A rapid reform of the Curia?

May 20, 2013
Source: District of the USA

Pope Francis, adopting a suggestion made during the General Congregations that preceded the conclave, established a group of cardinals to advise him in the government of the Universal Church; but can it successfully accomplish its stated aim?

On April 13, 2013, the Secretary of State of the Holy See issued the following communique:

Pope Francis, adopting a suggestion made during the General Congregations that preceded the conclave, established a group of cardinals to advise him in the government of the Universal Church and to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus [dated June 28, 1988,] on the Roman Curia."

The communiqué stated that this group of cardinals is composed of: Giuseppe Bertello, President of the Governorate of Vatican City State; Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, Archbishop emeritus of Santiago del Cile (Chile); Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay (India); Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising (Germany); Laurent Monswengo Pasinya, Archbishop of Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo); Sean Patrick O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Boston (U.S.A.); George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney (Australia); Oscar Andres Rodríguez Maradiaga, S.D.B., Archbishop of Tegucigalpa (Honduras), who will also be in charge of coordinating the members. Bishop Marcello Semeraro, Bishop of Albano, was appointed secretary of this group of advisors.

It was noted that "the first meeting of the Group will take place October 1-3, 2013." The pope "however is already in contact with… the above-mentioned cardinals."

The news agency APIC, in a dispatch dated April 13, commented on this communique:

By the creation of this informal group—not a Pontifical Council or a Commission, Vatican sources specify—which is tasked with advising him in governing the Church and in preparing a reform of the Curia, the new Supreme Pontiff seems to be trying to respond to the urgent request of many cardinals who met before the last conclave with a view to Curial reform and greater collegiality…. For this group, which is "consultative and not decision-making", as Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi explained, Pope Francis called on only one Italian, the diplomat Giuseppe Bertello. Although he is not a full-fledged member of the Curia, since he heads the Vatican City State, he is the only one who resides in Rome. That being the case, some imagine that he could be appointed Secretary of State in the near future."

APIC made several clarifications: to coordinate this group, the pope designated the Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, who is a Salesian, the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and also the President of Caritas Internationalis. The secretary of the group is the Bishop of Albano—a diocese near Rome in which Castel Gandolfo (the summer residence of the popes) is located—Bishop Semeraro. He already collaborated with Cardinal Bergoglio in 2001, during the Synod of Bishops in which the future pope was special secretary and the Italian prelate was general reporter.

On April 13, the Agence France Presse added:

These cardinals will have to revise the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus promulgated by John Paul II in 1988 for the Roman Curia, an organization that Benedict XVI was not able to reform…. The government of the Holy See was affected by the ‘Vatileaks’ affair in which confidential documents of Benedict XVI were leaked. A 300-page report written by three cardinals was delivered to the new pope. But there is also an avalanche of revelations, whether founded or not, concerning sexual and financial scandals that has swept over the Vatican and the Church—above all, revelations about pedophilia scandals involving thousands of priests in the past, which have profoundly shaken the Church. The fact that the collegiality called for by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has remained to a great extent a dead letter under Benedict XVI—who used to convene his ‘ministers’ in a very formal manner at most twice a year—had very often been deplored in this regard."

The April 15 issue of Le Figaro provided a similar explanation:

This pope wants to continue the reform of the Curia explicitly carried out by John Paul II from 1985 to 1988, the application of which, however, because of passive internal resistance, was only carried out very incompletely. He hopes, along the same lines, to accomplish what Vatican II had decided on: greater ‘collegiality’ in the government of the Church. An end, therefore, to the ‘papal court’ and ‘Roman centralism’ for the sake of greater involvement of the cardinals and bishops from all five continents in major decisions."

In fact, on April 15, the secretary of the newly-formed group, Bishop Marcello Semeraro, granted an interview to the Corriere della sera that confirmed the journalists’ analyses. "We cannot rule out the possibility that the Secretariat of State of the Holy See will have fewer powers," the Bishop of Albano asserted. Whereas Paul VI had increased its powers so that the Secretariat of State could serve as a unifying connection between the pope and the dicasteries, it is necessary to adapt structures with regard to the needs of the Church today, he opined, recalling that Benedict XVI himself, at the time when he announced his resignation, had spoken about the need to confront the rapid changes of today’s world.

