Within a month of his election in March 2013, Pope Francis signaled that curial reform was on his agenda by creating the council of eight cardinals (which in July 2014 grew by one, becoming known as the C9). The council held its first meeting in October 2013, but in the years to follow there was little to suggest that comprehensive reform was on the way. There was the occasional announcement about replacing John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic constitution, Pastor Bonus, but some began to wonder whether curial reform wasn’t as much of a priority as originally thought.
But something may be happening soon, judging from an article in Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno by Bishop Marcello Semeraro, secretary of the C9 and one of only two members from within the curia (Cardinal Pietro Parolin is the other). Semeraro quotes at length from a volume edited by Carlos Maria Galli and Antonio Spadaro, SJ (see my earlier post) while laying out Francis’s vision for the relationship between curial and church reform, discussing the C9’s preparation for it, and looking ahead to what might follow.
For starters, Semeraro cites Yves Congar in affirming that reform should involve an ecclesiological rethinking of the curia, and undertaken with the aim of adapting to new needs in the life of the church. “Pastoral conversion” and “pastorality” of church government, according to Semeraro, will be significant components. This is not new; what is new is an emphasis on decentralization, subsidiarity, and synodality for an evangelizing church.
As to the C9’s preparation for curial reform, it appears there was more going on behind the scenes than realized. In the summer of 2013 and the fall of 2014, there were consultations involving all of the prefects and presidents of curial dicasteries, as well as numerous cardinals, bishops, and representatives of bishops’ conferences, held to solicit advice for a plan of reform. The interesting news (particularly for church historians who will be able to get access to the Vatican archives in the next few decades) is that all of this material now constitutes a special archive the C9 is using to help Pope Francis prepare the apostolic constitution on the new structure of the curia.
And after that? Semeraro doesn’t give a timeline, but he talks clearly about “a new constitution like Pastor Bonus”—not just a revision or an update, but a new constitution. He says that we have already seen some of the fundamental guidelines for Francis’s reform, including greater equality among all the curial dicasteries. This is evident in Francis’s very use of the word “dicastery” when creating new curial institutions; he has departed from the practice of using terms like “congregation” and “council.” Meanwhile, in an effort to simplify and streamline structure, there will likely be fewer dicasteries overall, as some are merged and others abolished. In August, for example, the pontifical councils for Justice and Peace, Cor Unum, Migrants and Travelers, and the Health Care Ministry were all merged into the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The Pontifical Council for the Laity, Pontifical Council for the Family, and the Pontifical Academy for Life were merged in the new Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life.
Then there is Francis’s decision to be personally in charge of certain issues. In the new dicastery on human development, for example, he has put under his personal guidance the section dealing with the care of refugees and migrants: “This section is set for a specified time under the guidance of the Supreme Pontiff, who exercises it in the manner it considers appropriate” (my translation from the Italian). Finally, there is the idea of gradualism: the pope wants to proceed through experiments and tests. For example, the new secretariat for the economy was created with statutes ad experimentum without a three- or five-year deadline for the revision of the statutes; as soon as the need for corrections becomes evident, changes will be made.
I read Semeraro’s article as part-informational, part-reassurance: he announced the forthcoming apostolic constitution and its rationale, and reached out to those in the curia to let them know that reform will be undertaken with them, not against them. Since Vatican II, reassuring the curia has been part of a pope’s playbook. But there are two new elements in this instance. First is Francis’s style of governing the church and talking with the bluntness of the outsider. His colorful speeches to the Curia aside (December 2013, professionalism in the curia; December 2014, the fifteen curial diseases; December 2015, the twelve medicines for the curia), he has generally not governed not against the curia—but he has governed without it. This has meant almost a complete stop in the production of documents by curial dicasteries, a novelty given that for some time (especially under John Paul II) the key to a curial career was to work according to the maxim “publish or parish” (publish documents supporting the pontificate’s theology or go back to a parish or a diocese).
Second is Francis’s theological and ecclesiological vision for curial reform. This seems to be the first time in the post-Vatican II period that a pope receives the ecclesiology of Vatican II and expands it in the sense of synodality (which is a step beyond episcopal collegiality) and of decentralization.
Despite expressions of concern (especially in the United States) that Francis is risking church unity, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is no revolutionary. Characteristic of his style of governing is his strategy of appointing new cardinals from the local churches of the universal church, as evidenced by the creation of seventeen new cardinals on October 9. Fewer came from the curia, Italy, and Europe overall, while more are from Africa and Asia. Four are over the age of eighty, and therefore non-electors; there are no signs that Francis will budge from the limit of one hundred and twenty electors established by Paul VI in 1975 or modify the membership of the conclave. While all his predecessors over the last century instituted some changes in how the conclave is regulated, Francis has yet to do so.
Though the reshaping of the College of Cardinals in order to show the universality of the church is significant, it also has symbolic importance for the long term. The reform of the curia will have to rely on the readiness of the rest of the church, bishops’ conferences first of all. It remains to be seen whether this reform will manage to do what other attempts at reform did not do: change in a fundamental way the structure put in place by pope Sixtus V in 1588.