Is Reform Possible?: Historical and theological perspectives on the Roman Curia

The first question asked of Pope Francis in the widely reported impromptu press conference on July 28 during the flight home from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro was, not surprisingly, related to the Roman Curia: “What type of reform do you have in mind?” In his reply, the pope first mentioned the commission of eight cardinals he appointed, which, he explained is what the cardinals asked for before the papal election. “We know that it is important to have an outside body of consultors,” he said, “not the consultation bodies that already exist, but one on the outside. This is entirely in keeping—here I am making a mental abstraction, but it’s the way I try to explain it—in keeping with the maturing of the relationship between synodality and primacy. In other words, having these eight cardinals will favor synodality.” This means giving greater voice to the college of bishops in the governance of the church.

Later, asked specifically about scandals facing the Curia, Francis responded: “There are saints in the Curia. And there are also some who aren’t so saintly, and these are those who make more noise…. I think the Curia has fallen somewhat from the level that it had some time ago, of those old Curia men, the profile of the old Curia man, faithful, who did his work. We are in need of such persons. I believe they exist, but they are not so many as there were some time ago.”

Amid all the current publicity about the faults and failings of the Roman Curia and the cries for its reform, we need to step back for a moment and put the situation into a larger context. We need to remember that the reform of the Curia has been a recurring and sometimes insistent issue in the history of the church. What changed over the centuries were the problems that needed remedy. As the Curia changed, the problems changed.

The institution originated modestly in the early centuries. The bishop of Rome, like other bishops, needed assistance in keeping records, tending to correspondence and similar tasks. As he in time claimed ever more oversight and jurisdiction beyond Rome, the number and authority of his assistants grew. A major turning point came in 1059 with the decree establishing cardinal-bishops as the electors of the pope, which was also the point when papal claims over the church began to escalate.

Bit by bit the cardinals in the papal famiglia, or household, began to consider themselves the “senate” of the holy Roman church, which the pope was required to consult on important matters. Their meetings (called consistories) with the pope gradually took over the function earlier performed by the Roman synods, in which the pope met with his clergy. The cardinals’ wealth and their ability to manipulate canon law in their favor increased accordingly.

In 1588 Pope Sixtus V took the drastic step of organizing the consistorial system into 15 congregations, each with a specific area of competence. Although subsequent popes have reshuffled these bureaus or departments many times, they have not changed the bureaucratic structure Sixtus set in place. From 1588 forward, therefore, the Curia enjoyed all the advantages and suffered all the disadvantages any bureaucracy entails.

Another turning point—subtle, gradual and undeclared—occurred after the solemn declarations of papal primacy and infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. With those declarations, not only the pope but also those who assist him in the governance of the church achieved a degree of authority and a claim to unquestionable acquiescence in their decisions never known before.

Grievances About the Curia

What were the grievances at each stage in this development? In the 12th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux complained about the Curia’s practice of “giving judgment in the absence of the accused, simply as its members wish”; and he warned Pope Eugene III, a fellow Cistercian, about the worldliness of Rome. In the 14th century the wealth and luxury the cardinals enjoyed in Avignon during the papacy’s residence there excited calls for its reform. Only in the 15th and early 16th centuries, however, did cries against venality and corruption find urgent expression at the highest level of ecclesiastical authority—in the councils of Constance, Basel and Lateran V.

Reformers complained also about the quid-pro-quo patronage system that rewarded family and friends, who were often unworthy of the positions bestowed upon them. Even more irritating to many bishops and rulers was the growing centralization of authority in the Holy See and the imposition by the papacy of ever more taxes and other financial exactions to fund an ever more ostentatious papal court. Reformers called for the elimination of simony in the Curia that occurred through the buying and selling of offices and services. Martin Luther’s “Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation” in 1520 contained a long catalog of abuses perpetrated by the Curia. It was a catalog more remarkable for its stridency and comprehensiveness than for any originality in the complaints.

