The work of reforming the Roman Curia is not easy, but it is going well, according to Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, chair of the Council of Cardinals appointed by Pope Francis to advise him on reform of the Roman Curia. Rodriguez hopes that the council will have a new constitution for the Curia by December to replace Pastor Bonus, the 1988 apostolic constitution of Pope John Paul II.
I interviewed Cardinal Rodriguez and Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, another member of the council, when they visited Washington, D.C., at the beginning of June.
The work of the council began with each of the eight members collecting suggestions from his part of the world. For example, most of the bishops' conferences in Asia asked Cardinal Gracias why liturgical translations could not be done at the conference level, especially for languages in which Rome has no expertise.
Cardinal Gracias recognized the irony of this suggestion coming to him -- he is a member of Vox Clara, the group appointed by the Vatican to oversee the recent English translation of the liturgy.
"I know about this issue," he said. "I think they have a point. But I also worry about a bad translation leading to misunderstanding and dogmatic error 50, 100 years from now. So there has to be a balance."
He also noted, "Some conferences are too small to do the work. On the other hand, maybe the conferences would do a better job if they thought they would be responsible. Now they know that someone in Rome will check it. I am not sure on this."
Gracias also mentioned other things that could be decided at the local level, like releasing from their vows religious who want to leave religious life. He also felt there could be a role for bishops' conferences in supervising diocesan finances.
After collecting suggestions from all over the world, the council met with Pope Francis. At the first meeting, the cardinals came to the apostolic palace in full regalia for photos, but subsequent meetings were held in Casa Santa Marta in simple attire. The council has no staff of experts but meets alone with the pope and the secretary of state, who the pope recently made a member of the council. A bishop secretary takes notes.
"None of us knew very much about the Curia since we had never worked there," Cardinal Gracias said. "We spent a lot of time just getting to know it. We went through Pastor Bonus and then studied each congregation, council, and office." Each cardinal would look at a dicastery and report on it to the group.
Both cardinals report that the council focused on financial reform of the Curia first because it was so pressing. This led to the creation of a secretariat for finance headed by Australian Cardinal George Pell. "This will lead to a very good coordination of all the finances," Cardinal Rodriguez said.
Next came the Institute for the Works of Religion, or the Vatican bank.
"There were a lot of suggestions to close it and to start something new," Rodriguez said. "After the evaluation of all the positive and negative things, it was decided that it was more prudent to reform it, not to make it disappear, because most of the funds that are in that institution are from religious congregations and it could have been a big loss for all of them."
He acknowledged that there was some resistance, but the new system will be transparent. "Now everything has to be very clear. Nobody can hide or help the old system coming back in order to help launder money or something like that," he said.
Both cardinals report that the council is considering the creation of a new Congregation for the Laity, which would absorb the responsibilities of the pontifical councils dealing with laity, family, and perhaps some other offices.
"Bishops have their own dicastery," Rodriguez said. "Religious people and the clergy have theirs, but the laity is the majority of the church, and they only have a council."
Talk of reform and closing offices has caused some in the Curia to worry that they might lose their jobs as a result of the reform, Cardinal Gracias said.
Just as threatening is the suggestion, which both cardinals support, of limiting service of priests in the Curia to five years rather than having them stay indefinitely.
"The pope decided that this is not the way to serve," Rodriguez said. "Those who are to serve should serve in their countries, serve in the Vatican, and go back to their countries." Gracias felt that bishops would be willing to send their best men to Rome if they knew they would get them back in five years.
"In the Curia, they wanted to make careers," Rodriguez said. "This priest has been here so many years, now it's time to be undersecretary, and then secretary, and then prefect, and then cardinal. But this is over, I think. It's not the way."
Rodriguez also complained of appointing a "cardinal as prefect of an office, and he doesn't have the preparation. No, we don't need that anymore. It's necessary to not look for a place for a person, but a person for the place. This maybe will take time, but it will come."
Both cardinals also question making Vatican officials bishops and cardinals.
"The role of a bishop is quite different," Rodriguez said. "It is to be a pastor in a flock, not to be a bureaucrat in an office." However, he thought it might "be necessary to have a cardinal as prefect of a dicastery, but the rest is not necessary."
"They could be even lay men and women -- why not?" he asked. "I dream of having in the family [office] maybe a couple. That would be wonderful."
Gracias agreed that there should be fewer bishops and cardinals in the Curia. People who do not have dioceses should not be made bishops, he said, although he would make an exception for the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who should be a cardinal.
Cardinal Rodriguez has also been thinking about the makeup of the committees of prelates that oversee the staffs of congregations and councils. It has been suggested that they have more diocesan bishops and fewer members of the Curia. For example, the Congregation for Divine Worship could have on it chairs of liturgical committees in bishops' conferences. "That could be the best way," Rodriguez said. "In CELAM [the Latin American bishops' council], we did it like that."
The interview took place before the council met in July to discuss the Secretariat of State and its coordinating role in the Vatican, but clearly, the cardinals were thinking about the topic.
"There is a big movement of suggesting the reformation of the secretary of state," Rodriguez said. The secretary of state currently acts like a prime minister, but numerous media stories report that many did not like the way the office was used by the former secretary, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. How it would change is not clear. There has been talk of a moderator of the Curia who would play a coordinating role, a job that was done in the past by the sostituto in the Secretariat of State.
The Council of Cardinals still has a lot of work ahead of it if it is going to meet a December deadline for proposing reforms, but it is clear that the council is looking at comprehensive reforms like limiting service in the Vatican to five years, bringing more laity into the Curia, not making Vatican officials bishops or cardinals, and appointing more diocesan bishops with expertise to serve on congregations and councils. These would be earth-shaking reforms for the Vatican.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]