Pope Francis wants to reform the curia. Good luck with that. (Really)
(RNS) – A new papal document reforming the Curia – the Vatican bureaucracy, mostly made up of priests and bishops – will soon be released. I’m sure Pope Francis’s heart is in the right place, but I expect to be disappointed.
Attempts to reform the Curia have continued since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, each announced with great fanfare, but the effects have only been gradual. There is no reason to expect better this time around.
The most significant reforms took place immediately after Vatican II, when Pope Paul VI expanded the College of Cardinals, limited papal electors to cardinals under the age of 80, demanded Vatican officials to resign at 75 years and began to internationalize the Curia by recruiting non-members. Italians.
The reforms under John Paul II were insignificant. Benedict deserves credit for having subjected the Vatican’s finances to Moneyval’s supervision and for having reformed the Vatican bank.
A new papal document reforming the Curia will soon be published. I’m sure Pope Francis’s heart is in the right place, but I expect to be disappointed.
So far Francis has focused on merging departments. More importantly, he attempted to change the culture of the Vatican with a frontal attack on clericalism, the idea that priests and bishops are better than anyone. Despite his desire for financial reform, financial scandals continue to surface.
All of these reforms have met with opposition. No pope makes friends by reforming the Curia.
Paul VI has been criticized for overturning centuries of tradition. Today, he would be accused of ageism. Benedict has been criticized for allowing foreigners to examine the Vatican’s actions. He has also been criticized for spending millions on forensic accountants to clean up the Vatican bank. And Francis’s attacks on clericalism have been described as disrespectful to his collaborators.
What can we learn from these past attempts at reform?
First, no document, no effort can ever completely reform the Curia. Like the church, it must be “semper reformanda” – always reforming itself. The inscription of the curial reform in a document called “constitution” gives a false impression of permanence. Structures must be open to constant change to meet the needs of the church.
No document, no effort can ever completely reform the Curia. Like the church, it must be “semper reformanda” – always reforming itself.
Second, while trying to save money is a laudable goal, reform is not always cheap. Yes, it cost millions to clean up the Vatican bank, but Benedict achieved what no one thought possible.
But that was just the start. Other financial offices in the Curia also need to be cleaned, especially those that control purchases, investments and real estate.
The Vatican doesn’t even have adequate records of its real estate properties in Rome – where are they, who lives there and what is the rent? (Solving these mysteries could help offset the cost of reform: If the Vatican were to charge market rents, it could move closer to balancing its budget.)
Third, one could argue that the greatest weakness of the Vatican, and of the church in general, is a lack of expertise in human resources. Without a good HR department, large organizations are constantly faced with problems.
Good HR involves recruiting, screening, hiring, training, supervising, rewarding and, if necessary, firing employees. The church is not good at any of that.
This can be seen in the church, where clerical administrators constantly vacillate between paternalism and authoritarianism. Good HR involves recruiting, screening, hiring, training, supervising, rewarding and, if necessary, firing employees. The church is not good at any of that. François in particular doesn’t like to fire anyone.
Francis faces a revolt by Vatican employees who feel they bear the burden of the Vatican’s financial problems. They want him to get rid of the highest paid Vatican employees and well paid consultants. If you want a winning team, however, you have to pay for a good coach, even if he gets paid more than any college professor.
Also, if employee conditions are so bad in the Vatican, why is it that hardly any Vatican employee leaves for work elsewhere? Why are there hundreds of Italians trying to find a job in the Vatican?
I guess better communications and a good HR office would go a long way in improving employee morale.
Fourth, Francis’ greatest insight is his recognition of the need to change the culture of the Curia. His attacks on clericalism seem to have been at least in part successful. The clerics adopted a simpler outfit. Those in charge of the curia are more attentive when they meet bishops from all over the world. Whether this is the result of genuine conversion or a desire for advancement is uncertain, but the effect is visible.
Francis’ greatest insight is his recognition of the need to change the culture of the Curia. His attacks on clericalism seem to have been at least in part successful.
Fifth, to reform the Curia, you have to replace part of the people. Paul VI recognized this when he imposed mandatory resignations at age 75. But waiting for a problem cardinal to reach retirement age is not an effective way of managing the Curia. Early in his pontificate Francis removed Cardinal Raymond Burke from a position of authority, but the backlash from the Conservatives was fierce. A pope should be able to send home any clergyman who does not agree with his agenda.
It was only recently that Francis fired another cardinal, Angelo Becciu, who was involved in a real estate scandal in London. Even this shot was problematic as no real explanation was given. So far, no Vatican cardinal or archbishop has been publicly held responsible for a Vatican scandal.
It would be easier to replace senior Vatican officials if they were not cardinals or archbishops. Like princes and nobles, cardinals and archbishops are appointed for life. Downgrading them is unthinkable. They must find another position in the Vatican or be appointed head of a large archdiocese in their country of origin. This is why we had until recently a liturgical reactionary, Cardinal Robert Sarah, at the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Francis closed his first office and had to find him another.
This is the fatal flaw in the management of human resources at the Vatican. Any seasoned CEO knows that it can take two or three tries before they find the right person for the job. If prefects and congregational secretaries continue to be cardinals and archbishops, popes will be stuck with people who don’t match.
I hope I am wrong, but I do not expect Francis’ reform of the Curia to be more successful than previous reforms. This will move the ball forward, but the game is not won.