Edward Pentin’s Vatican Notebook
‘Rumour does not always err,” wrote the Roman historian Tacitus. “It sometimes even elects a man.” If that holds true in the Roman Curia under Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re looks set to become the Vatican’s next Secretary of State when the Holy Father undertakes widely anticipated curial reforms later this month.
For many years, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops has been spoken of as the natural successor to Cardinal Angelo Sodano to head the Holy See’s most powerful dicastery. A popular Vatican official who has run the Congregation competently and efficiently, Cardinal Re is also amply qualified: he joined the Curia in 1963, is a graduate of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy (the Holy See’s school for diplomacy), served as a Vatican diplomat in Iran and Panama and speaks English and Spanish.
But his appointment will depend on whether Pope Benedict pursues a reform agenda that adheres to tradition. It has been speculated that he will break with the past, look outside the Curia and the diplomatic service, and choose a friend and former colleague. If so, then Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa would be the natural choice. The archbishop was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and is said to have the necessary skills.
It is, however, unlikely that Pope Benedict will bring him back from an archdiocese in which he has served for only three years. It is more probable that he will wish to balance the Curia with someone who shares his wish to streamline bureaucracy, and has lengthy experience of the Curia, all of which leaves Cardinal Re as the most obvious choice.
The appointment may not be imminent, however. Although three years beyond the retiring age for cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano was reappointed Secretary of State by Pope Benedict in April, in contrast to the other heads of dicasteries who were confirmed as donec aliter provideatur (until the Pope makes other arrangements). The rumour, therefore, may not be wrong but it may take a while longer to be realised.
Wide experience of the Curia, coupled with great intelligence, means that many see Pope Benedict XVI as the perfect instigator of necessary curial reforms expected in the coming weeks. The most prominent casualty, say Vatican sources, will be the Pontifical Council for Culture. As an autonomous body, it is expected to be absorbed into another dicastery, most probably the Congregation for Catholic Education.
Other councils may later share the same fate in an effort to reduce an “inflated” Curia and “free-up” the possibility of appointing cardinals to other sees around the world.
Various duties of other Vatican departments will also be juggled around.
Priestly and marital dispensations are expected to be moved from the Congregation for Divine Worship to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Catechesis will likewise be moved to the former Holy Office from its home in the Congregation for Clergy. The Congregation for Clergy is likely to be made responsible for seminaries which is currently the preserve of the Congregation for Catholic Education.
The Secretariat of State could see some reform. Some of its internal structure has not been changed for years. The English language section is still organised along the lines of the allied victors of the Second World War. When Israel’s president Moshe Katsav makes an historic visit to the Pope next week, hopes are high that a deal will be made whereby Israel returns to the Church the cenacle in Jerusalem (the location of the Last Supper) in exchange for a synagogue in Toledo, Spain, which is in Church hands.
They appear to be just hopes, however. “I’m afraid you’re being misled,” said Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee and a figure close to both the Vatican and the Israeli government.
“The Jewish people don’t have any interest in Toledo. Only if there was a living Jewish community there would they take any interest and there isn’t, so it’s not a serious option at all,” he said. “In fact the suggestion cannot even be called a balloon in the sky.” Asked whether Israel will, nevertheless, return the cenacle to the Church, Rabbi Rosen replied: “The Church has a legitimate historical claim but it would really stir up a hornet’s nest with regard to Jewish and Muslim sensibilities, so many Jewish people will probably ask: ‘Why put ourselves in that position if we can avoid it?’.” However, Rabbi Rosen, who this month became the first Israeli and Orthodox rabbi to receive a papal knighthood, does not rule out the possibility, and said that although President Katsav has no executive role, he could still exert pressure on the government.
“You can be remarkably surprised with what happens in the Middle East,” he said. “Who would have thought the current Israeli Prime Minister would withdraw our presence from Gaza?”