The decrees of the Council of Trent (1545–63) give no hint that bishops at the council found the Curia the major obstacle to the measure they felt essential for the reform of the church, namely, obliging bishops to reside in their dioceses and to perform there their traditional pastoral duties. The Curia’s practice of granting dispensations from this obligation in return for cash to finance the court (and thus itself) had for centuries consistently undercut every attempt to change the situation.

The issue brought the council to such a crisis that for 10 months between September 1562 and July 1563, it could not pass a single decree. Only the solemn promise by Pope Pius IV to undertake the necessary reform broke the deadlock and enabled the council to conclude its business. Pius and some of his successors made changes, but they were less thorough than reformers called for. Nonetheless, the popes could not altogether ignore the Council of Trent’s decree requiring residence even of the cardinal-bishops in the Curia.

Vatican II

After a period of relative quiescence during the long post-Trent era, reform of the Curia bounded to the surface during the first session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Nobody at that time accused the cardinals of the Curia of an extravagant lifestyle. The problem was rather the attempt of some of them to control the council and, indeed, to force their own agenda on the bishops. The chairman of the doctrinal commission of the council was Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, who was at the same time the head of what was called the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition, sometimes called “the Suprema.”

Suprema! The word not only indicated its rank among the congregations but also suggested a prerogative entitling it even to correct the council itself. Against this arrogance—which is how many bishops characterized it—the council reacted vigorously. As the first session drew to a close, reform of the Curia—indeed, a radical reform—seemed almost certain to appear prominently on the agenda when the council reconvened the next year.

Just before it reconvened, however, Pope Paul VI, elected a few months earlier, spoke to the members of the Curia, impressed upon them the urgency of the issue and informed them that together—he and they—would take the needed steps. The pope thus diffused the tension by, in effect, removing the issue from the agenda. Even so, the issue simmered beneath the surface for the rest of the council and sometimes burst onto the floor. The intrepid Melkite patriarch, Maximos IV Saigh, for instance, at one point proposed that the Curia report directly to a rotating commission of bishops established to aid the pope in the governance of the church. The commission would be the Suprema.

Just as the council was ending, Paul VI published “Integrae Servandae” (1965), which gave the Suprema the new name Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; it also gave it the new task of promoting good teachings as well as condemning bad ones. He later made other adjustments, like increasing the international composition of the Curia’s personnel. The changes were far from radical.

The same can be said of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution “Pastor Bonus” (1988). But in 1995 the pope issued the encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” and invited dialogue about how the successor of Peter might better perform his ministry. In so doing he at least implicitly invited dialogue on further, presumably more radical, reform of the Curia, as John R. Quinn, archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, saw and discussed so well in his book The Reform of the Papacy (Herder & Herder, 1999). It has been credibly reported that Pope Francis has read Archbisop Quinn’s book.

Challenges Today

What conclusions can we draw from this history? The first is that the Curia is a fact of life; the Roman Pontiff needs assistance, and the Curia has traditionally been the instrument to provide it. (Whether he needs assistance to the degree and in the extensive and elaborate form currently at his disposal is another question altogether.) The second is that like every bureaucracy, this one needs to be monitored and from time to time undergo reforms that are more than tinkering. The saying Ecclesia semper reformanda means in this context specifically Curia semper reformanda. Reform of the Curia is a task that must be done over and over again. Third, reform will meet resistance from an entrenched system.

Who is to do the reforming? For bureaucracies, self-reform invariably means no reform. If the reform is to be effective, it must be done by a disinterested outside agency, an agency not enmeshed in the system. It must be done by an agency, that is to say, that has a critical distance from the system and is familiar with other systems that operate more effectively. The commission of cardinals that Pope Francis has appointed for this task, as well as for broader church issues, is a step in the right direction., But the cardinals are themselves churchmen who work inside the system, even though not inside the Curia. Is it unthinkable to supplement their work with a secular agency that is completely outside the church orbit? Such an agency is much more likely to ask questions that do not even occur to church members.

