As anyone who paid attention in history class knows, when Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés landed in what is now Mexico in 1519, he promptly scuttled his ships, thereby leaving his men no choice but to press on in conquest of the Aztec empire. For centuries, that rash act has loomed as an object lesson in total commitment.
Last week Pope Francis scuttled some ships of his own, on two fronts which have been sources of scandal and heartache for the Catholic Church: sex and money.
On Monday, Francis held his first meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse. Two days later, the Vatican announced a sweeping financial overhaul, including new leadership and a sharply limited role for the troubled Vatican bank.
There’s such hunger in the world to believe Francis is the real deal that it’s tempting to confuse announcing a plan for reform with actually implementing it. To be clear, what happened last week was not reform itself; it was more like a prelude to action, an attempt to create the conditions for something good to happen.
In both cases, the key effect was to commit Pope Francis definitively to a particular course of action.
On the abuse front, the fact that Francis met with victims was no novelty, as Benedict XVI held such encounters six times. Likewise there was no breakthrough in his plea for forgiveness, since such apologies date all the way back to 1993 when John Paul II voiced sorrow for the sins of “some ministers of the altar.” They became sharper under Benedict XVI, who first used the magic words “I’m sorry” in Australia in 2008.
Nor was Francis’ pledge of zero tolerance a novelty. The classic papal statement comes from an April 2002 speech by John Paul II to American cardinals: “There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”
What happenedat the Vatican last week wasnot reform itself;it was more likea prelude to action.
Yet the July 7 meeting wasn’t entirely old hat, because Francis had something groundbreaking to say on accountability. Here’s the line: “All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.”
When popes and Vatican officials have been asked about accountability in the past, they almost always replied in terms of punishment for clergy who abuse rather than bishops who fail to act. Most people would say real accountability means consequences not just for the crime but for the coverup, and Francis has now pledged that he will deliver.
That’s one ship scuttled: If people do not see the pontiff holding bishops to account, he’ll have nowhere to deflect the blame.
On finances, the Vatican unveiled changes on Wednesday that include tapping French businessman Jean-Baptiste de Franssu as the new president of the Vatican bank, creating an “Asset Management” office to coordinate several billion dollars in investments currently spread across several departments, launching study panels for pensions and media operations, and assigning the new Secretariat for the Economy control over purchasing and human resources.
Several aspects of the strategy seem clear, including breaking the Italian monopoly on money management by bringing in international experts, and injecting a healthy dose of laity into what has heretofore been a mostly clerical governance structure.
In political terms, however, the clear take-away is that the Secretariat for the Economy under Australian Cardinal George Pell is the Vatican’s new 800-pound gorilla. It absorbed a key chunk of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the new asset management office answers to Pell, and de Franssu at the Vatican bank is a Pell ally.
Yes, there are checks and balances. Yes, as Pell insists, the financial experts who now sit on boards aren’t milquetoasts likely to just rubber-stamp whatever’s put in front of them.
The Vatican’s antimoney laundering watchdog unit under Swiss lawyer Renè Bruelhart also remains independent. Its new board includes a former Bush administration official named Juan Zarate who literally wrote the book on combatting financial crime, a 2013 volume titled Treasury’s War, and such figures probably won’t be inclined to gamble with their reputations.
That said, there’s also no doubt about who’s in command, and his name is George Pell.
As one proof of the point, there’s no role in the new structures for the Secretariat of State, which traditionally has wielded almost unchallenged authority over internal management. On the power of the purse, the pope has sidelined it in favor of Pell’s team.
That’s the other ship down: Francis now has fully committed himself to the Secretariat for the Economy as his chosen engine of reform. If things go south, there will be no way to disassociate him from the outcome.
Pell said in an interview that the aim of the cleanup operation is to get the Vatican “off the gossip pages” due to financial scandals, making it “boringly successful.”
Time will tell if that happens, as it will as to whether the pope cracks episcopal heads over the abuse scandals. What’s no longer up for grabs is whether those are the correct standards for evaluating success, because the pope has set the bar himself.
Like Cortés and his men five centuries ago, after last week, Francis has left himself no exit strategy.John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook at facebook.com/ JohnLAllenJr.