The cardinal has overcome the challenges to his power. How much further can he go?

When Cardinal Pietro Parolin was appointed Vatican secretary of state in October 2013, there were rumours that the oldest dicastery in the Roman Curia was about to have its wings clipped. Insiders said that Pope Francis was considering creating a new department to deal with the interior running of the Curia, reducing the secretariat of state’s role to the diplomatic functions of the Holy See alone.

But in an early sign of his political nous, Cardinal Parolin ensured that this did not happen. Not only that, he also made certain that his department’s grip on all the others was actually tightened.

Another indication that Parolin would re-assert the central role of the secretariat of state was his appointment to the Council of Cardinal Advisers. This new body was created only a month after Francis’s election to allow the Pope to receive advice from outside the curial circle. Many thought that the secretariat of state had monopolised access to successive popes.

It was therefore significant that it was not represented in the new council. But in July 2014, after less than a year, the “C8” became the “C9”, with Parolin added to their number. The new secretary of state, made a cardinal that February, was not about to let himself be marginalised.

Three years later, the secretariat of state has not only maintained its overarching grip on the other dicasteries; it has also seemingly increased its dominance still further. Parolin, the archetypal curial insider, seems more and more to be setting the agenda in Rome.

Who is Parolin? He is the son of a shop manager and a teacher from near Vicenza. He was ordained in 1980 and swiftly chosen to train as a papal diplomat. After postings in Nigeria and Mexico, where he helped to oversee the legal recognition of the Catholic Church, he returned to Rome. He rose to become Undersecretary of State for Relations with States in 2002. In 2009, Benedict XVI appointed him nuncio to Venezuela, then under the messianic rule of Hugo Chávez. Parolin impressed observers with his deft handling of the erratic strongman.

When Pope Francis handed him the top curial job four years later, many saw it as a return to the status quo. Under Benedict, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, previously a trusted collaborator at the Congregation for Doctrine for the Faith, had held the post of secretary of state. The impression of incompetence surrounding Bertone’s tenure was perhaps fuelled in part by the resentment of the old guard against this non-diplomat parvenu. Parolin, who enjoyed a reputation for both skilful diplomacy and tactful management of staff, seemed a natural choice to steady the boat.

Parolin quickly began to display another talent: that of routing rivals. Another member of the cardinals’ council was the combative Australian Cardinal George Pell. At one point he looked likely to be a forceful agent of reform, the more so since Francis gave him a remit to oversee the finances of every Vatican department, giving his Secretariat for the Economy unprecedented powers and making him a potential rival to Parolin. But as an outsider, Pell quickly aroused resentment both by his blunt manner and his unrelenting scrutiny.

The resentment undoubtedly helped Parolin to outmanoeuvre the Australian. In a series of power struggles, at first over details, Parolin gained the upper hand. Then, in April 2016, it was announced that an outside audit of the whole Vatican financial set-up was to be indefinitely suspended. This was probably the turning point, even before unforeseen events made Parolin’s victory complete. In July this year Pell returned to Australia seeking to clear his name after allegations of historical abuse, effectively removing himself from the Roman scene.

As head of Vatican diplomacy, Parolin has notched up several successes, to the point where his ascendancy seems all but accomplished. It was apparently his diplomatic skill which brought him to Francis’s attention in the first place. In addition to his central role in normalising Mexico’s relations with the Holy See, he worked from Rome to improve relations with the communist governments of Vietnam and China.

His appointment as nuncio to Venezuela was, according to some reports, the result of Bertone’s disfavour, possibly because Parolin was judged too accommodating towards hostile regimes. But his balancing act in Caracas between Chávez and the country’s bishops – who certainly seem to have thought him too favourable to the flamboyant populist they regarded as a tyrant – was closer to the policy favoured by the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Now at Francis’s side on many major foreign trips and acting as his representative on others, Parolin has continued to chalk up achievements. He contributed markedly to the establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. This formed part of the background to Francis’s historic meeting with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in Havana last year. Parolin built on that success with a highly publicised visit to both Patriarch Kirill and Putin in August.

Parolin’s ascension to the heights of power in the Church has been impressive, but there are suggestions that he might not have peaked yet. Such notable observers as Sandro Magister and John Allen have proposed that he is in a position to be the next pope. Such speculation is, of course, to be viewed with caution: conclaves are notoriously unpredictable, and Francis shows no sign of flagging. Nevertheless, the fact that the 62-year-old is being talked about as papabile is itself significant.

Four years ago, nobody would have entertained the idea that a curial diplomat, and an Italian one at that, might become pope in an internationalised Church conscious of past institutional failures. What has changed in the meantime?

Polarisation in the Church, already apparent under the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has not ceased under Pope Francis. Many believe that a diplomat might be ideally suited to healing divisions – the more so since it would probably be difficult for a candidate with a strong theological orientation to gain the adherence of two thirds of the electors. Parolin has not taken up firm positions on the issues which divide Catholics so publicly today, contenting himself with calls for dialogue.

Others, however, think that what is needed above all is a coherent vision. And some think Parolin bland and uninspiring. The case of China, the one area where Parolin has not so far gained great success, is perhaps telling. Talks seem to have stalled over the summer, with the Chinese government hardening its position in the face of Vatican readiness to compromise over the role of the state in naming bishops. Some have claimed that Parolin’s cautious approach concedes too much to the enemies of the Church and betrays a lack of conviction. Cardinal Joseph Zen, that seasoned old warrior who insists that truth must come before expedience, is scathing. He has accused Parolin of putting diplomacy before faith.

Is he right, or is the dialogue which Parolin has always advocated, both within the Church and in its relations with the outside world, the key to success? Both positions have strong advocates, and nobody knows which way a future conclave might lean. Few doubt, however, that this consummate representative of institutional stability and prudent management will play an important role in the deliberations of the cardinal electors.

This article first appeared in the November 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here