Curial reform is a matter of course in the Church

From the early days of his pontificate back in March all the way to his recent apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis has made clear his desire to re-examine the inner workings of the Catholic Church, particularly the Roman Curia.

In October, the Council of Cardinals appointed by Pope Francis to help him carry out the reforms to the Curia spoke about the role of the laity in the Church and its relationship with the government of the Church. The body was scheduled to hold its second meeting Dec. 3-5, with another set for February 2014.

“The cardinals have made it clear that they do not intend to make cosmetic retouches or minor modifications,” said Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, on the last day of the Council’s Oct. 1-3 meeting.

Secular journalists sometimes characterize curial reform as something radical or unprecedented, but, in reality, curial reform is nothing new. In fact, since 1900 alone, three popes have undertaken significant reforms.

The origins of the Curia

St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in 107, taught that the Church of Rome “presides in charity,” and St. Irenaeus, who was martyred around 202, wrote that “with this Church, by reason of its pre-eminence, the whole Church, that is the faithful everywhere, must necessarily be in accord.”

In different eras, the bishops of Rome — the popes — have presided in charity and exercised this pre-eminence in different ways. The Latin word “curia” means court or assembly, and in a sense there has been a Roman Curia as long as the popes have had assistants.

Changes over the years

During the first millennium, the popes appointed legates to assist them in governing the Church. At times, legates represented the pope at councils that sought to resolve doctrinal differences; at other times, legates upheld Church discipline and played a leading role in the selection and consecration of bishops.

In addition, the popes convoked Roman synods, allowing the region’s bishops to take part in promoting doctrinal unity and strengthening Church discipline.

By the fifth century, the popes had divided the Roman diocese into regions in which certain priests and deacons known as cardinals had a prominent part; in time, neighboring bishops joined their ranks. Cardinals assisted the pope in celebrating sacred liturgy, managing practical affairs and aiding the poor. Seeking to lessen political pressure on papal elections, Pope Nicholas II in 1059 entrusted the election of future popes to the cardinals.

During subsequent centuries, the College of Cardinals grew greatly in significance as it met regularly to assist the pope in the governance of the Church.

In 1588, a vigorous Franciscan pope, Pope Sixtus V, decided that the governance of the Church would be better served if the College of Cardinals did not have to deliberate on minor matters and if responsibilities were divided. He gave structure to the Roman Curia by establishing 15 permanent congregations, each headed by himself or a cardinal.

Pope Sixtus did so, he wrote, so that the pope “may share the huge mass of business and responsibilities … and by God’s helping grace avoid breaking under the strain.”

The 20th century

In 1908, another vigorous pope, St. Pius X, undertook a major reform of the Roman Curia. Noting that minor changes had been made in the preceding 350 years, St. Pius said that the congregations’ areas of responsibility were no longer obvious or well divided: some congregations were overly burdened, while others conducted little business. He sought to restructure the Curia, he wrote, “in a suitable way that everyone can understand,” so that “the Curia may more easily and effectively lend its help to the Roman Pontiff and the Church.”

St. Pius X decreed that the Curia would consist of 11 congregations, three tribunals and five offices, and he issued a 111-page document that precisely defined their areas of competence. As a result of this reform, congregations ceased to have overlapping responsibilities and no longer had judicial functions.

Three months after his election to the papacy in 1963, Venerable Paul VI — who had spent 32 years working in the Curia — called for its internationalization and modernization in light of changing needs. Some matters, he said, are better handled by local bishops, and some “external forms” are “no longer suitable.”

Citing Pope Paul’s remarks, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council decreed in 1965 that the departments of the Curia, “which have furnished distinguished assistance to the Roman pontiff and the pastors of the Church, [should be] reorganized and better adapted to the needs of the times, regions, and rites, especially as regards their number, name, competence and peculiar method of procedure, as well as the coordination of work among them.”

In 1967, Pope Paul reformed the Curia, outlining the roles of the Secretariat of State, nine congregations, three other secretariats, a council, a pontifical commission, three tribunals and six offices. In doing so, he renamed some of the congregations, allowed bishops who were not cardinals to serve as members, and established organs (such as the Secretariat for Non-Believers) that were more like outreaches than administrative bodies. Five years later, Paul VI created a commission to examine the effectiveness of his reform.

The third pope in recent history to tackle a curial reform was Blessed John Paul II who, in 1988 after extensive consultation, sought to modernize the Curia while emphasizing its character as a servant of the pope in his ministry of “promoting and defending the unity of faith and discipline in the whole Church.”

With Pope John Paul’s reform, the Curia included the Secretariat of State, nine congregations and two associated pontifical commissions, three tribunals, 12 pontifical councils, three administrative services and two other institutes.

Current reforms

In a May interview, a leading official of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, cautioned that “after having spoken with the Holy Father, I can say that at this moment it is absolutely premature to put forward any hypotheses about the future makeup of the Curia.” He told Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that “Pope Francis is listening to everyone, but most of all he wants to listen to those he chose as advisers.”

Nonetheless, Pope Francis has offered hints on what shape his curial reform might take.

In an Aug. 19 interview, he suggested that some of the doctrinal tasks handled by the Curia would be more appropriately entrusted to local bishops’ conferences.

And in an interview published in L’Osservatore Romano on Oct. 9, Pope Francis said that the Curia “has one defect: it is Vatican-centered. It looks after and cares for the Vatican’s interests, which are still to a great extent temporal.

“This Vatican-centered vision ignores the world around it,” he said. “I do not share this vision, and I will do all I can to change it.”

J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.