Bishop Semeraro declared that the heads of dicasteries, and particularly the Prefects of Congregations, wished for a return to regular audiences granted by the Supreme Pontiff, for more frequent and direct contact. "In recent years," he confided, "those in charge of dicasteries had lost their autonomy and the Secretariat of State had closer contact with the pope, too close for some people’s taste." The Italian prelate answered a question about the precise role of this group by saying that this unprecedented entity would by no means replace the organizations of the Curia and would not be a part of it. He preferred to speak about a "little synod of communion that gathers bishops from all continents", and he did not hesitate to draw a parallel with the synod of bishops desired by Paul VI. Nevertheless, he announced, the group of cardinals will meet much more often, probably every two or three months. "We will know within the next few days what subjects will be treated in October, at the first meeting."

On April 17, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, declared during a program on the Italian public television channel Rai Storia that a reform of the Curia would be carried out "rapidly". "This pope is losing no time," he reassured the listeners. "The reform ought to begin with the Roman Curia, which is the tool in the pope’s hands." According to the Roman prelate, the pope cannot carry out his activities alone, but should entrust this work to the dicasteries; this implies that the pope must always be acquainted with the work of each dicastery. In his view, the Secretariat of State of the Holy See could remain in place, with its individuality and its functions, but it would be assisted more permanently by a little college of three or four persons, which however would be different from the group of cardinals recently appointed by the pope.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio, former auxiliary bishop of the very progressive Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini—Archbishop of Milan for more than 15 years and a proponent of greater collegiality in the Church—thus confirmed that the trend started by Pope Francis was headed in the direction of a more collegial papal power. "One of the demands of the conclave that appeared during the General Congregations," the Roman Cardinal asserted, "was to place alongside the pope competent persons from all four corners of the world, who will convey the complaints of the various Christian communities."

However on April 30, in L’Osservatore Romano, the daily Italian edition of the Vatican newspaper, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, Substitute of the Secretariat of State, granted an interview that reframed the commentaries by those prelates and journalists over the previous two weeks. To the question:

Concerning the reform of the Curia, many have called for a balance of powers, moderators, coordinators, "superministers of the economy", revolutions…",

Archbishop Becciu replied:

It is rather odd: the pope has not yet met this group of advisors that he selected, and already there is a torrent of advice. Having spoken with the Holy Father, I can say that at the moment it is altogether premature to advance any hypothesis whatsoever concerning the future organization of the Curia. Pope Francis is listening to everybody, but in the first place he will want to listen to those whom he has chosen as advisors. Then a plan for reforming Pastor bonus will be organized, which obviously will have to run its course."

As for the question about a "rapid" reform, here is Archbishop Becciu’s response:

I cannot tell when it will be done…. All [heads of dicasteries] will continue in office "until other arrangements are made" (donec aliter provideatur). This shows the Holy Father’s intention to take the time necessary for reflection—and for prayer, we should never forget—so as to have an in-depth picture of the situation."

To the objection that this group of advisors could call into question the primacy of the pope, the Roman prelate responded:

We are talking about a consultative body, not a decision-making body, and really I do not see how Pope Francis’ choice could call the primacy into question. On the other hand, it is true that this is a very important gesture, which intends to give a clear signal as to the methods by which the Holy Father will want to carry out his ministry."

He explained:

The function of advisor must be interpreted in a theological sense: from a worldly perspective we would have to say that an advisory panel without deliberative authority is irrelevant, but that would mean equating the Church with a business. Instead, theologically, the act of advising absolutely does have an important function: it helps the superior in his work of discernment, it helps him understand what the Spirit is asking of the Church at a precise historical moment. Without this [theological] reference, moreover, one would not understand either the authentic meaning of the activity of governance in the Church."

On the occasion of this interview, the Substitute of the Secretariat of State remarked on the rumor that has made the rounds in the press of a possible suppression of the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR):

The pope was surprised to see attributed to him statements that he never uttered and that misrepresent his thinking. The only time he mentioned this subject was during a brief impromptu homily at the Casa Santa Marta [on April 24], in which he passionately recalled that the essence of the Church consists of a love story between God and humanity, and that the various human structures, among them the IOR, are less important. The allusion was made in a humorous tone, prompted by the presence at the Mass of several employees of the Institute, within the context of a serious invitation never to lose sight of the essential character of the Church."


This clarification, which appeared on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano, is explained by the peculiar atmosphere that prevails in Rome at the start of this new pontificate. A Roman observer confided to DICI that several prelates and some Vatican-watchers are eager to attribute to the pope the intentions that they would like to see implemented. They anticipate, hoping that their personal desires will turn into Roman decisions, or else into appointments; and they urgently want this anticipation of theirs to become a news item. In this case, it was a disappointment instead.

Sources: News.va/L'Osservatore Romano/AFP/Apic/IMedia/Corriere della sera—DICI no. 275, May 17, 2013