Four things to look for in reforming Francis’ curia
(RNS) — Since being elected pope, Pope Francis has been trying to reform the Vatican Curia, the bureaucracy supposed to help the pope in his ministry to the universal Church. He had only limited success – not surprisingly, since every pope since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s has also tried and made little progress.
This is not to say that Francis’ predecessors completely failed. The curia today is less Italian and more international than before Vatican II. Heads of major offices are now required to resign at the age of 75, rather than staying on until their death.
Pope Benedict rationalized the expulsion of abusive priests, while Francis began to hold bishops accountable for protecting children in their dioceses.
Francis ended the persecution of progressive theologians and writers that was common under Popes John Paul II and Benedict. He also strengthened the synod of bishops as an advisory body.
Francis focused particularly on the culture of the Vatican. He understands that structural change won’t accomplish much if the people who inhabit those structures don’t change. He frequently condemns clericalism and calls for a more responsive church. Accordingly, the cardinals put away their jeweled crosses and their silks. Diocesan bishops report that curial leaders are more willing to listen to them than in previous papacies.
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But Francis has still not released the long-promised constitution for the reformed curia, tentatively titled “Praedicate Evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel”), despite Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a senior Vatican official, saying it is virtually finished. The last constitution of the curia was “Pastor bonus(Good Shepherd), promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
What should we look for in this new constitution?
Since every organization needs money to operate, the first thing to look at is how the new constitution deals with finances.
The Vatican has a long and embarrassing history of financial scandals, but financial reforms begun under Benedict and continuing under Francis mean the Vatican Bank is now well run. But other parts of the Vatican are still experiencing scandals and need reform.
Financial regulators must have the power to hold everyone, including cardinals, accountable for their actions or inactions. Contracts, investments and budgets must also be properly reviewed according to contemporary accounting standards. Other questions relate to how suspected financial crimes will be investigated and whether there is adequate transparency. Will financial control offices be adequately staffed with competent staff?
Besides finances, the most important part of any organization is its employees. How the new constitution deals with HR, human resources, will be crucial.
The church traditionally does a very poor job with HR, not only in the Vatican but down to the parishes. HR is more than just hiring and firing. It also includes recruiting, vetting, hiring, training, supervising, paying, retraining, promoting, and retiring or firing employees. The Vatican does none of this well.
The Vatican must also follow the evolution of technologies. For decades, Vatican communications operated through a newspaper, a publishing house of Vatican documents, and a shortwave radio network. These forms of communication are no longer relevant today. Today it needs websites, videos, podcasts, apps and social media.
Workers with new skills are needed for these and future technologies. Typesetters, printers, radio technicians and others whose skills have become obsolete would be laid off or retrained in most industries. But dismissing someone in Italy, let alone the Vatican, is very difficult.
It’s not that the Vatican has difficulty hiring and retaining employees. Vatican employees may complain, but hardly anyone resigns for a job outside the Vatican. The problem is to get the most out of the employees he has.
An equally intractable personnel problem is the management team that works directly with the pope. This includes all cardinals and bishops working in the Vatican as well as some lay people who run offices. The Vatican Curia will never be truly reformed as long as the highest positions have to be filled by cardinals and bishops.
Most senior Vatican officials receive no management training at the seminary. In their relations with employees, they often fall into paternalistic or authoritarian practices. Their eyes glaze over when they consult a budget or a spreadsheet. They need ongoing training to handle these issues.
The Popes also need more freedom to choose their teams. Officials appointed under a former pope are not always flexible enough to accept the priorities of the new pope. All new CEOs need a management team that is committed to them and their goals. They don’t always get the mix right the first time, so they have to replace people who don’t practice.
All of this is very difficult to do when the leadership team is made up of cardinals and bishops, who are always treated like princes and nobles, no matter what Francis says. To remove a cardinal or bishop from a curia position, you must find him another position in the Vatican or appoint him head of an archdiocese in his home country.
For years after his election, Francis kept in the curia cardinals and others who were not fully committed to his politics. A big mistake was keeping Cardinal Marc Ouellet appointed by Pope Benedict to head the Congregation for Bishops, the office responsible for appointing bishops around the world. He needed someone in this job who would more aggressively seek episcopal candidates who would actively implement Francis’ vision for the church.
Having bishops working in the Vatican is theologically problematic because a bishop without a diocese is like a shepherd without sheep. Vatican officials should see themselves as the pope’s staff as the head of the college of bishops and not as part of the hierarchy.
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Only a start
Finally, it is important that the constitution is not considered final. Everyone must recognize that the curia, like the church, is “semper reformanda”—always in need of reform.
Too much time and too much hope has been placed on perfecting this new constitution, as if it would guide the Church for decades. Bureaucracies must constantly change to reflect new environments and goals as well as the needs of the person at the top, and the new constitution must be treated as a mere snapshot of a moment in time, not as a statue for the Museum of Vatican.
No reform will magically improve the curia. Further reforms will be needed in the future, and they should be easy to implement.