What needs reform today? That is a question far beyond my competence to answer. There are in fact two problems so profound that they seem beyond almost everyone’s competence. First is the fact that men and women today do not easily accept the idea that what they perceive to be a distant and faceless elite body can claim the right to tell them what to think and how to behave. Second, there is the difficulty today of finding a theological justification for the Curia—or, put more concretely, there is the difficulty of finding a theologically credible connection between Peter the simple fisherman of Galilee and Peter, prince of the apostles, heading a large bureaucratic central office.

If we descend from the heights of those two problems to others seemingly more tractable, several things seem fairly obvious. Some remedy needs to be found for the well-publicized lack of communication among the congregations, tribunals, secretariats and other offices within the Curia, which results in their sometimes working at cross purposes and giving the impression of a system profoundly disorganized and dysfunctional.

Further, a remedy needs to be found for the process of recruiting the personnel of the Curia, which sometimes seems to function more as a system of patronage than a system based on merit—a long-standing problem in the Curia. Finally, a mechanism needs to be devised to ensure that the heads of the different bureaus are held accountable for fulfilling their duties.

There are surely other problems. But what is needed above all is a clarification of the ecclesiological framework in which the Curia functions. In the decades before the Second Vatican Council, every textbook on ecclesiology described the governance of the church as an unqualified monarchy. The pope was the absolute head of a hierarchical pyramid, from which all authority flowed downward from him to the rest of the church. The triumph of this idea was the result of a long process that accelerated in the 19th and early 20th centuries and reached its apogee on the eve of the council. The very word Suprema suggests the mentality that was operative.

Vatican II tried to modify that ecclesiology by recovering the early synodal and collegial tradition of the church of the first millennium. The result was the doctrine of collegiality, which became the lightning rod of the council. No other doctrine met more unrelenting opposition. Its enemies grasped its radical character and implications. The council eventually ratified the doctrine, but only after “a higher authority” attached a “preliminary note” (nota praevia) to the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (1964)that has ever since confounded interpreters and blunted the doctrine’s sharpness. Moreover, the council’s attempts to give collegiality a form to make it operative in the church were pre-empted when at the beginning of the fourth session, Paul VI instituted the synod of bishops, which he defined as a purely consultative body.

Collegiality holds immense implications for the Curia. It means the Curia should operate not as a set of agencies in charge of the church but as agencies that serve lower agencies by helping them do what they are supposed to do. It means, in other words, strictly observing the Catholic rule of subsidiarity: the higher authority intervenes only when a problem exceeds the ability of a lower authority to deal with it. More basically, it means seeing the church itself as a collegial body, which imposes even upon the prima sedes, the chair of Peter, the obligation to function in a collegial fashion regarding other bishops, who, as Vatican II stated, have authority in their own right and are not vicars of the pope.

Even in the few months he has been pope, Francis has given evidence that he intends to function in a collegial fashion. He has, moreover, provided a wonderful example of the servant-leader, which is another theme of the council and a corollary to the doctrine of collegiality. The challenge now is to translate that example into structural changes and then somehow to ensure that the personnel responsible for the effective functioning of the prima sedes subscribe to it wholeheartedly and perform their duties in accord with it.

CAROL STANTON
3 years 9 months ago
Perhaps after 50 years of Reception of Vatican II we will finally be receiving the intended collegiality and subsidiarity. May Francis be successful and may this particular reform flow through all levels of church bureaucracy.
Adam Rasmussen
3 years 9 months ago
I think that, outside of traditionalists circles, the notion of collegiality is no longer feared as a threat to the primacy of the church of Rome (the issue the "note" at Vatican II addressed). Francis stated clearly in his famous interview that the Curia's job should be to help episcopal conferences (not overrule their decisions, as happened in the U.S. both with the initial revision of the translation of the mass and with the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae). He has also spoken about reforming the synod of bishops to give it real authority. Who can doubt now but that he will do these two things?

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