The fear of real Roman Curia reform

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

A high-ranking Vatican official recently voiced serious doubts about the need to reform the Roman Curia. Believe it or not, he said talk of reform was exaggerated.

"I personally can see no significant reason that would necessitate a reform of the Curia at the moment," the official said.

"One or two changes have been or will be made concerning personnel or structures, but that is part of the normal run of things," he continued.

"To speak of 'Curia reform' is, with all due respect, somewhat of an exaggeration," he maintained.

This wasn't just any official. It was Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household. He's the same one who is the private secretary and housemate of the former pope, Benedict XVI.

His remarks -- significant especially because he is Benedict's confidante -- came recently in an exclusive interview posted on Germany's leading Catholic website,

According to the 58-year-old archbishop, only momentous milestones in the life of the church warrant a serious reform -- and not mere tweaking -- of the central administrative offices in Rome.

He specifically cited the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the revised Code of Canon Law (1983) as such major occasions. The first led Paul VI to reform the Roman Curia, and the second prompted John Paul II to do so.

His point was that reforms were necessary at these two junctures only to bring the Curia in line with the new directives that came from the council and the updated code.

Obviously, Pope Francis does not agree. If he did, he would not have taken the unprecedented step of establishing the Council of Cardinals just a month into his pontificate to help him reform the Curia and govern the universal church.

And he would not have spent so much effort on revamping the Synod of Bishops and initiating new procedures so this body, even more than the Council of Cardinals, eventually becomes an essential component of universal church governance.

This is really what worries Ganswein and his fellow traditionalists, especially those who are members of the clergy.

The truth of the matter is the reforms that Paul VI and especially John Paul II enacted were really only part of "the normal run of things" (to borrow the German archbishop's phrase).

In fact, Paul VI's reforms were actually quite gentle and cautious, given that they came in the wake of Vatican II, the most far-reaching ecclesial event since the Reformation and the Council of Trent. They could have been much bolder.

But, of course, Paul was a creature of the Roman Curia. Other than one year working at the papal nunciature in Poland and nearly 10 more as archbishop of Milan, he spent his entire ordained ministry (1920-1978) in Rome.

Historians generally agree that Pope John XXIII had actually begun reforming (that is, defanging) the Roman Curia during the first session of the Vatican II. And while it continued to be in session under Pope Paul, the council fathers helped lay the groundwork for major changes to the Curia structure. But soon after they returned to their dioceses (or so one narrative goes) and the pope was left alone, the Curia's old guard began to claw back control. Its power increased as Paul's health steadily declined.

At the time of his death, the Curia had again become a sort of 10-headed beast. After his first several months in office, John Paul II apparently ditched ideas he had of reforming it. Instead, he let it run itself while he turned the papacy into a show on the road, traveling all over the world and governing by his own charisma.

Eventually, he issued a major document in 1988 (Pastor Bonus) that made only minor changes to the previously "reformed" Curia of Paul VI.

This is the document that the Council of Cardinals has "ripped up," according to the council's coordinator, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga. Pope Francis and his cardinal advisers are currently involved in the slow process of reorganizing the Roman Curia from scratch. Those eager for church reform are frustrated with how aggravatingly long this is taking. But those who think the need for reform is being hyped, like Gänswein, are happy to let the Council of Cardinals take all the time it wants.

In fact, reform of the Roman Curia is more important today than at any time since Vatican II because this central structure continues to hamper the full flowering of the renewed ecclesiology that the council envisioned.

The Curia, as it is, stands in the way of subsidiarity or decentralization of decision-making. And rather than fostering the episcopal collegiality that the council began to articulate, it has become a wall between the bishop of Rome and other diocesan bishops. The Curia, headed by titular bishops (bishops without a diocese), too often decides when to open doors in that wall and when to keep them tightly locked.

Roman Curia offices and their leaders have also for far too long acted as if each of them were a connatural extension of papal infallibility. One official told me recently that he was shocked after he drew up documents for the appointment of new bishop and his boss, with all seriousness, said: "Congratulations, you've made your first bishop." When the junior official replied, "No, I'm pretty sure the pope did," his superior shot back even more seriously: "In this office, we are the pope!"

Just as the Curia grew stronger as Paul VI grew weaker, it will more effectively be scaled back to its proper limits to the extent that the authority of the synod is more greatly expanded.

This is not an exaggeration. It is part of what should have been done in the first Curia reforms after the council.

A former Catholic priest who is now a senior Anglican/Episcopal official in Europe has been needling me for years. "When is your church going to finally implement Vatican II?" he often asks half-jokingly.

Perhaps now is the time. But only if Pope Francis is able to successfully bring about a real reform the Roman Curia and give more authority and prominence to the Synod of Bishops.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Robert Mickens' column, A Roman Observer, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the May 22-June 4, 2015 print issue under the headline: Now is the time for real Roman Curia reform.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters