Pope Francis' reform of the Roman Curia is moving too slowly

by Thomas Reese

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As Pope Francis approaches the second anniversary of his election as pope, progress on reforming the Vatican Curia is moving too slowly. It should be moving faster.

The College of Cardinals met in consistory on Feb. 12-13 to review the progress made so far and to discuss future reforms. The cardinals heard from the nine-member Council of Cardinals, which has been spearheading the reforms for Pope Francis.

The greatest progress has been made in reforming the finances of the Vatican, which has mainly focused on where the money is -- the Vatican bank, the Vatican City State, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples. A new Secretariat for the Economy was also created to supervise Vatican finances.

Reforming Vatican finances is a priority for Pope Francis, who listened to the complaints about financial scandals from the cardinals at the time of his election.

In theory, this is the easiest part of Vatican reform. Financial reform is neither rocket science nor theology; it is simply good management practices developed by businesses, governments, and nonprofits to provide transparency and accountability. It requires clear procedures, training of employees, and proper supervision.

Applying all of this to the Vatican is a challenge, but everyone knows what is required. There may be resistance, but strong, steady leadership can prevail. This does not mean that scandals will end. In the short run, there should be more scandals as the bad actors are caught by the new system.

Reforming the Roman Curia, the part of the Vatican that helps the pope in his Petrine ministry, is more difficult.

The Roman Curia is made up of the Secretariat of State, nine congregations, 12 councils, three tribunals, and a host of commissions, academies, institutes and other offices. Each of these was created in response to a perceived need or priority of a previous papacy.

Reforming the Roman Curia requires a theological vision for the Petrine ministry, a sense of what the church needs today, and a practical understanding of how to organize people to implement it.

First, what is the theological vision of the Petrine ministry? Is the pope an infallible, absolute monarch in whom all wisdom resides, or is he first among equals who acts collegially with the college of bishops?

If it is the former, then all important decisions will be referred to the pope or to those to whom he has delegated decision-making power in the Curia. Any issue that is in doubt must go up the chain of command.

If it is the latter vision, then the church needs a system for encouraging discussion and consensus building in the college of bishops. Here, the Curia is in service to the pope and the college of bishops; curial officials are not decision-makers.

Second, what are the needs of the church today? Does the church need more stability or change, unity or pluralism, clearer teaching or better witness? Should it be challenging or accommodating, devotional or prophetic?

Another way of asking this question is: What are the pope's priorities? What does he want to focus on, and what does he want to delegate to others?

Third, all of this has to be organized into offices with people with specific responsibilities. Management experts note that different types of organizations are organized differently. An entrepreneurial startup is not run like an established utility. An emergency room is not a factory. The Department of Motor Vehicles is not the Marines. A business office is not a research lab.

Reform of the Roman Curia is difficult because there is no consensus on the Petrine ministry, the needs of the church today, or the practical issues of management.

Perhaps the first place to start is by asking Vatican officials and local bishops what issues are being decided in Rome that should be decided at the local, national, or regional level. For example, if a priest and his bishop agree that the priest should be laicized, why does his case have to go to Rome? Do liturgical translations have to be micromanaged in Rome?

This was one of the issues raised by the cardinals as they met in consistory on Feb. 12, according to Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi. He reports that they discussed the notion of subsidiarity, or how the Roman Curia might share and divide responsibilities between local dioceses and bishops' conferences. But no details were given. If this ever gets beyond the discussion stage, it will have a profound impact on the Vatican congregations, which have much of the decision-making authority in the Vatican.

But instead of discussing the congregations, the focus of attention during the February consistory was shifted to the councils, which have little decision-making authority.

The 12 pontifical councils were formed after the Second Vatican Council, and most were set up to help implement the council. Most have names that reflect the prominent issues of the council: laity, Christian unity, family, justice and peace, migrants and refugees, interreligious dialogue, culture, and communications. Many dioceses in the United States also opened offices to deal with at least some of these topics.

A pontifical council is headed by a president, usually an archbishop but sometimes a cardinal. Under him is a secretary and undersecretary, plus a staff. Each council also has an advisory board of cardinals, bishops, and sometimes laity. They can also have lay and clerical consultors.

In fact, most of the pontifical councils act like think tanks rather than bureaucracies. They have little decision-making authority. The Council for the Laity has the canonical authority to approve the statutes of international Catholic lay organizations, and that is about it. For the most part, councils only have the power to exhort and persuade, not to order.

So what do these councils do?

For the most part, they talk, write, and publish on the topics of their competencies. They receive visitors interested in these topics, and they attend international meetings on the topics. In all of these ways, they push the pope's views on these topics with bishops, clergy, and laity as well as in the international arena, but they don't have the authority to force anyone to do anything. Anything they want to publish must be reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and by the Secretariat of State.

There is a proposal to merge some of these councils into two congregations, one dealing with laity and one dealing with justice, peace and the environment. It is hoped that this will reduce staff and make the offices more efficient. 

The first congregation will be created by merging the current councils for laity and family. The second congregation will be created from merging the old councils for justice and peace, health care, migrants and refugees, and include a new office for safeguarding creation.

The creation of these two congregations is being presented as a major reform. "Now the laity will have a congregation just like the clergy, bishops, and religious," it is asserted.

Only cardinals could think this is a big deal. The laity certainly do not care. The only real difference here will be that a congregation must be headed by a cardinal while a council can be headed by an archbishop. A layperson will not be able to head the Congregation for the Laity, but could head an office, like an office for the family, within the congregation. 

The most likely result of these mergers is that less will be done. Fewer documents will be written, fewer conferences will be attended, fewer initiatives will be taken because there will be fewer employees, and their initiatives will have to go through another layer of review before seeing the light of day.

In my opinion, the best result of these mergers is that there will be three fewer positions that must be filled by archbishops and might be filled by cardinals in the Curia. Anything that reduces the number of archbishops and cardinals in the Curia is good. On the other hand, there will be two more positions that must be held by cardinals. That is bad. 

That it took the Council of Cardinals two years to come up with this reshuffling of boxes on the organizational chart simply shows they really don't know what they are doing. It should have taken two months to develop this plan, not two years. At this pace, Pope Francis will be dead before real reform hits the Curia.

A conspiracy theorist would say that getting the Council of Cardinals to focus on this reorganization was a way of distracting them from any real reform in the Curia. Let the cardinals talk about the councils. Keep them away from the congregations. 

[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 treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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