Cardinal Bertone's sacking was a small step towards reform after the Vatileaks scandal. It prompted a remarkable outburst
One of the most striking things about the Vatican is just how disconnected it can be from the world around it. Another is that it is at the same time fantastically well connected. Upwards of 150 states have diplomatic relations with the pope and it is represented in all international bodies of any significance. The paradox of extreme connectedness and extreme distance was nicely exemplified by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, whom Pope Francis has just sacked.
Bertone was 78, so his departure was hardly unexpected. But for the last seven years he has been the pope's number two, or secretary of state, among other things in charge of the papacy's relations with the outside world. And he held this position although he lacks one of the crucial qualifications of a modern diplomat: he cannot speak English. No doubt his defenders would retort that it's been years since Washington had a secretary of state who was fluent in Latin.
Rightly or wrongly, Bertone had come to symbolise everything that has gone wrong with the Vatican since Pope John Paul II became ill with Parkinson's disease. He couldn't see the problem himself. In a remarkable outburst on Sunday he said that "On balance, I consider these seven years to have been positive. There were matters that got out of control because they were problems which were sealed within the management of certain people who did not contact the secretary of state. Naturally there were problems, particularly in the last two years, they have made many accusations against me … A mix of crows and vipers."
This wonderful last phrase combines Italian distaste for informers ("crows") with a long-standing Christian suspicion of snakes. It is his way of claiming that he was not responsible for the Vatileaks fiasco, which ended up in the sentencing of Pope Benedict's butler for hoarding and then passing papers to journalists that showed the Vatican under Bertone was riven with faction and intrigue.
One version of these intrigues has it that Bertone was in fact to some extent the fall guy in the Vatileaks scandal, and that its real target was Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Pope Benedict's private secretary. Gänswein was himself regarded as one of the most powerful men in the Vatican when Benedict resigned, but his star has fallen since then. Although he has been confirmed in his post by Francis, he no longer controls who sees the pope, which was the root of his power.
Bertone's replacement, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, is a career diplomat with a reputation for competence and hard work. He was even mentioned as an outsider candidate for pope in the speculation in spring. He is only 58, the youngest man to hold the office for decade, and his promotion makes him a very strong candidate to be the next Italian pope in five or 10 years' time.
His career in the Vatican's diplomatic service has included dealing with some of its trickiest relationships, with Israel and China. He was most recently sent to Venezuela, where the country's bishops were locked in noisy hostility with the Chávez government but he himself kept up a much more moderate tone. Nonetheless, he comes in clearly as a reformer. He said recently that the church under Benedict was "a church under siege with thousands of problems, a church that seemed, let's say, a little sick."
The best-informed Vatican watchers see Parolin's appointment as a sign that Francis wants the curia to be less powerful and more efficient than it was under Benedict, but by no means humiliated, the way that some reformers would have liked it to be. The removal of Bertone was in some ways the smallest step he could have taken towards reform, especially as he confirmed the other four most senior officials in the secretariat of state in their posts. Speculation now will concentrate on the feast of St Francis, on 4 October, when Pope Francis is expected to announce the deliberations of the commission of eight cardinals, all known to be hostile to the curia, which he appointed as one of his first acts in office.