What is the Curia?

Anyone who watched the many news reports regarding the election of Pope Francis heard reporters and commentators speak of the “Curia” or the “Roman Curia.” What is the Roman Curia? Why would it be important in deliberations about a new pope? 

The Curia is the term used, at times somewhat loosely, to refer to the offices and agencies in Rome through which popes govern the worldwide Church. As the U.S. government in Washington, D.C., is divided into a series of departments, so, too, the Church’s government in Rome is divided. Specific departments oversee matters relating to Catholic education, the clergy, religious, the liturgy and so forth.  

The U.S. government calls its units of operation departments. The Vatican uses the term congregations. A director, called a prefect, is in charge of the office. Always a cardinal, he is named by the pope and answers directly to the pope. 

People visit Rome, see priests in the vicinity of St. Peter’s Basilica with briefcases in their hands and conclude that the Vatican offices are teeming with employees, all of whom are priests. This impression is far from reality. About 5,000 people work in the various congregations and related services. Around 900 of them are priests or nuns, mostly priests. The rest are laypeople. 

These laypeople by and large are married and with families. They work normal workdays. They have the benefits customarily given employees in all businesses and operations in the developed world, such as health care for themselves and their families, paid vacations and pensions. 

Actually, not all the congregations and offices are located within the territory of the Vatican City State. They are located throughout Rome. 

The presumption that enormous numbers of priests and nuns work in the Vatican, running a vast empire, especially amused me when I was a priest in Nashville, Tenn., which is the administrative headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists often criticize the Catholic Church for being excessively, even tyrannically, centralized, top-heavy with an immense clerical bureaucracy in which everyone lives off the fat of the land. 

More than a few Baptists were surprised to learn that their headquarters hired more than twice as many employees as the Vatican had on its payroll! 

Closely connected with, although technically not part of, the Roman Curia are the men and women in the Holy See’s diplomatic service. This service maintains embassies, or nunciatures, in 180 countries through which popes deal with local bishops and foreign governments. 

The arrangement is reciprocal. The governments of these 180 sovereign nations have their own embassies to the Holy See — not to the Vatican. They are not sent just to conduct business with the Vatican City State, but with the pope himself. The pope also has envoys at the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and other international bodies, at these bodies’ requests. 

(The United States has an embassy to the pope, although the ambassador position has been vacant since Miguel Diaz resigned the post in November. The appointment of a new ambassador is expected soon.) 

Recent tales of skullduggery in the Curia have made for juicy reports in the media. The people in the Curia are not perfect. They are humans, make mistakes and sin. Still, after working in the Catholic press for many years, and after meeting very many Curia employees, my assessment is that overwhelmingly they are a very decent group of people working to spread the Gospel. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.

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