Downsizing the Roman Curia is not reform

by Thomas Reese

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With the election of Pope Francis, hopes were raised that the Vatican bureaucracy would finally be reformed. Sadly, that does not appear to be happening, except perhaps in the area of finances. Instead, the offices created after Vatican II are being downsized and reorganized while the older pre-Vatican II congregations and tribunals have been left untouched.

There is a good argument for this reorganization. The hope of the Council of Cardinals advising the pope is that the reorganization will make these offices more efficient and encourage better coordination. But if this "reform" was being done by any other pope, say Benedict, it would be portrayed as regressive, as an attempt to de-emphasize the issues that came out of the Second Vatican Council.

The truth is that the Vatican old guard never liked these offices and did not think much of them. The "real" Roman Curia, in their view, were the older congregations that dealt with doctrine, liturgy, clergy, religious, bishops, oriental churches, the missions, education, and making saints. The prefects or heads of these congregations have to be cardinals.

The newer councils were seen as peripheral and less prestigious. These councils dealt with ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, laity, family, migrants, healthcare workers, charity, culture, mass communications, and justice and peace. The presidents or heads of these councils do not need to be cardinals, although many of them have been.

The good news is that the Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Council for Interreligious Dialogue were not touched. These in the past have gotten into conflict with the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith. The fact that they were left untouched shows that they have proven their importance over the decades since the Second Vatican Council.

As part of the reorganization, a new office will be created with the name "Charity, Justice, and Peace," into which will be merged Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, for the Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, and Cor Unum, the charity that distributes money from the pope to the poor and disaster areas.

Thus under one umbrella will go a policy-oriented think tank (Justice and Peace), two pastorally oriented offices that also express opinions on public policy (migration and healthcare), and a charity that distributes money in response to crises.

How this new conglomerate will work in practice will very much depend on who heads the new office. Will he emphasize public policy on issues of the environment, migration, healthcare, war and peace, or will he focus on pastoral outreach to the people affected by these crises?

The concern of those interested in Catholic social teaching is that the agenda of the Council for Justice and Peace could get buried in this new office without a cardinal to fight for it in the Vatican bureaucratic wars. In the past, this office sometimes came in conflict with the Secretariat of State when the council wanted to speak out prophetically while the secretariat wanted to smooth relations with states.

In addition, this council was a favorite target for criticism from American neoconservatives who thought it was too negative toward capitalism and American military interventions.

On the other hand, the opposite could occur. This reorganization may be a sneaky way to beef up the peace and justice office in the Vatican by giving it the staff and budgets of the other offices.

In the real world, reorganizations and mergers are often simply a disguised way of closing offices. This certainly could be true of the Council for Health Care Workers, an office originally created for a powerful Italian cardinal who is long dead. It should have been shut down decades ago. Likewise migration as a public policy issue fits nicely in the agenda of the Council for Justice and Peace.

The real work of pastoral care of migrants and healthcare workers must be done by local dioceses and bishops' conferences. The Vatican does not need a big staff to remind bishops of this responsibility.

But the question remains: Why did these so-called "pastoral" offices go to Justice, Peace, and Charity rather than the new laity office, which presumably will deal with pastoral issues? After all, migrants and healthcare workers are laypeople.

If most of the staff and budgets of these offices are now refocused to matters of justice and peace, progressives should be happy while neoconservatives will grind their teeth.

Whether the new office continues or increases the prophetic role of the old justice and peace council will be the real test of whether Francis’ reforms were a mistake or not. For example, will it help Francis write a new encyclical on nonviolence and peace making?

But my guess is that Francis and his council of cardinals hope that over time, the total cost of the new office will be less than the combined budgets of the old offices. When it comes to financing church bureaucracies either at the national or international level, most diocesan bishops are Republicans -- they want smaller bureaucracies and budgets and they don’t like to be taxed to pay for them.

But reducing staff and budgets will happen only over time through attrition since neither Francis nor the Vatican likes to fire anyone. In Italy it is almost impossible to fire anyone, and if the Vatican started firing people, it would be noticed. The idea that you can reorganize an institution without firing some current employees and replacing them with new people is incomprehensible to American executives.

A second new office will combine the pontifical councils dealing with laity and family. On paper this makes sense. The Vatican already has congregations for religious, clergy, and bishops, why not an equivalent one for laity?

But it is important to look at what these councils actually do. Much of the council for the laity's time is devoted to dealing with the canonical status and activities of Catholic lay organizations and movements, while the Council for the Family is the Vatican pro-life office and promoter of the church’s traditional teaching on the family. The Council for the Family was also involved in organizing the World Congress of Families in Philadelphia last year.

