There are two different – not necessarily competing – explanations for our use of “Byzantine” as a shorthand for an outfit or operation with highly complex and apparently needless layers of detail in its organization.
One is that it fairly describes the developed bureaucracy of the Roman Empire in the East. The other is that it comes from the miles of roughly – but not exactly – concentric and interwoven networks of walls around the great imperial capital.
Either way, I’ve often thought – and even said, if memory serves – that folks must speak of “Vatican” complexity and dysfunction on the other side of the Bosphorus, the same way we speak of “Byzantine” modes and orders on this side of the strait.
From the outside looking in, both the physical and the administrative defenses of Constantine’s city appear not only impenetrable but also utterly indecipherable. No one could hope to navigate the former or negotiate the latter. That, in short, is among the capital reasons why so rarely in the history of the papacy have the cardinals given the office to a total – or near-total – outsider.
In 2013, the cardinals chose a fellow who was just that – a near-total outsider – to reform the Church’s central governing apparatus. Outsiders can be successful, but only if they act swiftly and decisively, upon solid intelligence, with both a developed vision for the endgame and a keen understanding of what is possible now.
One wonders whether Francis’s big mistake wasn’t his failure to take a page from Lee Iacocca’s book, and sack the lot of the curial big-wigs, starting on Day One. Maybe, for effect, right after he paid his bill at the clerics-only hotel where he’d been staying before the conclave that elected him – though he certainly has done the other thing Iacocca did, which was to bring in folks he knew from previous turns in other senior leadership roles.
Doing the latter with alacrity without doing the former is frequently a recipe for failure, if not disaster.
Francis could have made the resignation of every senior curial official permanent, for example – all but a few of them lose their appointments automatically when the See of Rome becomes vacant – or at least those of every official over the age of seventy.
He could have ordered an independent review of each department completed within six months.
He could have shuttered some of the advisory offices created over the last forty years and dedicated their budgets to the creation of a permanent investigative arm – a sort of Vatican Bureau of Investigation.
Instead, the discipline section in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – a passive office that mostly instructs local jurisdictions regarding cases – has about two dozen people working for it to cover a worldwide remit for an organization with over a billion members and a half-million clerics at least nominally subject to it. There are District Attorney’s offices in rural jurisdictions with more staff.
In short, Francis had about six months in which he might have done almost entirely as he pleased, but he didn’t.
There were signs of trouble almost from the get-go, mostly arising from Francis’s reluctance to swing the ax on the Old Guard. At times, he appeared ready to do it, but always opted in the end for half-measures.
Instead, Francis decided he would try to reform the bureaucrats, rather than the bureaucracy.
While he was waiting for the bureaucrats to come around to his way of seeing things, he basically governed without them and the offices they continued nominally to lead. That need not have been a bad thing, mind, and was arguably necessary given the depth of rot and extent of dysfunction he inherited. Nevertheless, it was never going to be a permanent solution. Not even the strongest strongman can govern without help.
Think of Star Wars.
At a small council meeting on Emperor Palpatine’s just-completed “ultimate” weapon, ominously styled the Death Star, a senior military man – General Tagge (played by the workhorse English character actor, Don Henderson) – asks: “How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?” The heavy of the piece, Grand Moff Tarkin (deliciously played by the late great Peter Cushing), replies: “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”
Even if one opts for the Palpatine / Tarkin Protocol, one can’t get it done without a moon-sized battle station to command and a few competent henchmen.
It’s not that Pope Francis hasn’t made a mess of things in the curia and beyond. It’s that he and his chief lieutenants and handlers have been rather … unsystematic about their business.
“A matter of style,” one may urge, but style is an interesting word. It comes from stylus, which means “pen” and also “dagger” in Latin.
The anti-Papal cleric and writer, Paolo Sarpi, found himself on the wrong end of a knife attack one time. His assailants cut him up pretty good, but he made it to a doctor. When he’d recovered, the medical man observed that Sarpi would surely be dead, if his attackers had known their work better.
Sarpi, who knew – or strongly suspected – that his muggers had acted on Roman commission, quipped: Agnosco stylum Romanae Curiae. “I recognize style of the Roman Curia.”
(Editor’s note: This post has been updated and expanded.)
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