Thursday, July 05, 2018

A Lay "Cardinal" – In Media Reform's Take Two, Francis Makes History

As an op with the early word put it on Tuesday, "this is going to be big" – and indeed it is: in a move without precedent for the 500 year-old Roman Curia, the Pope has entrusted the leadership of a Vatican department to a member of the laity.

Marking an attempted reboot at his fraught reform of the Holy See's media properties, at Roman Noon this Thursday Francis named Paolo Ruffini – the 61 year-old serving until now as head of the Italian bishops' broadcast outlet TV2000 – as prefect of the recently-renamed Dicastery for Communications, the new umbrella organ encompassing Vatican Radio, TV, the Press Office, the publishing house, a growing editorial operation, and the functions of the now-suppressed Pontifical Council for Social Communications. (As is now customary for occasions of the sort, a photo of the new prefect with Francis – who reportedly chose Ruffini earlier this week – was released to mark the appointment.)

With the move, the married Sicilian shatters a "stained-glass ceiling" – while a handful of laypeople or women religious have occupied the #3 posts of major Curial offices over the last half-century, and John Paul II first put a layman at the helm of the lower-ranking Press Office in 1984, a non-ordained figure has never risen to the level of Prefect: a position that, under the Pastor Bonus norms of 1988, belonged exclusively to the heads of the nine Congregations, the top judge of the Apostolic Signatura (the church's highest court) and the head of the Papal Household, all but the last one ex officio cardinals. Put simply, the title represents the pinnacle of executive power in the church's central government – and the merged media arm's massive spread of some 650 employees only amplifies the significance of the choice.

Said to be very well-regarded among his colleagues – so much so that, according to one report, some of his TV2000 staff wept on learning of today's announcement – Ruffini succeeds Msgr Dario Viganò, whose March ouster after misrepresenting a letter from Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI brought to a head a long-simmering discontent among staffers and vested observers over his execution of the reform.

While ops report that the new prefect doesn't speak English and lacks much exposure to the international media world, by early accounts, Ruffini nonetheless comes to the post with two key attributes that eluded his predecessor: experience in management alongside a history in content production, and a knack for the "personal relationships" that, according to some, Viganò didn't adequately maintain amid the deep sensitivities and high stakes of consolidating the media entities, each with their own long-standing culture and sense of turf.

Along those lines, two of the key bonds the incoming media chief will need to build at the outset are likely to make for a particular high-wire act: with Viganò himself, who Francis placed in the dicastery's third-ranking post following his resignation, and with the office's top deputy, Argentine Msgr Lucio Ruiz, who was reportedly being "test-piloted" for the prefect's role at the start of the vacancy. In addition, while Viganò assembled a high-powered global team of consultants for the office – including both the progressive lead voice of the Jesuits' America magazine, Fr James Martin, and Michael Warsaw, the CEO of EWTN – in a sign of the project's disarray, the dicastery's advisers and prelate-members still have yet to be gathered together nearly 18 months since the bulk of them were named.

Among other challenges ahead, the reform still has yet to absorb L’Osservatore Romano – the Vatican’s daily newspaper and the oldest piece of the Pope’s communication apparatus – whose staff has been said to be overtly reluctant to cede their semi-autonomous standing.

Prominent and historic as today's nod is, though, the Comms portfolio isn't the most critical personnel pick facing Francis over the summer break: that choice remains the Pope's appointment of the next Sostituto of the Secretariat of State – the Curia's "nerve center" role, roughly equivalent to the White House Chief of Staff.

Having opened up due to the newly-elevated Cardinal Angelo Becciu's transfer to the helm of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, according to several ops, the twin frontrunners for the post present a study in contrasts. The current Nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, 60, would be the ultimate "inside man," both as an Italian and having spent seven years as Assessore, the Sostituto's deputy – a period during which his counterpart on the diplomatic side was notably Msgr Pietro Parolin, now a cardinal and Francis' formidable "prime minister." On the flip-side, meanwhile, the Filipino-born Archbishop Bernardito Auza, 59, has served since 2014 in one of Vatican diplomacy's most prestigious postings – the Holy See's permanent observer at the United Nations headquarters in New York – after a six-year stint as Nuncio to Haiti. Known universally as "Barney," the ebullient prelate has carved out a markedly high profile in the UN post – to an unusual degree for a top diplomat – and would represent a milestone as Parolin's top deputy, becoming the Curia's highest-ranking Asian in history.

Either way, amid perceptions that Francis' internal reform has stalled, the next Sostituto could have an even more enduring impact than most occupants of the post – on top of the usual clearinghouse role, it'll fall to the Pope's pick to implement the long-germinating new constitution slated to rearrange the Roman Curia.

The text's first complete draft submitted to Papa Bergoglio last month by his "Gang of Nine" cardinal-advisers, the new regolamento – the first since John Paul issued Pastor Bonus 30 years ago last week – is expected to be published next year.