Is the Curia Catholic or Roman?

The Curia CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters

When people talk of reform of the Roman Curia, what exactly do they have in mind? What would a reformed Roman Curia look like? What sort of changes do people want to see?

Reform of the Roman Curia is very much on the menu at present – just as it was the last time we had a new Pope; the only difference is that this time the task seems more urgent than ever, given the unedifying Vatileaks scandal, which gives ample evidence of a Roman Curia that is out of control and not fit for purpose.

Before one goes further, it is best to define terms. The Roman Curia is the Church’s central organ of government. It is there to put the Pope’s will into effect; it consists of several departments, called “dicasteries”, the most important of which is the Secretariat of Sate, which is presided over at present by Cardinal Bertone, who is the nearest thing there is to a Vice-Pope. And there are also departments of lesser importance, called “congregations”. There is part of the Vatican website dedicated to the Curia, which can be found here, where details are given. 

It is clear that there has to be some form of Curia around the Pope, and one cannot simply abolish it; a lot of the Curia’s work is extremely tedious but necessary: for example, the Secretariat of Sate employs several people who answer the thousands of letters people from all over the world write to the Pope. These people, many of whom are priests, have little reward for their labours, so they may feel rightly aggrieved when they are spoken of as part of a problem that needs solving.

The main thrust of the reform movement is now what it has always been – namely a desire to see the Curia internationalised. This has been a constant theme of George Weigel, for example, whose sensible views can be sampled here and here. But the word “internationalisation” is in itself the tip of an iceberg, hiding below its surface an entire programme for reform. It also is code for de-Italianisation.

This is where the crucial fight will come. Is the Curia a body that reflects the international, indeed Catholic, nature of the Church, or is it something that is in fact Roman but not in name only: does it reflect the Roman and Italian nature of the see of Peter?

To my mind the first is the only position to take. The Papacy is in Rome by historical accident. It could feasibly move elsewhere, even if the historical precedent of Avignon is not a happy one. Moreover, in this present age, the Italian nature of the Curia looks increasingly anachronistic. For example, do the offices of the Curia have to close in the middle of the day for lunch and the siesta? How on earth can this be justified, especially for the press office, in the age of 24 hour news? Why is it that Vatican diplomats are forced to submit all reports to the Secretariat of State in Italian, even when many are writing in from English-speaking countries, and are in fact not native Italian-speakers? Why, when Benedict XVI went to Poland, did he deliver speeches in Italian, rather than in German or English, both of which would have been more appropriate, given the fact he did not speak Polish?

But the predominantly Italian personnel of the Roman Curia, one suspects, is deeply suspicious of what it terms “il mondo anglo-sassone”, the English-speaking world, the world of the Anglo-Saxons, especially the Americans, and very keen to preserve its perceived entitlement to run the Curia and its Italian way of doing things. So, at the heart of the battle for reform is a culture clash.

It will take a mightily strong Pope to achieve what Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all hoped but in the end failed to achieve. If change comes, these are the early signs to look out for: first of all, a non-Italian, even non-European Pope, particularly one from il mondo anglo-sassone. Secondly, the appointment of a successor to Cardinal Bertone who will represent a break with the past. And finally, the appointment of new officials who will bring with them a new culture and a new way of doing things, which will reflect that Italy is no longer the centre of the world, and that the tide of history has moved on.