Fr. Thomas Reese: Three Criteria to Evaluate Pope Francis’ Reform of the Vatican Curia

Pope Francis speaks during the traditional greetings to the Roman Curia in the Sala Clementina (Clementine Hall) of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican on Dec. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)

The cardinals who voted in conclave to elect Pope Francis did so hoping he would reform the scandal-plagued Vatican Curia and make it more responsive to the concerns of the universal church. Six years later, his reform proposals are reportedly to be promulgated at the end of June, although they will probably be leaked earlier. Will they satisfy the critics of the Curia?

Reforming the Vatican Curia has been a constant topic since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. The Curia has been accused of being inefficient, Byzantine, dictatorial, and out of touch with the needs of ordinary Catholics. On top of that, it has been plagued by financial and sexual scandals.

Popes have rolled out reforms, but they have had little impact.

Paul VI did the most in the years following Vatican II, by requiring heads of Curia offices to submit their resignations at age 75 and by forcing bishops and cardinals off the congregations (the committees of cardinals and bishops that supervise the work of Vatican offices) when they reach 80.

He also created new offices, in response to the council’s priorities, for dialogue with other Christian churches and with other religions. He created another office to focus on issues of justice and peace. Later popes added offices to deal with their pet projects.

But amid this innovation, the existing offices were not substantially changed. Conflict arose between the old offices and the new, as when those involved in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue were reprimanded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

Francis made some initial changes in the Curia when he became pope, merging some of the post-Vatican II offices so that fewer people report directly to him. He also combined the various media offices, but because of ineffectual leadership, the merger threw Vatican communications into chaos.

Perhaps his greatest impact has been on the culture of the Curia, rather than its structure. His constant emphasis on service and listening has changed how Curia officials interact with visiting bishops. In the past, 55 minutes of an hourlong meeting would be devoted to Curia officials lecturing the bishops. Now, more time is given to listening to the bishops’ concerns.

St. Peter's Square

People watch Pope Francis as he recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on June 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

The new reform proposals, however, are being presented as a comprehensive reform of church structures. Here are three questions to ask in evaluating these reforms:

First, does the reform convert the Vatican from a court to a civil service?

The Vatican is still organized as an 18th-century royal court where princes (cardinals) and nobles (bishops) help the king (pope) govern the nation (church). The problem with such a structure is that you can’t fire princes and nobles when they prove incompetent. The church needs a competent civil service, not a court.

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Source: Religion News Service