Can the Roman Curia be Reformed? – Leonardo Boff

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The Roman Curia consists of all the organs within the 44 hectares surrounding Saint Peter's Basilica that assist the Pope in governing the Church. There are just over three thousand functionaries. It began small, in the XII century, but in 1588 it was transformed by Pope Sixtus V into a body of experts, created especially to confront the reformers; Luther, Calvin and others. Paul VI, in 1967, and Pope John Paul II, in 1998, tried in vain to reform it.

Is considered to be one of the most conservative governmental administrations in the world, and is so powerful that in practice it delayed, filed away and annulled the changes introduced by the two previous popes, and blocked the progressive line of Vatican Council II, (1962-1965).

It continues undetered, as if it worked not for the times but for eternity. However, the moral and financial scandals that took place within its confines have been of such magnitude that a cry has arisen from all the Church, requesting that the new Pope Francis undertake to reform it as one of his missions. As Giancarlo Zizola, the prince of the specialist on the Vatican, sadly now gone, wrote: «four centuries of counter-reformation have nearly extinguished the revolutionary chromosome of the original Christianity, as the Church established herself as a counterrevolutionary organism» (Quale Papa, 1977, page 278).  It rejects everything that is new. In a February 22, 1975 speech to the members of the Curia, Pope Paul VI went as far as to accuse the Roman Curia of having «an attitude of superiority and pride towards the Episcopal College and the People of God».

Will Pope Francis succeed in transforming the Curia, combining Franciscan sensibility with Jesuit rigor? He has wisely surrounded himself with eight experienced Cardinals, from every continent, to work with him to realize this colossal task, and the purges that necessarily must be realized.

Behind all this there is a historic-theological problem that greatly hinders the reform of the Curia. It is expressed by two contradictory visions. The first comes from the fact that, after the 1870 proclamation of the infallibility of the Pope, with the consequent Romanizing, (uniformization), of the whole Church, there was a maximum concentration at the top of the pyramid: namely, the papacy, with «supreme, total, immediate» power (canon 331). This means that all decisions are concentrated in him, a load that is practically impossible for a single person, even with absolute monarchical power, to carry alone. No decentralization is acceptable, because it would reduce the supreme power of the Pope. The Curia, then, surrounds the Pope, who becomes its prisoner; sometimes blocking initiatives that are contrary to its traditional conservatism, or simply putting aside projects until they are forgotten.

The other vision recognizes the weight of the monarchical papacy. It seeks to breathe life into the Synod of Bishops, a collegial organism created by Vatican Council II to assist the Pope in governing the Universal Church. But John Paul II and Benedict XVI, pressured by the Curia, who saw it as destroying the centralism of Roman power, turned it into a consultative rather than a deliberative organism. It meets every two or three years, but with no meaningful effect on the Church.

All indications are that Pope Francis, by convoking the eight Cardinals in order to reform the Curia, with him and under his leadership, will create an organism through which he will preside over the Church. Let's hope he enlarges this collegiate organism, including representatives not only of the hierarchy but of the whole People of God, women included, because women are the majority of the Church.  Such a step does not appear impossible.

The best way to reform the Curia, in the opinion of experts on Vatican affairs and also of some important leaders, would be a major decentralization of functions. We are in the era of globalization, and of real time electronic communications. If the Catholic Church wants to adapt to this new period of humanity, nothing would be better than to undertake an organizational revolution.  Why not transfer to Africa the Secretary (dicasterio) for the Evangelization of the Peoples?  Relocate the Secretary of Inter-Religious Dialogue to Asia? That of Justice and Peace to Latin America?  Couldn't the Secretary for the Promotion of Christian Unity be in Geneva, close to the World Council of Churches?  Some secretariats, those involved with the most immediate things, would remain in the Vatican. Through video-conferences, skype and other communication technologies, they could maintain direct daily contact. This would avoid the creation of an anti-power, at which the traditional Curia is a great expert. It would make the Catholic Church truly universal, not just Western.

As Pope Francis is always asking us to pray for him, we have to, in effect, pray deeply, so that this wish becomes reality, for the benefit of all.

Leonardo Boff


           Earthcharter Commission

08-18 2013

Free translation from the Spanish sent by

Melina Alfaro,,