“His quips and one liners won’t get Pope Francis far in changing the Roman Curia,” a veteran Vatican official told me. “There are certain procedures which worked well in the past. Things have gone downhill recently, but the Vatican is too big to function without procedures, and introducing new ones is not easy.”

Following the theft and publication of documents from Pope Benedict’s study, reports of financial shenanigans and a gay lobby, the cardinals at the conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in large part to clean up the mess.

“We wanted someone with good managerial and leadership skills,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen in July. “But so far that hasn’t been as obvious.” That may become clearer soon. In October, Francis is supposed to hear from an international group of eight cardinals he appointed with a mandate to advise him on nearly all aspects of church governance.

The basic form of the Roman Curia was established late in the sixteenth century to help the pope apply the Council of Trent. It has been reformed several times since, the most important being the reform of Paul VI, a Vatican insider whose top adviser, Msgr. Giovanni Benelli, was a savvy, energetic Curialist. They reshaped the Curia by creating offices for areas of concern such as ecumenism and the laity, which had acquired a new importance at Vatican II.

Francis lacks Paul VI’s Curial expertise, and there is no Benelli in sight. He could need outside help. In a similar situation, John XXIII surprised the Curia by convening the Second Vatican Council in 1962. It was the first time since 1870 that the world’s Catholic bishops were summoned to deliberate church policies, and only the second time since the Council of Trent. The bishops immediately rejected the position papers prepared by the Curia, and, with John XXIII’s support, prepared their own. It was an insult to the men who had decided policies for so long. They evoked the specter of the conciliarism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the claim that councils had greater authority than popes split the church. The bishops at Vatican II, however, saw themselves as heirs of the apostles governing together with the heir of Peter. This resulted in part in the establishment of periodic synods of bishops, which some hoped would govern the church along with the pope. The Curia would be at the bishops’ service.

It didn’t happen that way. Synods produce recommendations the pope may or may not accept. Some bishops say synods are useful for sharing experiences, but many wish they were something more. Still, collegiality has advanced since Vatican II because more diocesan bishops have been included in Vatican congregations (offices) that decide policies.

The Curia has never been well loved. But it has enjoyed a reputation as a cohesive body that dealt effectively with complex global problems. “What I most admire about the Curia,” a French ambassador to the Holy See told me a decade ago, “is that it allows expression of many opinions but then is unified behind the decisions once they are made.”

“It’s remarkable how well the Roman Curia of some three thousand members has served a worldwide church of 1.2 billion believers although it has limited means,” said Norman Tanner, an English Jesuit professor of church history at the Gregorian University in Rome. “In comparison with the vast civil services of the central governments of the United States or Russia or India, this is a small number. Nevertheless it would be a mistake to turn a blind eye to sinfulness and mismanagement; good reforms are always welcome.”

How did such a well-regarded bureaucracy come to reproduce the murkiest aspects of Italian politics? The Curia suffered financial scandals and other blunders in the past but they received less media attention. The sexual-abuse scandal changed that. What’s more, many Curialists are demoralized because the past two popes largely ignored them. Before Vatican II, the Curia had real powers. The heads of the five major Curial offices, known as the “Pentagon,” were like feudal lords whose collective power counterbalanced that of the monarch. John XXIII changed the game when he brought the world’s bishops to Rome and then backed them against the Curia’s agenda.

From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II made it clear that he would not be managed by the Curia. One of his first acts was to visit a sick friend in a Roman hospital. As the papal party was leaving, he talked at length with one of the nurses. Eventually a papal aide intervened: “The Holy Father has to leave for another engagement,” he said. “The Holy Father will decide himself when he leaves,” John Paul replied.

Soon Curialists would learn of John Paul’s decisions when he announced them from his study window at the Angelus. To a large extent, he left the Curia to its own devices while he acted on the world stage. And so the Curia did as it pleased during his long decline from Parkinson’s disease.

