One of the truisms endlessly discussed and written about in the past month of historic papal events has been the need to reform the Curia of the Vatican. The cardinals apparently discussed it. The press wrote about it. And many of the (manifestly wrong) guesses about who would be our next pope were shaped by the assumption that this was the top priority of nearly everybody.
|Pope Francis greets Cardinal Bertone following|
meeting with College of Cardinals
Indeed, even the analysis of "voting blocs" within the College of Cardinals was framed by this concern. There was a bloc of curial cardinals and a bloc of anti-curialists, so this analysis went, and nearly every event was analyzed in these terms.
Cardinals talking about reform of the Curia is a bit like beauty pageant contestants talking about world peace, is one wag's comment making the rounds. And world peace has a better chance of occurring. This is an ancient and complex bureaucracy not easily understood or reformed.
But why this focus on the Curia, and what is it?The Curia is the general bureaucracy of the Vatican. The Vatican is constructed as a series of departments. The most powerful is the Secretariat of State, simply because it is so deeply involved in the internal and external affairs of the Vatican. As a result, much of the ire when things go wrong are aimed at the Secretary of State – who now is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a Salesian canonist and a close collaborator of Pope Benedict when he served as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That Congregation is also very influential, but there is also the Congregation for Bishops, for Clergy, for the Evangelization of Peoples, as well as Councils, such as for Social Communications and for the Family.
The heads of Congregations are always cardinals, for councils they may be Archbishops. They are always male.
Below them, however, are priests, women religious and lay people. When people talk of the internationalization of the Curia, they usually mean at the top: where the cardinals and the archbishops come from. At the lowest ranks, they are often Italian, but there is staff from all continents. Italian is a critically important language at the Vatican. Whether you are a cardinal or low-level staffer, without Italian you would be very limited in what you could do and what influence you would have.
So to return to curial reform, the discussion usually takes two forms. The first is to chop off some of the people at the top. Such change will happen naturally, if only because so many of the important curial cardinals are close to retirement age. If Pope Francis lives for five years, he is likely to see the Curia heads change simply by attrition.
The other, and more difficult challenge – particularly for a Pope who has never been a member of Curia of the Vatican – would be a more profound re-organization in terms of departments, in terms of accountability and transparency, and in terms of technology and communications. This will be heavy lifting, as it would be anywhere, because it impacts peoples' jobs and peoples' authority and power.
Italians are masters of the non-reform reform. As one of the quintessentially Italian books – "The Leopard," by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – put it when describing the social upheaval that came about with the unification of Italy in the 19th century, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."
So this is the challenge faced by any large organization, and perhaps more so by the Vatican. It is also important to remember that when there are such large institutional problems, one must eventually look at the top leadership. Several observers have told me that the Curia has been ignored for most of two papacies. John Paul II was an extrovert who did not want to be tied down to the mundane internal tasks of governance. Benedict was an introvert who wanted to be writing.
The problem is not that the Curia needs reform, many have said. It needs to be paid attention to. There needs to be access by the various department heads to the "boss," the pope, and vice versa. There needs to be regular cabinet-level meetings. Messages need to be delivered in person, not filtered and edited by a single intermediary, no matter how smart or powerful that person might be. The pope needs to hear from his people, and they need to hear from him.
Pope Francis has a great deal of experience running a large bureaucracy. Buenos Aires has more than 2.5 million Catholics and is a complex entity with complicated relations with the government. I do not think that this will be an insurmountable problem for Francis if the right key people are hired and put in the right positions.
And what does Pope Francis think about the Curia and its reform? There are a few interesting signs. In his meeting with journalists on March 16, he said that one of the names a cardinal had suggested for him was Hadrian, because Hadrian VI was the reformer, we need reform ...” In the same meeting he also referred to his great friend Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, a popular Brazilian church leader who may have his own advice for the pope after serving for the past several years in the Curia and seeing it from the inside.
But Pope Francis also talked to Italian Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli in February 2012 about the Curia, and it is clear he sees the issue through pastoral eyes:
"I see [the Curia] as a body that gives service, a body that helps me and serves me. Sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal. ... The Roman Curia has its down sides, but I think that too much emphasis is placed on its negative aspects and not enough on the holiness of the numerous consecrated and lay people who work in it."As of Saturday, March 16, it was announced that the Pope had provisionally reappointed all of the curial heads of departments. The Vatican said that Pope Francis wanted "a certain time for reflection, prayer and dialogue" before making any permanent appointments. The suspense continues.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.