Reforming the Vatican Curia

This article appears in the Conclave 2013 feature series. View the full series.

Many of the cardinals are looking for a pope who can reform the Vatican curia, but it is not clear what they mean by “reform.” “Reform” is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

I would distinguish between two types of reform: 1) Better management, 2) Comprehensive reform.

Much of the scandals surrounding the curia recently are simple management problems: financial corruption, sexual impropriety, petty infighting among factions, leaking of documents. Dealing with these issues is neither rocket science nor theology.

Financial corruption: Governments and corporations have been dealing with financial corruption for centuries. The solutions involve proper accounting systems, rules about conflict of interests, competitive bidding, transparency in finances, and internal and external auditors. Part of the problem here is that the leadership team (cardinals, bishops and priests) have no understanding and training in these fields. They have to depend on others. But the problem also results from the arrogance of thinking that the church is somehow different and cannot learn from government and business practices.

Some actions have been taken. Pope John Paul brought in Cardinal Edmund Szoka to modernize the Vatican accounting system. Pope Benedict took a huge step in 2011 by insisting that the Vatican follow the standards set by the European agency Moneyval. He wanted the Vatican on Moneyval’s white list of good countries. In the past, the Vatican always argued that it was unique and could not be judged by anyone else’s standards. Benedict’s decision means that every year outsiders will check up on what the Vatican is doing and give a public report.

It is in the Vatican City State and the Vatican bank where financial reform makes most sense. These entities do secular things (museum, building repair, stores, etc.) for which best practices are easily available.

Sexual impropriety. Sexual impropriety occurs not just in the Catholic Church, it has also occurred in governments, businesses and the military. That is why there are rules against sexual harassment, sex between employees and supervisors, and advancement in exchange for sexual favors. Nor are rules enough. There has to be compliance officers investigating allegations and enforcing the rules. If these offenses are job related, they should be treated by the Vatican not simply as sins but as causes for termination. To pretend that these things only happen outside the church is naive.

Petty infighting. It is useful for an executive to have subordinates who argue with each other so that he gets a variety of advice. Frankly, one of the problems of the papacies of John Paul and Benedict was their unwillingness to listen to a variety of voices. But when the fighting is over power and prestige, it becomes dysfunctional and a strong hand is needed to get people back in line. Archbishop Giovanni Benelli as sostituto played this role in the papacy of Paul VI. Cardinals trembled in his presence. He kept people on message. The sostituto plays a role similar to that the White House chief of staff.

Leaking of Documents. Every government has this problem and they usually fail to stop it or to catch the leakers. There are three reasons people leak information: 1) for money; 2) because they are being blackmailed; 3) they want to embarrass someone; 4) they want to force a change in policy.

Part of the solution is to classify fewer documents as secret. But if you are going to have an investigation, then it needs to be professional. The Vatican prosecutors and judges accepted the butler’s explanation for why he stole and leaked documents—he wanted to reform the church and he acted alone. Did anyone check his financial records? Did anyone check his phone records? And when it was all over he only got a slap on the wrist.

The Italian press is filled with stories about curial officials being blackmailed for sexual improprieties. Could this be a cause of leaks? Are Italian journalists blackmailing their sources?

What about the secret report on the investigation done by the three cardinals appointed by Pope Benedict? Do you really think that three cardinals over the age of 80 have the skills of Colombo, Nancy Drew and Miss Marple? My guess is that their report is simply filled with what is already publicly known plus hearsay and opinion, which would make it an embarrassment to publish.

Comprehensive Reform

Speaking about reforming the curia is like speaking about reforming the U.S. tax code. Everyone is for it until it affects them.

Even members of the Roman curia speak about the need for reform, but for a curial cardinal, reform means he gets more power and his opponent in another office gets less. For conservatives, reform means having a strong curia that speaks with one voice in imposing the Vatican’s vision on the rest of the church. For moderates, reform means a decentralization of power and more collegiality. In other words, you cannot reform the curia until you know what you want it to do.

For example, many people talk about making the curia more efficient. Frankly, I am in favor of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith being more efficient in dealing abusive priests but the last thing I want is an efficient inquisition investigating theologians.

My own prescription for reforming the curia is based on the supposition that it should be in service to the pope as head of the college of bishops. It is staff and should be organized as a civil service and not part of the hierarchy of the church.

Thus my reforms start with not making members of the curia bishops or cardinals. The current curia is not even a 19th-century bureaucracy; it is a 17th-century court. It is organized like the royal courts of the time where princes and nobles helped the king run the nation. This governance model is antiquated.

Second, the papacy is operating out of the model of the absolute monarchies of the 17th century where the legislative, executive and judicial powers were held by the monarch. Modern governments recognize the need for a separation of powers. Agencies like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should not be allowed to make the rules, and then act as police, prosecutor, judge, jury and executor in dealing with theologians. This is not due process in the modern sense of the word.

The role of the synod of bishops also needs to be strengthened in providing input on policy and supervision of the curia. No political theory today would leave everything to the executive without a role for a legislature.

Better management is needed in the curia, and is certainly possible. Comprehensive reform, however, is not likely.

Follow Reese on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ. His email is

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