Pope Francis reform of the Curia is gradual not be decree, reflects his synodal approach, adheres to tradition while also introducing some innovation and simplification

By Massimo Fagioli, LaCroix, 5 Feb 2018

This reform of the Curia is a work in progress. “It seems premature to identify the timing for the publication of the new apostolic constitution concerning the Roman Curia,” says Bishop Semeraro. And he adds this important qualifier: “This is also connected, and not secondarily, to the pope’s way of understanding the reform.”

Semeraro outlines several key principles that are guiding Francis’ reform of the Curia. They include the principle of gradualism of discernment and experimentations (flexibility); the principle of tradition as fidelity to history (no drastic changes); the principle of innovation(for example, the new dicastery for communication, created between 2015 and 2017); the principle of simplification (merging of dicasteries, but also decentralization).

In his article the C9 secretary shows that Francis’ view of the church, the papacy and the Roman Curia are tightly connected. The Curia exists not only to transmit messages to the rest of the church but also to receive messages from a synodal Church. It exists for a Catholic Church not in retreat but in the world according to the pastoral constitution of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes.

**

By Massimo Fagioli in La Croix, 5 Feb 2018

The central government of the Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Curia, is an enigmatic institution. It is more criticized than actually understood.

Its mysteriousness is due, in part, to the fact that we known only bits and pieces of its complex and very long history. It is also due to its weak theological foundations, which has forced church leaders, theologians and ecclesiologists to employ complex arguments in order to explain and justify its existence.

But the Roman Curia is not a monstrosity. It is not a deviation from the church’s concept of governing and leading the community of the faithful during its history in the West. Significantly, all the popes of the last century — from Pius X to Benedict XVI — confronted the problem of governance and Curia reform. And the way each of them addressed the issue of the Curia was indicative of other key aspects of their pontificates.

For instance, Paul VI re-centered the Curia around the Secretariat of State in 1967, which was consistent with his top-down application of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). For his part, John Paul II strengthened the legislative and administrative powers of the Curia, which corresponded to his relationship with the local churches and the episcopate. While Benedict XVI, a typical post-Vatican II Catholic academic theologian who saw in the Curia an object lacking theological substance, never really tried a comprehensive overhaul of the central government of the Catholic Church.

We now have a similar situation with Pope Francis. Important aspects of his pontificate can be better understood by looking at what he is doing (and not doing) with regard to the Roman Curia. Here it is important to know that several days ago it was revealed that the pope will not be publishing a new apostolic constitution for a reformed Roman Curia anytime soon. That is despite repeated promises dating back to 2013 that a new charter would be drafted to replace the one John Paul II issued in 1988, Pastor Bonus.

The revelation that there will not be a new apostolic constitution came from a news-making article by Bishop Marcello Semeraro, an Italian who serves as secretary of the pope’s council of nine cardinal advisors (C9). In this long article, which was published in the Bologna-based Catholic magazine Il Regno, Semeraro traces the steps Francis has taken so far to reform some aspects of the Curia (for example, his creation of the Third Section of the Secretariat of State in November 2017).  But most importantly he tells us what pope’s reform of the Curia is not going to be, despite the expectations many Catholics have held since Francis’ election almost five years ago.

First of all, the reform will not create the new position of a moderator Curiae, a sort of chief administrator of all the offices because, according to Semeraro, “the analogy between the Roman Curia and the diocesan curia is not appropriate”. Instead, a newly created section in the Secretariat of State will handle the human resources of the Curia.

Secondly, the C9 is not just overseeing the reform of the Curia. It is also handles other important issues upon request of the pope, which is the Francis often operates to bypass the various curial offices and congregations when he deems it opportune.

Thirdly, this reform of the Curia is a work in progress. “It seems premature to identify the timing for the publication of the new apostolic constitution concerning the Roman Curia,” says Bishop Semeraro. And he adds this important qualifier: “This is also connected, and not secondarily, to the pope’s way of understanding the reform.”

