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Tom Reese has a plan....

...maybe he should be asked to implement it. He lays it out at the NCR as Pope Francis prepares to meet the committee of eight (Octogang?), makes some important distinctions between managing and reforming, and hints at how precarious this effort looks--at least for now.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Suppose that Pope Francis does remove the cardinals and bishops from the Curia.  What could he do with them?  Send them back home?   To do what? Hmmmmm.

Last Saturday and this Tuesday, Pope Francis re-confirmed several cardinals and archbishops in their current Curial positions. As well, he brought two new archbishops into the Vatican system. How many archbishops there are in Rome is like trying to pin down the number of colonels in the Pentagon.


I would propose that only non-bishops be appointed cardinals.   Cardinals, the people who select the pope, should be selected from priests, religious and lay people. Someone who served as a bishop would not be eligible.  This way, you separate the management function from the governance function. 

Reese's proposals certainly are thought-provoking.  A couple of responses:

* His vision of what consistutes better management strikes me as curiously truncated.  I don't disagree with him that the financial and administrative sections that he names need to be included in a program of management reform.  But I would also think that management reform would be helpful in various dicasteries.  Certainly, more urgency in resolving cases of accused sex abusers is at the top of the list.  A management reform of the CDF would be necessary to accomplish this.  Liturgically, a reform of how translation submissions from national conferences is necessary, which would seem to call for a management reform of the CDW.

* I am not as sanguine as he apparently is that putting more responsibility in the hands of diocesan bishops, at the expense of curial officials, will result in a better-functioning church.  At the risk of being too cynical, it just seems to me that diocesan bishops are subject to all of the same temptations that curial officials are - and are farther away from the one guy in the church, Pope Francis, who can whack them upside the head when they stray.  (For evidence of the fallibility of diocesan bishops, cf the sex abuse crises).   It may be Reese's sense that, at this time, the diocesan bishops as a whole are a stronger and better group than the curial officials as a whole.  But to borrow one of his points: what is true today may not be true tomorrow.  Reese doesn't really articulate why it *must* be the case that the diocesan bishops always will be better at governing the church.

* Related to the previous point: he glosses "subsidiarity" as "decentralization" (sort of like Paul Ryan has done, on a different topic :-)).  As we've discussed here at dotCom a number of times, "subsidiarity" has a richer meaning that doesn't always reduce to further decentralization.  I expect that Reese's belief is that decentralization really is necessary to achieve optimal subsidiarity in church governance, and I don't say he's wrong about that.  But it does require some discernment.  


Our men's Vespers Group (including former Jesuit seminarians and other clergy) were quite enthused at our initial reading of the iterview. Yet, it does need to be balanced with the commentaries of Mary Hunt and Jamie Manson. Their reflections are relevant and not simply cold water thrown at an encouraging moment for all of us. Coupled with his appaent  approval of the excommunication of the Australian cleric whose apparently grievous offense was promotion women's ordination, these concerns are not to be dimissed.

As with so many, we welcomed the style that Pope Francis is conveying and his prioritzation of issues and values, but substantive reform and re-examation of the "role of women" (sic) is still a work that is to be begun.

How many archbishops there are in Rome is like trying to pin down the number of colonels in the Pentagon.

Hang out in St. Peter's Square during any Really Big Show and, if you are a cleric below the rank of Cardinal (Really Big Bird?) you are ignored and carry your own bags.

There is indeed a paradigmatic shift that needs to occurr at the Vatican. Too often subsidiarity is interpreted as delegated leadership as opposed to distributive leadership. Delegated leadership means that you control what the decisions will be and retain the right to take certain decisions back to the executive (in this instance the pope and curia). Distributive leadership is far different. It assumes that those synods and bishops have competence in their area and their judgement is defferred to and respected.

We need only look at the translation issue as an example of what "delegated" leadership looks like. A distributed model would leave the decision around translations to English speaking bishop conferences.

I am not convinced that Rome will ever voluntarily remove from themselves authority especially when they are convinced that this is "divinely inspired". Hence reform will always be stylistic but not substantive.

George D. ==

Do you know of any other instance in recent times in which the Curia has in fact usurped the power of the local bishops to give the final approval to liturgical translations?  (It is my understanding that V II itself defined that power as being the local bishops.)   I also don't understand how the local bishops (and not just the English ones) let the Curia get away with it, given that the bishops are the Curia's main source of money.  In most organiztions the ultimate powers that be, i.e., the policy makers, are usually those who hold of the purse strings.

How does the Curia maintain its power?  If the press can be trusted at all, the Curia even bosses the popes around more than a little bit, often by appealing to canon law, but popes are absolute monarchs so they should be able to fix whaever laws need fixing.