Before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger served in the Curia for a quarter of a century, but was never of it. He ran his own show, as if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was the “Supreme Congregation,” as in the past. He was elected pope in part because some cardinals wanted an insider to clean up the Curia. To some extent he tried. For example, he instituted external controls on the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR)—the so-called Vatican Bank. But his reforms failed to go far enough, and his successor has inherited the mess. He also strengthened Vatican policies on sexually abusive priests.

But for Benedict the church is the search for beauty and truth. He never saw the relevance of the Vatican diplomatic corps, with its inevitable compromises. He refused to grant Vatican ambassadors (nuncios) their traditional audiences when they visited Rome. He further upset them by appointing his collaborator Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as secretary of state, rather than a nuncio. Bertone lacked diplomatic experience—and English. Bertone had been promoted beyond his competence, yet he threw his weight around as if Benedict had decided to concentrate on intellectual issues while leaving Bertone a free hand with administrative matters. Many Curialists were disgruntled—Bertone’s appointment was more proof that popes no longer deemed them important.

Benedict XVI spent his pontificate campaigning against relativism, but then he relativized the papacy by stepping down because he lacked the energy to reform the Curia. He left the task to his successor.

Francis’s decision to live in the Santa Marta hostel rather than the papal apartments is significant because he shares the hostel with lower-grade Curial employees and visiting clergy. In the papal apartments one grants audiences, in Santa Marta one meets people. In the papal apartments others would have controlled who had access to him. At the Santa Marta he handles his own schedule—he doesn’t even leave it to a secretary.

Some Curialists are unenthusiastic about Francis, but console themselves with the conviction that popes come and go but the Curia lasts forever. They cast a cold eye on Francis’s habit of kissing babies like a politician. They have little patience for his “low church” liturgical style. They think Francis was rude to call Benedict—less than ten years his senior—“nonno,” grandfather. Why couldn’t Francis show up for a concert in his honor, instead of leaving Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the office for Evangelization, to make an embarrassed apology while standing near the empty papal chair? And why has Francis been so evasive about contentious issues? When he spoke to a group of French Catholics, he failed to mention France’s pro-gay-marriage legislation, even though their coreligionists are leading the campaign against it. For these critics, the Jesus Christ Superstar-style of swaying, arm-waving bishops at a World Youth Day liturgy was a last straw.

Bishops are supposed to offer their best men for service in the Curia, but not all are willing to do so. Sometimes it serves as a dumping ground for those not wanted in their diocese. The most dedicated Curialists make a religion of work, but without engaging in pastoral work, their jobs can prove soul-destroying. They can get lonely. There is no Curialists’ club: Italians can avoid the problem by bringing family members with them to Rome, but foreign priests don’t have that luxury. The American Cardinal John Wright was surprised by the formality. He tried pantomiming some mock-solemn gestures with the doormen of his office, but a playful cardinal was outside their ken.

When it comes to the Curia, Francis has played his cards close to his vest. It’s not clear whether he wants to enact a large-scale reform, or nibble around the edges. On Saturday he made what could be a decisive appointment: Archbishop Pietro Parolin will replace Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as secretary of state in October. Parolin was a Vatican representative in Nigeria and Mexico before his current post as the nuncio in Venezuela. He has also been a negotiator with Vietnam and China. Born in the Italian region of Veneto, with a degree in canon law from the Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome, he has a reputation as a skilled diplomat able to mediate with both governments and local churches. At fifty-eight, he is the youngest secretary of state since Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII), who was appointed at the age of fifty-four.

Benedict XVI gave top priority to financial reform, and so has Francis. After the Italian authorities accused the IOR of being involved in money-laundering, the Vatican replaced key staff. It even accepted outside checks by the European anti-money-laundering agency Moneyvals. Eventually the IOR director and his deputy resigned, and another key figure at IOR, Msgr. Nunzio Scarano, was imprisoned before trial. Asked about Scarano on the return flight from World Youth Day in Brazil, Francs referred to Imelda, a fourteenth- century Italian child who died in ecstasy after receiving the Eucharist. “Do you think he ended up in prison because he was like the Blessed Imelda?” said Francis ironically. “It’s a scandal. It hurts.”

