Francis is reforming Roman Curia by circumvention

Pope Francis has begun another round of meetings with his Council of Cardinals (C9), a special advisory group he formed just a month after becoming Bishop of Rome to assist him in governing the universal church and reforming the Roman Curia.

The three-day gathering, which got underway today at the pope's Santa Marta Residence, is the 15th time Francis has convened the C9 for discussions and consultations.

During their last sessions in April, the cardinal-advisors continued to review the work and mission of various Curia offices. They also discussed "criteria" for selecting new bishops and the role of apostolic nuncios.

"On the final day the council worked to gather, order and integrate the various contributions that have emerged from the meetings so far, so as to begin to structure an overall proposal to offer to the pope from the council in view of the new constitution [of the Roman Curia]," the Holy See Press Office said in a statement.

The operative -- and to many, discouraging -- word in that press release is "begin." After three years and fourteen meetings, the C9 only now has begun to put together "an overall proposal" for reforming the Curia.

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Lots of people are wondering what is taking so long.

In my last column I noted that "many reform-minded Catholics have again become quite worried about the future direction of their church" because of the slow pace of reform.

And that's quite understandable.

Because -- as I pointed out -- "despite being able to effect a seismic change in attitude and ethos throughout the worldwide Catholic family, Francis has done nothing to ensure that this will not all be tossed aside" by a future pope.

I've argued on various occasions that one way he could lay an unshakeable foundation for reform, which would be fully within the church's tradition, is by bolstering the role of the Synod of Bishops.

"Making the Synod a constitutive part of the Bishop of Rome's ministry will also lead to a new and reduced role for the Roman Curia, which would be subjugated to the pope's Synod. Indeed this may be the only way that Francis can bring about a real reform of the Curia, which has eluded every one of his predecessors since this bureaucracy's genesis somewhere around the 15th century."

In this way, he would bring about a reform of the Curia simply by circumventing and neutralizing it.

In fact, he has already done much of that over the past three years. Under previous popes, especially John Paul II, the 20-some Roman congregations and pontifical councils churn out a steady flow of documents. The universal church was swimming in a deluge of Vatican guidelines, directives, decrees, notifications, declarations and so forth.

But not so under Pope Francis.

The torrent of texts has been reduced to a mere trickle. And nowhere has that been more noticeable and more significant than at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the office that Benedict XVI restored -- over and above the Secretariat of State -- as the most important in the Vatican.

Think about this: In the three years that Francis has been Bishop of Rome, the doctrinal congregation has not issued a single document to the global church. Before he arrived it would routinely publish two to four every year, sometimes even more.

The last one came in April 2012. It was the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

Others that year included a "notification" against the writings of American theologian, Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, and a decree establishing the U.S. ordinariate for Episcopalian communities joining the Roman church.

Significantly, Francis brought the so-called "investigation" of the LCWR to a quiet and peaceful end in the second year of his pontificate, effectively halting the doctrinal department's last major undertaking.

The CDF -- like every department in the Roman Curia -- has no power of its own except that which the Roman Pontiff grants it. These offices are not, in a strict sense, a manifestation of episcopal collegialty. They are at the service of the pope.

Paul VI introduced a collegial element to their work by mandating that each office would include a certain number of bishops from around the world who would serve as "members" and, thus, have a voice in the office's deliberations. But, de facto, the prefect (or president) and his staff in Rome are the ones who run the show.

This was true under John Paul II who entrusted his CDF prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, with authority to write and issue scores of documents, as well as vet every major text issued by any other Vatican department. Over nearly three decades the Polish pope and Bavarian prefect worked in tandem to shape and regulate the church's life throughout the world.

After Cardinal Ratzinger became Benedict XVI he continued to direct the CDF's work through surrogates -- Cardinal William Levada and now-Cardinal Gerhard Müller. He appointed the latter to the office in the summer of 2012. And there are strong indications that he did so after having already decided that he would soon resign the papacy.

Francis, most likely out of respect for his theologian predecessor, not only kept Müller in his post (he had only been there nine months at the papal transition) but also gave him the red hat.

But the Argentine pope has not utilized the CDF prefect or his department in the manner of John Paul or Benedict.

On the contrary. Francis has circumvented him and has virtually emptied the doctrinal office of any real power, authority or utility in his pontificate.

Cardinal Müller has not been called upon to officially present any of the current pope's writings or initiatives, expect for "his" encyclical, Lumen Fidei, in July 2013, which was actually not really his. It was the final work of Benedict XVI.

Instead, Francis has called on other prelates and theologians -- such as Christoph Schönborn, Peter Turkson, Lorenzo Baldisseri and Rino Fisichella -- to explain his most important texts, such as Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si' and Amoris Laetitia. And in a stark break from Vatican custom, he gave the CDF no major role in the elaboration of any these key documents.

Rather, the pope has relied heavily on theological help from "the ends of the earth," as he would put it. It is pretty well established that his primary ghostwriter is Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires. And he has shown his high regard for and reliance on the thinking of Cardinal Walter Kasper since the first days of his pontificate.

Francis also consults regularly with some of his Jesuit confreres on the other side of the Tiber -- such as Fr Antonio Spadaro, editor of Civiltà Cattolica, and certain professors at the Gregorian University -- to help in his discernment.

He has basically marginalized the Roman Curia, while allowing it to continue to provide certain "essential" services. For example, there's a congregation that continues to crank out saints and another that selects candidates to become bishops. But Francis has not hesitated to sidestep their recommendations and "declare" his own saints (e.g. the Jesuits' co-founder, Peter Faber) and appoint his own bishops (the list here continues to grow).

He has also neutralized the Congregation for Divine Worship, though the traditionalist prefect, Cardinal Robert Sarah, has been waging a sort of international media campaign in an attempt to influence the universal church. Francis certainly has not given him enough to do in Rome.

So we come to back to the original concern. Is the pope making any moves to ensure that he will leave a legacy that cannot be undone when he is gone? Which means he has to make some structural or organizational changes.

He has maintained from the start that, before any of that can happen, the first reform must be the reform of attitude and mentality. There must be a conversion, if you will.

Over the past three years, that conversion has been slow in coming, but there are new signs everyday that it is taking root. This is already preparing (or softening up) the entire church, even some of the most reluctant and resistant bureaucrats in the curia, for the eventual concrete changes that will surely come.

As Pope Francis likes to remind us, time is greater than space.

And while he uses his time to circumvent the Roman Curia and map out the reform, he is proving to be quite effective in changing the face of the universal church.

[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.]

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