Made proud by princes, that advance their pride
I am certain of very little in this post.
We all know of the danger of nepotism; accusing someone of nepotism is for us a way of accusing them of corruption. But if you look at the history of appointing family to political position, you notice that there is a very long stretch of time during which a lot of people are trying to get princes to be nepotists. And there is a reason for that. For instance, there was a position in the papal curia called Cardinal-Nephew (cardinalis nepos), which is where we get the name 'nepotism'; it was literally a position for relatives of the Pope. But it was an anti-corruption position. The reason people pushed for nepotism was because they were trying to avoid something they saw as much worse: favoritism or favouritism. They were intensely aware of the corruption that came with favouritism, princes letting their favourites do what they pleased.
With most corruption, you don't really have to worry that much about the prince himself. Princes can be corrupt, but what matters is how the prince's decisions are actually put into effect, which is almost always through other people, and it's there that corruption becomes very worrisome. The most corrupt people are often not the princes themselves but the people who can do whatever they please because they have effective power and are protected by the prince. But while there are always exceptions, people tend not to pick their favourites from family, because your family is probably not excessively inclined to flatter you and pander to your wants. You don't really get to pick your family; and chances are, you are very aware of the failings of members of your family. You know not to trust Uncle Joe with money; you know that Cousin Mary is trustworthy except when she's been drinking. And your family has obligations to you, at least indirectly; this is very obvious in a society, like that of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, when it's often the case that the real political power is not that of the individual but of the family house. Favourites are a matter of pleasure, and thus of temptation; family is a matter of obligation, and thus governing by way of family is more complicated and restrictive than governing by way of favourites. You don't need everybody to be family, but family can be leveraged against favourites, and family is less dangerous than favourites. Nobody thought it was a perfect system (everyone knows people in their family who can't be trusted with power), but it is very definitely not an anything-goes system. St. Pius V tried to get out of it, and his cardinals and the Spanish empire kept demanding that he appoint a Cardinal-Nephew. And that's exactly why: they wanted to avoid at all costs a favouritist system. And it worked beautifully! St. Pius V gave in, and had to give his grandnephew a position, and then actively kept him on a short leash because he didn't trust him with very much power.
In any case, there was one kind of situation that would inevitably bring the whole notion of a Cardinal-Nephew down. And it wasn't the really awful family politicking of the Renaissance; that was certainly awful and not at all a recommendation of a nepotistic system, but in fact the politicking was as severe inside as between families, so nepotism usually meant at least some kind of checks and balances. But while people don't usually pick favourites from family, sometimes they do. And it doesn't matter if the Pope is generally good and decent; if he is overly indulgent to his Cardinal-Nephews, to family in effective power, you have an extremely dangerous situation. Then you get il cardinale padrone, the Boss Cardinal -- and you are back in all the corruption of the favouritist system, and with no way to counter it, because indulged family is in some ways more secure than indulged favourites. And it was the increasing tendency of this to happen that led to reactions against it. Pope Innocent XI actively campaigned against nepotism, only accepted the papacy on condition that he could get rid of it, and then tried -- and failed -- three times to end it. It was finally done away with in 1692 by Pope Innocent XII.
Now nepotism didn't eliminate favouritism, it just often countered it. And fortunately Innocent XII and the popes immediately after him were intelligent enough to see that you could not replace nepotism with the arbitrariness of favouritism, so a mode of governance eventually got put together to counter the latter. There's no standard name for it; it is very bureaucracy-focused, so we could call it proceduralism, or maybe careerism. There had been career bureaucrats in the hierarchy for a very long time before that, so it could build on what was already there. I've no doubt it seemed a godsend in comparison with the worst excesses of nepotism: instead of family politics, pre-established procedures; instead of arbitrarily chosen favourites, people chosen because of their experience. Obviously favourites still existed, but they were held in check by the impersonal power of the bureaucracy itself. Two problems became obvious. The first, which is perhaps not particularly important from the perspective of avoiding corruption, was that it was seen as bureaucracy is always seen, and sometimes justifiedly: red tape and pointless procedures and policies that are there to preserve the bureaucracy rather than accomplish anything important. The second, and more serious problem, was that it does not seem to be sustainable. It was a bit of a lottery whether family members could be favourites. But favourites can quite easily be picked among a large group of career ecclesial bureaucrats -- and they can capture the bureaucracy. And then how do you get out of it? When senior bureaucrats in a highly bureaucratic system are favourites, it can get even worse than when the Cardinal-Nephew is cardinale padrone.