Tom Reese's suggested reforms:


  • Stop making Vatican officials bishops or cardinals
  • Remove all curial officials from the committees (congregations and councils) that oversee curial offices and replace them with diocesan cardinals and bishops nominated by the synod of bishops and/or bishops' conferences
  • Remove all curial officials from the synod of bishops and have it meet at least once every five years

Not bad - but only to get things started.  Papa Giovanni [23rd] once famously responded when asked how many people worked in the Vatican said: "Oh, about half." 

Perfectly understandable that Tom Reese would promote these kind of reforms - I'm not faulting him for trying to get the debate started.  Unfortunately, these reforms would not go far enough to meet the critical needs of the historical moment.  

The biggest problem with what Tom Reese suggests is that these are clerical solutions and remedies don't begin to touch the underlying problem:  The clerics of the Roman Church, as a class or caste, are hopelessly alienated and dangerously irrelevant to the lives of most Catholics and Christians.

Catholics need much more radical reforms of the Vatican.  I believe it woud be a good idea that all the clerics -cardinals, bishops, priests - that presently "work" - if you call it that - in the Vatican should be sent to their home dioceses to begin doing somekind of pastoral service.  At a minimum, it would help with the so-called priest shortage.  [Granted, most of these guys would probably be lousy at parish work - not people ready priests at all - yet they could start with refresher courses in seminaries all over the world.]

My suggestion would be for each diocese from around the world recruit one married woman and one married man to go to Rome to serve in the Vatican curia.  I believe that they would have to be at a minimum as good, if not better, at those curial jobs as the clerics have been.  

Given the ditch into which the clerics have driven the church over the last four decades, these women and men would not be any worse than what we got now!  

The turn-over would be healthy for the church bringing new blood, new ideas to the internal operations of the church.  Each culture in which the church serves would be represented.  I have to believe that women and men who have to support their families through their new jobs would be as conscientious and dedicated as any priests to the mission of the church.

After a certain number of years of service in Rome, these men and women could return with their families to their home countries where they could share their newly acquired sense of the ministry of the universal church, causing concentric circles of good effect across the entire globe.

Jim P - agree with your observations about diocesan bishops = curial archbishops.  But, the difference would be that episcopal conferences would be in the primary positon and the curia would serve them (not the other way around); and conferences hopefully would function such that no one diocesan bishop would dictate policies, decision making, etc.  (prime example - you have Pell in a very important position but his own colleagues in Australia have never (and will never) elect him as head of the Australian Episcopal Conference.

Echo John Page - just like not naming monsignors; by stopping the current practice of making curial officers archbishops, cardinals, might be an improvement.

Another suggestion - not every curial department needs to be in Rome;  locate some in other parts of the world. 

His four key departments - finance, fundraising, bank, Vatican - get all clerics out of those positions and appoint a balanced team of men and women.

(John Page - am reminded of John O'Malley's description as Trent was convened.....there were about 50+ bishops in Germany, France, Spain but 200+ bishops stationed in or near the Vatican so that benefices, payments, bribes, etc. could be used to reinforce papal power.

Hi Ann:

I am not really plugged in to all those political currents but I do recall where the Vatican revised the Dallas charter overwhelmingly passed by American bishops in response to abuse crisis.

I am not sure what accounts for the whole move to upward delegation. In some ways, it seems a natural response. Maybe evolutionarily, we are hardwired for being led by the alpha's of our pack. Almost imperceptibly, power begins to be centralized and localized in a single figure; whether pope, president, prime minister, CEO, etc.

However, and this is an important however, leadership must be wise (wise as serpents) and astute. It needs to see these trends and somehow resist the temptation to act when it has the power, actual or implied, to do so. I think Paul VI is an underrated Pope in this regard. He utilized bishops conferences and by instinct believed in distributed power in that sense. But the structure is so deeply entrenched that it penetrates the consciousness of most Catholics.

Consider the attention given to this single interview in a magazine. It is almost as if we are a primitive tribe listening to the great white father speak.

I think that this pope, being a Jesuit, intuitively understands styles and symbols in the way JP II understood the power of images. Again, being a Jesuit, his is going to intuitively lean towards the ultra-montane spectrum.

But it is hard being pope! Just in reading him, I suspect that Benedict XVI grasped all of this intellectually in a way that I am not sure Francis does. But Benedict (I think) ironically had a more gentle temperment than Francis and was less willing to act decisivily in a the inner world of Vatican life. Francis might act decisivley albeit subtly but he does not have a democratic vision. Pastoral vision is great but organizationally I am not sure he is a systems thinker. Just my observations from afar and not even sure of the accuracy....just a gut feeling based on listening and watching.


