not much concerned with affairs of the Latin-focused curial world, the Vatican department charged with working with the Easter Churches in communion with Rome will probably be the department closest to “business as usual” the day Praedicate Evangelium comes into force.

At 78, its prefect, Cardinal Sandri, is well beyond the usual retirement age and would seem a likely pick for replacement in any curial reshuffle in June.

On the other hand, Sandri has been in charge of the department since 2007 and is a practiced hand at the tiller. With the ongoing crisis following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the status of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and its relationship with the two Orthodox Churches in the country, has become a sensitive ecclesiastical priority. At the same time, the UGCC has been requesting, for decades, that the pope appoint a patriarch to lead the Church sui iuris — that appointment, long shelved over eccumenical concerns, could be back on the cards.

Pope Francis could well decide he doesn’t want a change in leadership at the new Dicastery for the Eastern Churches in the middle of a crisis.

Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture

The two oldest cardinals in curial service, Versaldi, 78, and Ravasi, 79, have seen their departments combined by Praedicate Evangelium into the new Dicastery for Culture and Education — with a notable reversal in the names of the former departments by size and importance.

There can be only one prefect of the new department, which will handle the Vatican’s involvement in culture affairs and the setting of standards for Catholic schools and universities worldwide. With the combined role not touching directly on ecclesiastical governance, and with both cardinals well advanced in years, the new dicastery looks a likely candidate for a new lay leader.

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Penitentiary Major, Apostolic Penitentiary

One of the Holy See’s three ecclesiastical legal institutions, the penitentiary is responsible for approving and issuing indulgences, for absolving reserved sins — like violation of the seal of confession — and for lifting excommunications reserved to the Holy See.

Cardinal Piacenza is 77, but he is also one of the most experienced canon lawyers Pope Francis has, and occupies one of the most sensitive offices in the Church’s legal system, even if its work is often invisible. Odds are that he will be left in post for the time being, absent an obvious candidate with the same qualifications who enjoys the pope’s favor.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ, Prefect ad interim, Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

Cardinal Czerny has emerged in recent years as a trusted pair of hands for Pope Francis. At the time the dicastery was created, in 2016, Czerny was placed in charge of its special section for refugees and migrants, which was set up within the department but made responsible to the pope directly.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ

In December last year, the cardinal was put in temporary charge of the whole department, after Pope Francis decided to accept the resignation of Cardinal Peter Turkson, the last African to serve as head of a Vatican department.

More recently, Czerny was dispatched by the pope as his special envoy to Ukraine, together with Cardinal Krajewski, the papal almoner.

He may be 75 and technically up for retirement, but don’t expect him to go anywhere, unless he is promoted.

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