True and false reform of the Roman Curia

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The blueprint for a major reorganization of the Roman Curia is ready. And Pope Francis on Monday called together all the current heads of the Vatican's major offices (the nine congregations, three tribunals, 12 pontifical councils and several other bureaus) to explain the plan, get their reactions and hear their suggestions.

But if reports on the reform scheme are correct, the pope has already decided that several of the councils established after the Second Vatican Council will be merged into major congregations. Specifically, these are the various offices dealing with the laity and others focusing on human development and social justice.

According to the Spanish news site Religión Digital, the pope wants to simplify and reduce the number of Vatican offices and establish a "council of ministers." An article over the weekend said this council would be made up of the heads of 12 congregations: nine that already exist and three more that will be newly created (laity, justice and communications).

But Francis does not want merely to streamline the Vatican's bureaucracy and make it more efficient; he also wants to instill a new mentality based on service, synodality, better collaboration and interoffice communication, and respect for local bishops. He's also hoping to drive a stake through the heart of careerism and eliminate what he's defined as the "cancer" of clericalism.

The Jesuit pope also made the first moves to pave the way for the reform on Monday by appointing Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, 69, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. A Vatican official since 2001, he has spent the past four years as president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, one of those post-Vatican II offices that is to be folded into a newly created congregation for charity and justice. Religión Digital claimed three other councils -- those for migrants, health care, and justice and peace -- will also be part of this new congregation.

It is likely the prefect of the new charity and justice dicastery would be Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, 66, currently president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The head of migrants, Cardinal Antonio Maria Vegliò, 76, will be retired. And Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, the 65-year-old president of the health care office, is likely to be named head of a diocese in his native Poland or become the secretary of the new congregation.

A new congregation for the laity is also part of the reform. It is an idea Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the coordinator of the pope's Council of Cardinals, already suggested more than a year ago. The cardinal, who will be 72 next month, is rumored to be in line to become the first prefect of the new congregation. It would include separate bureaus for youth (headed by a priest), women (headed by a woman) and the family (headed by a married couple).

Once Lord Christopher Patten and his commission are finished with their review of various media and communications departments at the Vatican (radio, television, newspaper, press office, etc.), it is expected that a third congregation or a secretariat will be established to oversee and coordinate all these branches.

The recent Religión Digital article said Pope Francis is also hoping to reduce the number of bishops and cardinals working at the Vatican while increasing the number of laypeople. This would be a welcomed development.

A few thoughts as we wait to see how much of this plan actually comes to fruition in the next months.

First of all, no elimination or merging of offices will make a significant difference if the "curialist" mentality is not severely curbed and corrected. Francis is the first pope in history to have served as president of a national episcopal conference. (Note: Conferences as we have today only began to take shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) As conference president and also as a cardinal archbishop and head of a major diocese, he has experienced firsthand the obstruction, lack of cooperation and attitude of superiority that some Curia heads have used to keep local bishops in check.

The only way to put this right is by adopting the clear principle of separating the executive office from the managing office. The bishop of Rome and other diocesan bishops (in their local churches and in episcopal conferences) are the executives. Heads and officials of Roman Curia offices are managers. They work for the pope and the local bishops, not the other way around. A big part of this is respecting the rightful autonomy and authority of local bishops that they are employed to serve and assist. In his reform plan, Pope Francis reportedly insisted that Rome must do better in this regard.

Second, protocols must be implemented that will help curtail clerical "careerism." One way to do this is by sticking to the five-year term limits in all but a few exceptions. The pope has already stopped granting the title of "monsignor" to diocesan priests under the age of 65. He might consider applying the same rule to those priests working in the Roman Curia and the diplomatic corps. And, it bears repeating, it would be better if someone appointed to head a Vatican office did not automatically become a bishop or a cardinal.

Finally, a word about Pope Francis' appointment of Sarah to be prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. The position was left vacant for just a few days short of three months, an unprecedented length of time. Why the pope was so slow to fill the slot is anyone's guess. Proponents of the so-called "reform of the reform" (that is, those that reject the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms and want to redo them) are likely delighted with the choice of new prefect, someone who has shown a mild interest in their project and the Tridentine Mass. Catholics who espouse the Vatican II liturgy are surely deeply disappointed with the appointment.

Pope Francis, rightly or wrongly, likely sees Sarah as someone who spans the ideological divide that separates the extremes on both sides. And in naming him to the post, Francis hopes to decrease the heat that has long engulfed the liturgical debates. But if he also hopes to decentralize Vatican control over local churches -- as he has said on a number of occasions and in his apostolic exhortation,Evangelii Gaudium -- then it is likely he will redefine the competencies and duties of the Congregation for Divine Worship. And that could leave those who are celebrating today -- not only in liturgy, but also in all areas -- less than delighted tomorrow.

Robert Mickens; National Catholic Reporter; 24 November 2014

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]