Pope Francis names Parolin as secretary of state

Paddy Agnew reports on arguably the most important appointment of the pontificate to date

Archbishop Pietro Parolin has been appointed as secretary of state, Vatican prime minister and chief aide - a role often called the ‘deputy pope’. Photograph: Reuters

Archbishop Pietro Parolin has been appointed as secretary of state, Vatican prime minister and chief aide - a role often called the ‘deputy pope’. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Aug 31, 2013, 18:02

Pope Francis today made arguably the most important appointment of his five month long pontificate so far when he named experienced Vatican diplomat, 58-year-old Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, as his new secretary of state or de facto prime minister.

Those who had hoped for a radical, innovative appointment to this key post may be a little disappointed. Not only is Archbishop Parolin a discreet diplomat, who currently serves as Papal Nunzio to Venezuela, but he is also an Italian.

Given that one of Francis’ first priorities is the reform of the Roman Curia, widely perceived to have got out of control under Pope Benedict, commentators had speculated that Francis might appoint a non-Italian outsider to this key position.

Concern amongst the Cardinals about Holy See governance, as illustrated by the incident which saw confidential documents stolen from the pontifical apartment by Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was one of the key factors in prompting the Cardinals to elect a Latin American outsider to the papacy last March. In that context, it was always possible that Francis might also appoint an “outsider” Prime Minister.

In the end, the Pope appears to have opted for a subtle compromise. In appointing an experienced, skilful Italian like Parolin, Francis appears to be acknowledging that he may need “insider” help when it comes to reforming the Curia.

Furthermore, to appoint an Italian establishment man and career diplomat would suggest that his “reform” of the Curia will be much constructive than destructive, not so much a traumatic, total overhaul as a lick and spit renovation job.

Unlike his predecessor, Cardinal Bertone, the new secretary of state brings a wealth of diplomatic experience to the job. As the former number three official in the Vatican Foreign Office, he is credited with having skillfully handled complex issues such as nuclear disarmament, Holy See dialogue with North Korea and Iran and the fight against human trafficking.

As the Nunzio for four years in the Hugo Chavez led Venezuela, however, he flew well below the radar, preferring behind the scenes diplomacy to outright confrontation with the charismatic Chavez. It is possible that Parolin’s pragmatic and understated interpretation of his role as Nunzio in the Chavez Venezuela, a country obviously well known to Argentine Francis, was something which won the pope’s approval.

As for 78-year-old Cardinal Bertone, his exit from the Holy See scene comes as no surprise. For a start, he is well past the normal Vatican retirement age of 75. Secondly, and more importantly, his autocratic and sometimes clumsy handling of the Secretariat of State was seen by many as one of the biggest problems of the Benedict pontificate.

Fairly or unfairly, Cardinal Bertone was held responsible for the series of “gaffes” which marked the Benedict pontificate – the lifting of the ex-communication of a “Lefebvre” Bishop, Richard Williamson, who proved to be a well-known Holocaust-denier; the September 2006 Regensburg speech in which Benedict seemed to link the Prophet Muhammed to violence; the appointment and almost immediate withdrawl of a new Archbishop of Warsaw who had been a spy for the Soviet-era, secret police; Benedict’s comments on the plane to Cameroon that condoms only make the AIDS problem worse; the general sense of unease in the Curia as highlighted by the butler’s thefts, an action that clearly was not instigated by the butler alone.

Cardinal Bertone is expected to formally step down in mid-October when the Pope’s new “Privy Council” of eight Cardinals meets in the Vatican for the first time. The outgoing Secretary of State, however, may retain for a year his current role on the Commission of Vigilance which oversees the affairs of the controversial Vatican Bank, IOR.