October meeting will shape future of Church

Pope Francis’ outgoing, unpretentious manner has marked a big change in the papacy’s style. But what about its substance? In particular, what about the institutions and processes by which the bishop of Rome governs the Church?

The answers may begin to emerge when the eight-member council of cardinals, which Pope Francis established in April to advise him, convenes in Rome Oct. 1-3 for its first group meeting. Church leaders in the Vatican and worldwide, as well as many ordinary Catholics, will be watching closely for hints to the future.

The meeting follows on the heels of a Sept. 10 gathering at the Apostolic Palace between Pope Francis and heads of the Vatican offices, along with the president of the Governorate and the cardinal vicar general of Rome, to hear their questions and discuss the subject of reform of the Vatican bureaucracy.

Structural reform

If the creation of the council, along with two other new advisory bodies (see sidebar), is any indication, structural reform is high on this pope’s to-do list. Announcing the cardinals’ council, the Vatican said it would consider not only changes in the Roman Curia — the central administrative machinery that assists the pope — but also “the government of the universal Church.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, is the only American member of the group. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is its coordinator. Other members include Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, an Italian cardinal who heads the “Governorate” of Vatican City State; Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai; Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, Congo; German Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising; and Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, archbishop emeritus of Santiago, Chile.

Cardinals Maradiaga, Ossa, Pasinya and Bertello
Cardinals O'Malley, Marx, Gracias and Pell

Pope Francis repeatedly has said the emphasis on restructuring and reform reflects concerns expressed in deliberations by the world’s cardinals just before they elected him pope last March.

But these issues have been high on many other agendas since a public avalanche of leaked internal documents — collectively known as “Vatileaks” — focused attention last year on allegations of corruption and mismanagement within in the Vatican. Since then, a string of new embarrassments, especially at the Vatican bank, have prompted fresh calls for reform.

Last month the pope took a potentially major step in that direction by appointing a new secretary of state to succeed 78-year-old Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. He is Archbishop Pietro Parolin, 58, a former undersecretary of state responsible for foreign affairs who has served since 2009 as papal nuncio in Venezuela.

The Secretariat of State, which Archbishop Parolin will head beginning Oct. 15, is responsible for overseeing and coordinating the activities of other offices of the Roman Curia.

But while Pope Francis clearly is seeking internal reforms, his concerns just as clearly extend to larger questions of Church governance, usually summed up under the headings of collegiality and synodality. The three things are in fact closely related.

The Curia

Although the origins of the Roman Curia date back to the early Christian centuries, only in the second half of the 16th century did the present Curia start to emerge. Its last major restructuring occurred in 1987 under Blessed John Paul II.

As presently constituted, the Curia consists of the Secretariat of State, nine congregations, three tribunals, 11 councils and three offices.

Technically, administrative and financial entities like the IOR (Vatican Bank) and the Governorate aren’t part of it, but references to “the Curia” commonly include them, too.

Critics complain that curial offices have infringed on the prerogatives of local authorities. For example, regarding approval of liturgical translations. Pope Francis says the Curia includes many “saints,” but the structural tensions reflect a long-standing conflict over the respective merits of centralization and decentralization in Church affairs.


Collegiality is one response. The First Vatican Council (1869-70) affirmed the primacy and infallibility of the pope. Picking up where it left off, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) taught that the order of bishops is “the successor to the college of the apostles” and declared: “Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, [the bishops] have supreme and full authority over the universal Church” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 22).


But how is collegiality exercised? Vatican II’s innovative answer was a permanent collegial institution called the Synod of Bishops. Since 1967 there have been 13 general assemblies of the synod at which 250 or so bishops and other Church leaders from around the world have discussed topics of the pope’s choosing.

The most recent, in October 2012, dealt with New Evangelization. Pope Francis says the next one may take up marriage questions, including pastoral care of the divorced and remarried. Several regional synods and special synods also have been held.

Even so, critics complain that the synod is only advisory, with no direct role in decision-making. This is where synodality comes in. This term, favored by Pope Francis, envisages extending the synod model to involve synod assemblies — or bodies resembling them — in actual governance.

In theory, that might include not only an international body, but national and regional assemblies as well. Such an approach is said to appeal to the Orthodox churches, which operate on synodal lines.

Speaking of these large questions, Pope Francis told journalists recently, “I cannot tell you how this story will end.”

In early October, the Church may start to find out.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.