These two councils have never been important offices in the Curia. Note that when the Vatican decided to issue its recent document on lay movements, the document came from the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, not from the Council for the Laity. In fact, no one from the council was on the panel introducing the document to the press.

The fundamental question is what will the new office for the laity do? Will its primary work be monitoring lay organizations and hand holding, or will it advocate for a greater role for the laity in the church? For example, one of the functions of the Congregation for Clergy is to use canon law to protect priests from authoritarian bishops. Could we see the new laity office doing the same for the laity?

Whether the new laity office succeeds will greatly depend on who heads it and who staffs it.

Simply having a lay head may not make all that much difference. Plenty of chanceries are filled with docile laypeople who do whatever the clerics want. Granted the politics of the church, it would be better to have the office headed by a strong cardinal advocating for lay rights than by a weak layperson who will not be listened to.

The impact of staffing can be seen in the laity and family office of the USCCB. When Dolores Lecky ran the office, she pushed for lay empowerment and lay ministry in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Now the office contains experts on natural family planning and opponents of gay marriage.

The two new offices proposed by Francis and his Council of Cardinals exemplify why coordinating Vatican offices will always be difficult. One new office, the laity office, is focused on a group of people in the church, while the other office, justice and peace, is focused on an issue or agenda.

The Roman Curia is a collection of such offices. Issue areas include doctrine, liturgy, evangelization, saints, education, Christian unity, interreligious dialogue, charity, legislative texts, culture, and mass communications. People-oriented offices include clergy, religious, bishops, laity, migrants and travelers, and healthcare workers.

Topics are rarely the purview of only one dicastery. There are usually overlapping jurisdictions and concerns. For example, if a religious priest at a university said or wrote something controversial, his superior would often hear from offices dealing with religious, clergy, bishops (because they were complaining), education, and doctrine.

Coordination in the past, especially under Paul VI, was often done by sostituto or substitute in the Secretariat of State, who acted like the chief of staff to the pope. Coordination was also done, especially under John Paul II, by the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, which was supreme on church teaching and doctrine. The most important conflicts could go to the pope himself.

A third effort in reorganization deals with communications, which were handled by a number of Vatican fiefdoms with limited coordination. These offices deal with the reporters covering the Vatican and are also the official media outlets of the Vatican. A new Secretariat for Communications has been created to combine and streamline all these fiefdoms. 

Reorganizing the Vatican’s official media is a big problem. Currently there is the Vatican Radio, the Vatican newspaper (L’Osservatore Romano), the Vatican Television Center, the Vatican Information Service, Fides New Agency, Vatican Typography, the Photograph Service, the Vatican Publishing House (Libreria Editrice Vaticana), plus assorted Vatican webpages, YouTube channels, and Twitter accounts.

If this were a normal media company, the board of directors would develop a strategic plan and then hire a publisher to implement the plan. The new media czar would have the authority to ruthlessly fire people who don’t fit the plan and hire people who do. This has been happening throughout the American news media as thousands of reporters have been laid off.

This will never happen in the Vatican because its tradition and culture make it nearly impossible to fire anyone. The challenge then for the Vatican is to blow up the current fiefdoms, retrain current employees for the new media, and get them all on message. Not an easy task.

There are clearly ways that print, radio, TV, and internet resources can be combined more efficiently and effectively, but this is hard enough to do in the secular world. To pull it off in the Vatican will require a major miracle.

What Pope Francis and his Council of Cardinals are trying to do to the Roman Curia is not the real reform that is needed. Rather it is a reorganization plan aimed at gently downsizing the Vatican. Granted the Roman culture, this is still not easy.

Real reform, on the other hand, requires three essential changes in the Vatican:

  1. Transform the Curia from a papal court into a modern bureaucracy. To accomplish this, the pope must stop making Vatican officials bishops or cardinals. It has to be clear the Curia is staff to the pope as head of the college of bishops and not part of the college. 
  2. Implement a separation of powers in the Curia.
    1. Curia offices, like the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, should not act as legislator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in dealing with people.
    2. The committees supervising Vatican offices -- the congregations in the strict sense of the word -- should be made up of diocesan bishops selected on the basis of their expertise by their bishops’ conferences. No Curia officials should be on these committees.
  3. Decentralize decision making in the church. For example, Vatican offices should not be telling local churches how to do liturgy (let alone translate texts), except in the most exceptional cases where the fundamentals of the faith are at stake. 

These three elements are essential to a real reform of the Roman Curia. Reorganization of offices and downsizing may be helpful, but they are simply applying first aid to an institution that needs major surgery. 

[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]

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