One can argue about whether the Vatican should be counted as a real country, but if it is it’s a most unusual country. As a result, its governance problems are a mixture of the familiar and the exotic.
That’s the context for yesterday’s announcement that Pope Francis has nominated eight cardinals “to advise him in the government of the universal Church and to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia.”
The move has made headlines in Australia because one of the eight is George Pell, archbishop of Sydney. The others come from all round the world: two Europeans and one each from the United States, Central America, South America, Africa and South Asia. Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez of Honduras is co-ordinator of the group.
Pell’s spokeswoman is quoted saying “the international composition of the committee shows that the Pope is a fresh thinker,” who is “trying to reach out to people and getting an idea and a feeling of what’s happening in various parts of the world and how various people are thinking.”
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Despite the fact that he was elected by a group of old men who would appear to have a lot invested in the existing system, Francis is seen as a proponent of reform. And commentators of all stripes on the church agree that reform is urgently necessary. The Vatican bureaucracy (known as the “Curia”) is dysfunctional enough to be worthy of a much larger country, and its ethos of looking after one’s own has become strikingly apparent with the sexual abuse scandals.
As the BBC reports, “The cardinals who elected Pope Francis last month were strongly critical about basic failings of the Curia” under his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Much of this is familiar to anyone who has looked at absolute monarchies. Because there are no checks and balances, no competing centres of power, all the energy within government goes to currying favor with the monarch. Since that favor can change at any time, any fiefdoms that have been built up are precarious, which is all the more reason they have to be exploited ruthlessly while they last. And because the system doesn’t have a mechanism to respond to outside pressures, inconvenient facts are frequently ignored (what we now call “epistemic closure”).
A change of rulers offers about the only opportunity for serious reform to take place – especially in the Vatican, where the succession is not hereditary and therefore the heir cannot be so easily cultivated beforehand by the courtiers. But most of the time it doesn’t; the new boss will often engage in a change of personnel, but rarely a change of system.
The Vatican, however, has other problems. Even for an absolute monarchy, its processes are unusually opaque; I would guess that Pope Francis is spending most of his time just trying to work out what’s going on. His new advisory panel is not due to meet until October, but the time is probably necessary to compile enough background information for them to understand what they’re supposed to be reforming.
More significant, though, is the fact that the Vatican doesn’t have the capacity to move towards any sort of responsible government, because there’s nothing for it to be responsible to. A normal country has subjects or citizens who can potentially be enfranchised, or at least be somehow listened to. But the Vatican has nothing like that; its problem is not just its absolutism, but the lack of any plausible road away from absolutism.
In theory, the Holy See (the international network of clerics that represent the church) and the Vatican City state (the rather small territory in Rome) are separate entities, although the pope is absolute sovereign of both. But neither has constituents in the usual sense. And while idealists might talk of the pope being responsible to the whole body of the faithful who make up the church, it’s hard to see what that could possibly mean in practice. (The Conciliar movement tried something like this in the fifteenth century, but that was a very different world.)
Sometimes the Vatican is compared not to a government but to a giant multinational corporation. There are certainly some similarities, but again there are none of the institutions that attempt (often badly) to keep corporations in check: no board of directors, no shareholders, no markets, no corporate regulator. Just a CEO who is taught, quite literally, to regard himself as God’s representative.
Nothing in Cardinal Pell’s record would suggest that he’s much of a friend to democracy or even common sense. But at least he lives a long way from Rome and, together with some of the other appointees, might bring a fresh perspective on some very intractable problems.