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Why didn’t Pope Francis just get rid of the ‘lettergate’ communications chief?

Mgr Dario Vigano (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The resignation of Mgr Dario Edoardo Viganò ought to have ended that sordid chapter in Vatican affairs known as “Lettergate”.

However, instead of letting Mgr Viganò genuinely “step back” and “out of the picture”, the Pope has created an ad hoc position for the former Prefect within the very department he used to run. The name the Pope gave to the position is “Assessor” — a curious term to Anglophones, for whom it might suggest an official who determines how much people must pay in, say, property taxes. An assessor might also be a judge’s special advisor. Oxford University, I recently learned, has an assessor who is in essence the Dean of Student Life.

In Italy, an assessore is a high-ranking official in a local, regional, or provincial administration. Assessors are usually appointed to their posts and serve at the pleasure of the executive. They usually have responsibilities for the oversight of specific administrative areas, but their main purpose is to be the executive’s eyes and ears in the administrative departments through which he governs.

That may tell us something about what Pope Francis has done — and, more importantly, plans to do — with Mgr Viganò.

In the current organisational chart of the Secretariat of State, the Assessor for General Affairs is a high position in the pecking order. The Assessor answers directly to the Sostituto for General Affairs, and is a “working” billet. So, we may suppose an Assessor to be a figure of prestige and one with real power. Pope Francis, however, made clear in his letter accepting Mgr Viganò’s resignation that, “[T]he reform of the Church is not primarily a problem of organisational charts but rather the acquisition of a spirit of service.”

A plausibly charitable construction of that idea is that the Pope understands the need for good organisation but will not be bound by bureaucratic blueprints and is with his statement simply reminding the officials of the Curia of what they already know.

In December of last year, Francis named Bishop Gustavo Óscar Zanchetta to the ad hoc position of Assessor to the APSA — that’s the “Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See”, often described as the Vatican’s Central Bank — a post the Pope created just for him. That was a curious appointment, as well, since Zanchetta had resigned from the See of Orán in Argentina citing poor health only four months before.

The See of Orán is still vacant, by the way.

It is also possible that Pope Francis simply wants Mgr Viganò to have a chance to save face, or that the Pope wants to avoid publicly acknowledging just how serious an error he made in appointing Viganò in the first place.

A more cynical view of the appointment might even take Viganò’s new appointment to be a sort of punishment for the former Prefect, who shall now be made to sit by and see how a major reform is accomplished when it is done properly. The Pope might even intend Viganò’s continued presence at Via della conciliazione #5 as a not-so-subtle Caveat Praefectus for the new guy. All that, however, is speculation.

No one knows what Pope Francis is really thinking, perhaps not even Francis.

One thing is certain, though: whoever succeeds Mgr Viganò as Prefect has his work cut out for him. As I said following the announcement of Viganò’s resignation, my nickel is on Bishop Paul Tighe, who was for many years the number two man at the now defunct Pontifical Council for Social Communication and was on everyone’s short list for the head office at the new Communications Secretariat. He was in to see the Holy Father on the day “Lettergate” really blew up in Viganò’s face, and is said to be on the Pope’s schedule of appointments in the coming week.

In any case, it is difficult to imagine anyone with the requisite knowledge, experience, and qualities of character accepting the job under the current conditions. Bishop Tighe is certainly a capable man. He has also proven himself a good soldier, ready to serve where he is sent, regardless of circumstance. That “spirit of service” is one of which the Pope knows he and the Church have need. The present disposition is one in which too much willingness to accept the status quo in the Secretariat for Communications could prove to be a liability.