George - i am intrigued by your intuition that Francis might lean toward the ultramontane and may lack a democratic vision.  All of us are reading the stars to a large extent and trying to guess how they'll align, but I am curious what signs have led you in this direction.  I confess I haven't seen/read/heard anything along those lines, and that my own star-gazing has led me to think that Francis will be at least mildly in favor of greater decentralization, e.g. hasn't he talked of reforming the system of synods?  (Or perhaps that is other observers and commenters pouring their own hopes into the still-somewhat-empty vessel of Francis' papacy?)


Pope Francis is still a Jesuit, is he not? Tom Reese suggests in his report that Francis follow the General's advice on taking a vacation. Perhaps that signifies nothing about F's relationship to the Jesuits. However, we Amer/Canadians are used to finding the Jesuits more or less liberal, more or less anti-authoritairan. And I suppose most are, until they're not. I have known Jesuits who have abided by the requests/commands of their superiors, nothwithstanding their own views or inclinations. Francis is a Latino Jesuit; is that culture different than that of U.S. Jesuits. Probably to some extent. The Jesuits are, after all, a military order.

We shall see what he does.

Pope Francis is still a Jesuit, is he not?


BINGO. Not being anti-Jesuit but they do come by certain aspects of their character honestly!!

George D. --

Thanks  Yes, that Dallas charter revision would qualify as a usurpation, I think.

As to Francis' mode of leadership, I've read more than once that he consults before making a decision, then makes up his own mind and sticks to that decision.  Surely, his retention of the bishop accused of sexual misbehavior (Ricca?)  and the woman (Chaoui?) who helped the Vatileaks journalist would bear this out.  Hmmm,  Not good.  And I agree that there is a part of human nature that *wants* a dictator in charge.

As to his (still?) being a Jesuit, the thought doesn't encourage me, mainly because the Jesuits have historically had the interests of the males of our species at the heart of their mission.  Girls need not apply at Jesuit schools until very recently.  This indicates a certain blindness or at lest disinterest in half the human race on their part.  But I suspect that Francis himslef actually likes women, including strong ones.  See, for instance, his body language with the president of Argentina.  There was mutual respect there, I think.  And, as Ms. S. points out, there are Jesuits and Jesuits.  Even within one group the differences among them can be major -- see the Jesuits in Spain, for instance.

I think that indications so far are that Francis will widen the *consultative* powers of the bishops.  But I'm not at all sure how much *decision-making* power they'll have, even about matters affecting only their own dioceses.  Until that happens, the Church won't be truly reformed.

 But I know next to nothing about the theology of the bishops.  In the early Church how much decision-making power did they have?  And what does Scripture tell us about the bishops' powers?  (I tend to think that Francis is a particularly brilliant man, smarter even than Benedict.  Whatever he decides will, no doubt, be backed up by some strong theology.)

Thomas von Mitschke-Collande, a German consultant with McKinsey, has been engaged to consult with the G-8. This is an edited version from London’s The Tablet of 14 September of an article that first appeared in the leading German Catholic magazine Herder Korrespondenz

“All senior managers should be aware that their time in Rome is limited. Delegating dioceses would be more willing to send their best employees to Rome if they were guaranteed that they would have them at their disposal again after five years. In any event, a prerequisite for appointing clergy to high-level offices in the Curia should be several years of pastoral experience.

“All these reforms could help achieve an overall change in mindset. The individual’s hope in life can no longer be to have a successful career in the Curia but rather to serve the Universal Church, in the course of which the Vatican is only a temporary station. A code of conduct for these officials would also enhance the Vatican’s credibility, as would a compliance department, directly subordinate to the Holy Father. Confidentiality, incorruptibility, irreproachable lifestyle, no acceptance of monetary or other benefits – not even from one’s own delegating diocese or any other organisation – all these are vital for those who work in the Vatican.

“There are many old and obsolete structures; we must renew them,” said Pope Francis in a sermon in July. “Falsely understood tradition is loyalty to ashes,” he declared in another context. A lot of ash that has settled on the Vatican needs to be blown away to allow the embers to blaze again visibly and credibly into the twenty-first century.”

von Mitschke-Collande also had this to say about the laity and, more interestingly, about women:

“A critical issue is whether the assignment of a cleric is really the best appointment, or whether a qualified layperson would be more suitable for a particular post. If the Church is to be less clerical, then the proportion of lay people should be significantly increased – and include many more women in leadership positions. Could not the IOR be led, for example, by an internationally recognised female banker?“


Thanks for the Mitschke-Collande quotes, JIm P.  Wise man.  I particularly like:

:A code of conduct for these officials would also enhance the Vatican’s credibility, as would a compliance department, directly subordinate to the Holy Father."

But the usual question arises -- who would judge the judges?  

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