All of this, of course, is quite crude. But I think if we look at Church politics, we are indeed dealing with the results of a favouritist system. I think there were several steps that resulted in this. It used to be the case that there were always powerful cardinals whose power was not wholly dependent on the Pope; the Pope needed cardinals from France or Austria, say, just for political reasons, and they needed to be people with political connections in France and Austria, and their usefulness in this way was also part of their power. There are obvious problems -- it inevitably means that secular politics is meddling with ecclesial politics. In a very proceduralist system, this not necessarily fatal; Cardinals can have their own agendas as much as they please but they still have to fulfill their roles in the bureaucratic machine. Since we have excellent reason not to want secular governments to meddle in Church government, however, there was increasing reaction against this. But as we have solved that problem, the cost has been that Cardinals have become more and more creatures of the Popes. It didn't happen overnight, because there is a lot of inertia in Church politics. But more and more the choice of Cardinals has been completely arbitrary, and the whole thing starts looking less proceduralist and more like just a really complicated favouritist system.
If we take this as our hypothesis, a lot of Church politics for the past hundred years makes sense. Pius XII was arguably as strong a pope as he was because he was pope during a transition period, in which proceduralism was still the background norm but favouritism allowed him to bypass proceduralist roadblocks when he wanted to do so. His curia was definitely filled with favourites; but they were favourites who still had to play by some of the proceduralist rules. I suspect this is why poor Cardinal Ottaviani became so hated despite the fact that his career was so unexceptionable: he was a die-hard proceduralist and was consistently in the way of Church bureaucrats who wanted to be able to break out of the proceduralist rules and rule their little curial fiefdoms as they pleased. Paul VI and Benedict XVI were exceptionally weak popes because they inherited from prior popes an entire thriving system of favourites that they could not easily revise, which they also had personal incentive not to revise -- they had both been favourites themselves and both wanted to identify themselves with the prior regime rather than make a sharp break from it. Benedict XVI seems in particular to have had the odd idea that he had a special moral obligation not to cause unrest in the Curia, with the inevitable result that he had almost no effective authority.
Pope Francis is a different story; he was not a favourite in the court of St. John Paul II. But John Paul II seems to have had the idea that he needed to be evenhanded as a rule; when he really wanted something done, he'd work through favourites, but mostly he just tried to make sure that things were balanced. This meant that the workings of the favouritist system were often not as obvious as they might otherwise have been, and also meant that non-favourites had a lot of room for making alliances, and thus it was possible for a non-favourite to become Pope without some obvious traumatic crisis to force it. But Pope Francis is the most explicitly anti-proceduralist pope in a very long time; he thinks that things should be done as much as possible through personal connections, and doesn't like purely impersonal modes of governance. And given that the system was already favouritist to begin with, it inevitably becomes more obviously so. It's gasoline to the flame. None of Francis's reforms have even remotely reined in the favouritist tendencies of the system; several of them have clearly aggravated it. And we have all the room for corruption that a favouritist system allows. To be sure, favouritism is not automatically corruption; but corrupt favouritism is very, very hard to reform.
And this is where we seem to be: for the past half-century, we've had a lot of people who could get away with almost anything as long as they made the right symbolic procedural gestures, and now that people really want something done about it, there is no way to force them even to make the gestures. Nepotism is not coming back (we don't have the family-focused societies it requires), and a bunch of favourites are not going to accept merely procedural constraints on their fiefdom-omnipotence.
It's difficult to see any route that does not drag us through a century at least of highly erratic policy and continuing corruption. Favouritism is with us always, but how do you get something to check it if the favourites can block any restriction of their power? I keep thinking about this, over and over again, and I can't see any reform except one that would actually address the problem, and I cannot see any path by which it could come about. The reform is breaking the power of the Cardinals. I don't know that the College of Cardinals needs to be dissolved, but if there were some explicit check and balance to them that is filled by something other than purely arbitrary choice (my own thought is a Council of Patriarchs and Major Archbishops), maybe, maybe, maybe, we could avoid the danger of a self-perpetuating oligarchy of favourites. But maybe not. And in any case, how could any such thing be put into place? Perhaps we peasant-farmers are just stuck with the Ancien Régime until some terrible crisis comes and it all falls down.