At present the secretary of state is handling routine work, but Francis has his own secretariat, composed mainly of Argentinians and Italians, who work on the second floor of the Santa Marta hostel. They have been responsible for two key decisions designed to achieve greater transparency at IOR. Francis liked the manager of the hostel where he stayed before his election, the Italian Msgr, Battista Ricca. He made Ricca his personal representative at the Vatican Bank. Then the journalist Sandro Magister of the Roman weekly L’Espresso reported that Ricca had engaged in outrageous homosexual behavior while serving in Uruguay. Magister supplied the name of Ricca’s alleged lover, described his cruising for men in Buenos Aires, and claimed that the Vatican had received complaints about Ricca from Montevideo. As far as I know, no action has been taken against Magister for libel.

This embarrassed Francis. He must have looked at Ricca’s file before he appointed him to the IOR. Had the alleged reports from Montevideo been removed beforehand? As of this writing, Ricca remains at the IOR. Asked about Ricca on the return flight from Rio, Francis said he had investigated the case and found none of the accusations true. Talking more generally, he said that often people commit sins that are later held against them, which is unfair if they repent. He added that he wasn’t talking about matters such as child abuse. Perhaps he had Ricca in mind when, answering a question about a gay lobby in the Vatican, he said, “If a gay person is in eager search for God, who am I to judge them?… Being gay is not the problem, lobbying is.”

On July 18, Francis’s mini-Curia took another step to reform the Vatican Bank. They appointed eight people to a new commission to reorganize the Vatican’s economic-administrative offices. Sandro Magister, while maintaining his accusations about Ricca, struck again, claiming that the commission’s thirty-year-old communications expert, the Calabrian-Maroccan Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, has close connections with Gianfranco Nuzzi, who wrote the best-seller about the documents stolen from Benedict XVI. Magister also claimed she is an informant of a scandal-mongering Italian website. Before shutting down her Twitter account, Chaouqui allegedly called Cardinal Bertone “corrupt.” Magister sometimes varies his weekly column on the Vatican with reports from an anonymous insider. Is an insider feeding him information to embarrass Francis?

Of course, finding the right staff is but one of the many problems Francis faces in reforming the Curia. Some have suggested declericalizing the Curia. At present, bishops must hold the top positions in Curial offices—even if more competent laypeople work below them. And only bishops are allowed to lead Vatican congregations. Why not end that practice? What’s more, Francis could begin making short-term appointments to prevent Curial ossification.

Francis’s conception of his office may be another challenge. He emphasizes that he is the bishop of Rome rather than the pope, perhaps to diminish papolatry. Theologically, the bishop of Rome is pope, not the other way around. But being bishop of Rome is not quite the same as being bishop of Buenos Aires. For one thing, the bishop of Rome has a vicar for the Diocese of Rome who has his own staff at the cathedral, St. John Lateran. Moreover, all the world’s bishops are unified by being in communion with the bishop of Rome, who is called pope. He has a universal dimension.

A key aspect of that universality is the Vatican diplomatic corps. For a long time, diplomats headed many Curial offices. But Francis began giving priority to the pastoral, telling nuncios they must find the best men to recommend as bishops. But nuncios have other important tasks. Vatican diplomats keep Rome informed about the world around it. Without their intelligence, how will the Vatican know how to deal with other governments, especially in places where the church is constrained, such as China? The appointment of Pietro Parolin as secretary of state should do much to correct the balance and serve as a reminder that, at its best, diplomacy holds pastoral significance.

Francis is shrewd, energetic, skilled at reducing tensions, and unafraid of making decisions. But it seems Cardinal Dolan will have to be patient while the church waits to see whether the Curia is one of the problems Francis can solve.


Desmond O’Grady, an author and journalist, has been Vatican correspondent for the Washington Post, the National Catholic Reporter, and the (London) Tablet.
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