Semeraro outlines several key principles that are guiding Francis’ reform of the Curia. They include the principle of gradualism of discernment and experimentations (flexibility); the principle of tradition as fidelity to history (no drastic changes); the principle of innovation(for example, the new dicastery for communication, created between 2015 and 2017); the principle of simplification (merging of dicasteries, but also decentralization).

In his article the C9 secretary shows that Francis’ view of the church, the papacy and the Roman Curia are tightly connected. The Curia exists not only to transmit messages to the rest of the church but also to receive messages from a synodal Church. It exists for a Catholic Church not in retreat but in the world according to the pastoral constitution of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes.

Furthermore, the Curia’s existence is vital for a church that counts on the Roman genius; that is, the aspiration of Rome to be the synthesis and the point of encounter between the universal-international dimension of the church and the local-particular (which means a more relevant role for papal diplomacy today than in the past).

These are important insights not just for understanding Pope Francis’ reform of the Curia, but also his entire pontificate. The pope takes seriously Yves Congar’s idea of reform — the primacy of charity and of pastorality; the preservation of communion; patience and respect for delays; and renewal through a return to the principle of tradition.

This is good news from a theological point of view. There is, I believe, no real alternative to Congar’s proposal for a church reform except one that leads to a schism. But from the view of current ecclesial politics the issue is much more complicated. Congar’s idea of church reform can be frustrating for those who have lost the patience the French theologian invoked fifty years ago.

Many Catholics expected that Francis would have already implemented a visible institutional reform of the Curia after five years in office. But the pope does not believe in bureaucratic overhaul. This distinguishes him from the two notable predecessors that are theologically closer to him — John XXIII, who announced plans for Vatican II in 1959 just less than three months after his election; and Paul VI, who reformed the Curia four years after his election with the 1967 apostolic constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universae.

Despite the hopes of liberals and the fears of status-quo conservatives, Pope Francis is not governing by decree, not even the Curia. This is despite a tradition of popes dealing with their bureaucracy in a Weberian legal-rational and ultimately “functionalistic” approach. The Vatican II idea of reform has not been immune to modern rational-bureaucratic functionalism (for example, the innovation of the retirement age of 75 for bishops).

But Francis has a more theological and less bureaucratic idea of reform. He does not separate his ecclesiology from they way he views the problem of the Roman Curia. For him, reform is, first of all, movement, and not just structural change of the institutions. It is a change of mentality, which does not begin with a change in the law. It is a decentralization, which means that the “peripheries” have to take more responsibilities. It is part of the path towards a more collegial and synodal church, which is safeguarded through the universal role of the Bishop of Rome.

The delay sine die of the apostolic constitution for Francis’ reform of the Curia is not, I believe, a symptom of a fiasco of the C9 or of the pontificate. Rather, it is fully consistent with this pope’s approach to the Roman Curia, which has proved to be different from his predecessors’ since the first days his pontificate.

“It is attractive to think of the Roman Curia as a small-scale model of the church, in other words, as a ‘body’ that strives seriously every day to be more alive, more healthy, more harmonious and more united in itself and with Christ,” Francis told Curia officials in his pre-Christmas gathering with them in 2014.

This passage was noteworthy because a key problem of the Curia has always been the questionable nature of its theological legitimacy, besides its historic institutional and political functions. But in this address Francis tried to describe the Roman Curia as a “small-scale model of the church,” clearly setting aside the fact that it is fundamentally lacking a basis in ecclesiology and disregarding the differences between, for example, the very diverse sociology of the global Church today and the almost-totally clerical sociology of the Curia.

Francis has always offered his diagnosis of the problems of the Roman Curia – especially in the dreaded Christmas addresses to the Vatican officials – with language that defines a spiritual experience rather than one that describes functional mismanagement. His non-functionalist approach to the curia is clearly consistent with his criticism of the “technocratic paradigm” in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’.

This, of course, may end up disappointing those who expect a comprehensive overhaul of the central government of the Catholic Church during his pontificate. With the patience that Congar urged, we will have to wait and see if Francis has enough time for his “reform of the Curia as movement” to really take effect.

Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s