“The reform of the Roman Curia is something that almost all cardinals called for in the Congregations preceding the Conclave,” Pope Francis told Latin-American Religious in early June. “I also asked for it.”
He went on to say that he could not “promote” the reform himself, because he “had never been good at this” but that the council of cardinals he had appointed would take it forward.
Between 1 and 3 October, the eight cardinals (known informally as the G-8) met in Rome with the Pope, after a busy summer of sifting through a large range of reform options which had converged on a few main themes. “You cannot have millions of Catholics in the world suggesting the same unless the Holy Spirit is inspiring”, the group’s president, Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez de Maradiaga of Honduras (pictured) told Salt & Light TV last week).
During the Group’s six sessions Tuesday through Thursday — the Pope was with them for almost all of them — the cardinals developed plans for a thorough overhaul the Roman Curia, underlining its role of “service to the universal church and the local churches”, said Fr Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
Behind that apparently bland statement lies a frustration, expressed by the world’s cardinals in the pre-conclave gatherings, that the Curia had become too “self-referential”, arrogating powers to itself, and acting autonomously and haughtily — or, as Reuters puts it: “Bishops around the world have deemed [the curia] heavy-handed, autocratic, condescending and overly bureaucratic, and some say it sometimes seemed to have taken on the trappings and intrigue of a Renaissance court.”
In the exchange with Eugenio Scalfari published recently in La Repubblica, Pope Francis appears at least in part to share that view, lamenting “courtiers” and describing a court culture in the Vatican as “leprosy”.
The problems were built up in the last years of John Paul II, when the governance gap left by an ailing pope led to rivalries and dysfunctions that came to a head under his successor. Benedict XVI was acutely aware of the problems but realised he lacked the strength to implement the solutions: before resigning, he commissioned a confidential report on the curia to assist his successor in doing so.
Yesterday it was clear, at the conclusion of the first G-8, that the council of cardinals – leaders of large dioceses in all six continents — believes that the structure of Vatican governance, as laid out in John Paul II’s constitution on the curia, Pastor Bonus, needs not just revising but replacing.
“They are not just going in the direction of a simple updating of Pastor Bonus with some touch-ups and marginal modifications, but towards the drafting of a constitution with things that are very new – in short, a new constitution”, said Fr Lombardi.
The immediate changes are likely to be to the structure and functioning of the Secretariat of State, which on 15 October gets a new head, Archbishop Pietro Parolin (pictured).
The Pope and the cardinals had stressed the role of the Secretariat of State as “the secretariat of the pope,” said Fr Lombardi, who added that the cardinals had discussed creating a new post, the moderator curiae, who would oversee collaboration and cooperation between the different departments.
Also discussed was the reform of the Synod of Bishops, which was moved to the top of the meeting’s agenda because the synod council — which plans the regular gatherings in Rome of representatives of the world’s bishops — will meet at the Vatican next week. The Pope is expected to decide the theme for the next synod — likely to be on the family — “in the coming days”, said the spokesman.
Another item on the agenda was the role of the laity. The pope and his cardinal advisers talked about “how to ensure that this dimension of the church’s reality is more adequately and effectively recognized and followed in the governance of the church,” said Fr Lombardi.
That could mean upgrading the the Pontifical Council for the Laity to a congregation on a par with those for bishops, priests and religious. (In the Vatican a “council” is advisory, where a “congregation” has governing authority.)
How long with these changes take? Writing a new constitution to replace Pastor Bonus, which runs to nine sections, 193 articles and two appendices, will be a major task, likely to last years.
But the decisiveness and ambition of this first meeting shows that the reform has already begun: power has already shifted from the Vatican to the world’s bishops — a major development in collegiality. And it is clear that the council will be key to the Francis reform programme: it meets again with the Pope on 3-5 December, and again in February.
Paradoxically, however, the coming changes — interesting and important as they are — are not the point. The purpose is to transcend self-referential preoccupation with bureaucratic questions in order better to look outwards.
That means dealing with the causes of the enervating scandals of recent times, and making the curia once again serve the Pope and the universal Church — so that, paradoxically, the curia ceases to be a topic for discussion.