How Pope Francis runs his diocese in Rome says a lot about his approach to reform

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Tensions have been bubbling recently in the Catholic Diocese of Rome, as Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the vicar who supervises the see’s day-to-day operations, has clashed with Rome’s bishop — Catholicism’s worldwide leader, Pope Francis.

Francis and De Donatis have differed over the past few years on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic and the management, or mismanagement, of the diocese’s finances, as well as the vicar’s loyalty to the Rev. Marko Rupnick, a Jesuit priest found guilty of sexually and psychologically abusing at least nine women.

As the rift between the two prelates has become increasingly embarrassing for the Vatican, Francis has characteristically made repeated appeals for unity, but he hasn’t shied from using an iron fist to impose his vision and isolate his opponents, just as he has done to quell growing division throughout the church. Vatican insiders have begun to study the way Francis is handling the disagreements in his own backyard for insight into how the pontiff addresses reform worldwide.

Francis’ most recent plea for harmony with the Roman clergy came in a letter issued Aug. 5 as he returned from his papal trip to Portugal, where he attended the Catholic World Youth Day festival.

Pope Francis meets with clergy of Rome at St. John Lateran on Feb. 15, 2018, in Rome. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

As he knelt in the church of St. Mary Maggiore to offer his customary thanks to the Virgin Mary for a safe journey, Francis wrote, he prayed “that our mother Church of Rome, called to preside in charity, may nurture the precious gift of communion, first and foremost within itself, so that it may blossom in the different realities and sensitivities that it encompasses.”

But the letter also pointed to an insidious danger that he has often condemned in churches everywhere, and that the pope believes has taken root in his diocese: clericalism.

“As an old man at heart, I feel that I can tell you about my concern when we fall back into forms of clericalism,” Francis wrote, “when, perhaps without noticing, we let people believe that we are superior, privileged, ‘on top’ and therefore separate from the rest of the holy People of God.”

The pontiff urged his diocesan priests “not to be sucked in by the air of anger and malcontent that is currently circulating” and noted how “the devil sneaks in by feeding complaints, negativity and chronic dissatisfaction with everything that doesn’t work.”

Popes have taken different approaches in handling the Diocese of Rome. St. John Paul II famously made the effort to visit every parish in the Eternal City but left daily management to his vicar. Francis immediately showed a keen interest in his diocese and made an effort to visit the many churches of Rome, starting from the peripheries. In his first public speeches, Francis would refer to himself simply as bishop of Rome, in line with his general distaste for pomp and titles.

But as Francis’ physical health deteriorated, and the concerns of the global church became more pressing, the pope’s visits to local parishes fell off. In 2017 he appointed De Donatis vicar and in 2018 made him a cardinal.

Pope Francis, flanked by Bishop Angelo De Donatis, delivers his speech during a meeting with the Roman diocese, at the Vatican Basilica of St. John at the Lateran, in Rome, Monday, May 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis, flanked by Bishop Angelo De Donatis, delivers his speech during a meeting with the Roman Diocese, at the Vatican Basilica of St. John Lateran, in Rome, May 14, 2018. De Donatis was elevated to cardinal in June 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The first public signs of tensions appeared early in 2020 when De Donatis issued a decree closing all churches in Rome to avoid the spread of COVID-19. The next day, Francis criticized “drastic measures” in addressing the pandemic, forcing his vicar to issue a retraction.

Serious divisions cropped up again toward the end of 2022 after De Donatis dismissed reports that Rupnik, rector of a church in Rome and founder of an art school and theological institute called the Aletti Center, had sexually abused women, including nuns.

The vicar’s inaction drew the disapproval of one of Francis’ auxiliary bishops in Rome, Bishop Daniele Libanori. Rupnik himself was eventually excommunicated by the Vatican for absolving a woman he had sexual relations with. The Vatican later reversed the excommunication, but the Jesuits expelled Rupnik after he refused to obey restrictions that remained on his ministry.

Eventually, De Donatis issued a long statement in December 2022 revealing that the diocese was not aware of the accusations or the restrictions on Rupnick and expressing the hope that those in charge shed light on what happened.

Last January, Francis reformed church law, releasing a new apostolic constitution, “In Ecclesiarum Communion,” that made sweeping changes to the church. One reform was to centralize control of the Diocese of Rome around the pontiff more than any of his predecessors have done. In the new constitution, the vicar is described as an “auxiliary” and the pope is given the final say on the choice of priests, the expenditure of funds and the everyday running of the diocese. The reforms also empowered a vice regent, Monsignor Baldassare Reina, to act as a liaison between the pope and his diocese, effectively sidelining the role of the vicar.

FILE -- In this Nov. 9, 2015 file photo Mons. Angelo De Donatis greets faithful after Pope Francis ordained him to during a ceremony in Rome's Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran. Mons. De Donatis is among 14 prelates that Pope Francis, in a surprise announcement to pilgrims and tourists, has announced that he will elevate to cardinal during a consistory next June 29. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, files)

In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Monsignor Angelo De Donatis greets faithful after Pope Francis elevated him to monsignor during a ceremony in Rome’s Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, files)

In 2021, Pope Francis sent the Vatican’s revisor general, Alessandro Cassinis Righini, to look into the budget and finances of the Roman Diocese. It was the first time in history that the Vicariate of Rome underwent a financial audit. While the Vatican did not release a statement on the audit, local media reported that it was motivated by cases of mismanagement and lavish expenditures, such as the restoration of a chapel in the Church of St. John Lateran. 

De Donatis has been forced to compete with other Catholic organizations in Rome that have grown in influence under this pope — the Jesuit order, which counts Francis as a member; the conference of Italian bishops, whose president is leading Francis’ peace efforts in Ukraine; and lay movements such as the Community of St. Egidio, which has taken over other diplomatic efforts and charitable efforts backed by the pope. 

In conversations with Religion News Service, several priests in Rome voiced their concerns about issues of ideology, management issues and the handling of sexual abuse cases.

All refused to be quoted in this article for fear of being disciplined.

De Donatis is not the only casualty of Francis’ leadership style, which pays little respect to titles. The No. 2 official at the Vatican, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has seen his station weakened and his diplomacy efforts set aside by papal reform. The Vatican departments dealing with doctrine and human rights were first commissioned under Francis’ reforms and then saw their prefects replaced.

Francis has a vision for the church of collegiality and fraternity — a synodal church, as he would call it — but to achieve his goal he has shown that he is more than willing to ruffle a few feathers and take matters into his own hands.