Only once in modern history has a cardinal entered the room for an audience with the pope and left without his red hat. It happened in September 1927, when Pope Pius XI relieved Louis Billot of his position for criticizing the pope’s condemnation of Action Française. On September 24 of this year, Pope Francis delivered another first, demoting a cardinal prefect of a curial congregation, Giovanni Angelo Becciu.
The news came in a highly unusual evening announcement from the Holy See Press Office, stating that Francis had accepted the “resignation” of Becciu “from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints and from the rights of the cardinalate.” The timing was tied to the forthcoming visit by inspectors from the European Council’s anti-money-laundering watchdog, and to the looming publication of an investigative report on Vatican finances by the Italian weekly L’Espresso. Becciu is suspected to have given financial favors to family and friends, and though he is not yet under formal investigation, Francis appointed a special prosecutor on September 28 to look into matters. The day after his firing, Becciu called a press conference to defend himself, as well as hinting that, given the factional wars that typify the Curia, the news could somehow be turned against Francis as well.
Though the wording of the announcement of Becciu’s firing seems plain, it’s not quite clear what it means in terms of his standing. If Becciu remains cardinal, he still has the rights and duties of all cardinals; he loses those rights and duties only if he loses the red hat. Theodore McCarrick resigned from the college of cardinals on July 28, 2018; Francis additionally suspended him from the exercise of any public ministry and directed him to observe a life of prayer and penance because of the grave allegations of sexual abuse against him. Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who before the conclave of 2013 admitted to serial sexual misconduct, lived until his death in 2018 under similar restrictions and conditions, yet was allowed to keep his title of cardinal. As of now, Becciu has not been suspended from public ministry, or been sanctioned with a life of prayer and penance. (In interviews after his firing, he seemed to complain that his punishment appears similar to that reserved for “pedophiles.”) Besides questions about the canonical meaning of the sanctions against him, it’s also not clear what’s in Becciu’s future. He is seventy-two, and still young by Vatican standards. He is a man of the institution, not a cultural warrior, and so will likely not turn out to be another Viganò or Burke. But it is hard to imagine him quietly retiring, unless the special prosecutor does find evidence of serious crimes.
The Becciu affair amounts to an earthquake for the Vatican and for the Catholic Church in Italy. Over the last decade, even prior to Francis’s election, Becciu has been one of the most powerful men in the Vatican. He was apostolic nuncio to Cuba from 2009 to 2011, and in 2013 was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI substitute of the Secretariat of State, one of the most influential positions in the Vatican, with a portfolio of ecclesiastical and political duties. He has long-standing relationships with Italian political leaders and members of the establishment. In 2018, Francis made him cardinal and prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.