Pope Francis can’t rely on the old guard to bring change to the Curia

Pope Francis meets heads of departments of the Roman Curia (Photo: CNS)

With the furore surrounding the synod on the family dying down, at least until Pope Francis’s expected Apostolic Exhortation comes out, attention has once again shifted to scandal in the Curia. The recent arrest of two curial advisors, and the advent of not one but two books on financial mismanagement, followed another round of leaks from inside the Vatican. The books seem likely to detail the ongoing waste, questionable record-keeping, and preferential treatment which have long been associated with the governance of the Holy See’s assets.

While it is never edifying to read, for many of us it is, nevertheless, a welcome shift of focus back to the original reforming priorities of the Francis pontificate.

The Curia is, it is frankly acknowledged by most who work with it, rather than for it, a swamp in urgent need of draining. To this end, Francis has made it clear that he intends to reform, possibly to the point of replacing it entirely, Pastor Bonus, the Apostolic Constitution of St John Paul II which establishes and regulates the dicasteries of the Holy See. It was to assist with this project that the so-called C9 council of cardinals was originally formed.

A project of this scope is going to take time if it is to be done meaningfully and well, and we may yet be years away from the finished article. Quite apart from the logistical challenge of reorganising the governance of the universal Church, those making valiant attempts at reform have a hard job demonstrating progress in the interim. In the wake of the latest scandals, it can look as though nothing is being done, yet constitutional reform cannot happen piecemeal. We will not know the full scope of Francis’ reforms, or their likely effectiveness, until they are finally announced as a finished whole.

In the meantime, there are some indications of what is going on behind the scenes. Pope Francis used the forum of the Synod to announce the creation of a new Congregation for the Laity, Family and Life, though it is not yet clear what it will do. The creation of a super-dicastery for the laity was widely expected and its announcement at the Synod, without further details, was more gesture than real news.

What was real news was the release of a letter, dated 27 October, from Pope Francis to Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State, stating that, until a new constitution is promulgated, Pastor Bonus was still in force. The letter was prompted by “certain problems [which] have emerged in the meantime, in relation to which I [Pope Francis] intend to take prompt action”. There has been no elaboration as to what these problems are, but it seems safe to infer there has been an attitude among many working in the Vatican that, under Francis, there are no rules. It is tempting to conclude that this only emphasises the need for a speedy conclusion to the C9’s work and for there to be a new version of Pastor Bonus as soon as possible. But what would this actually achieve?

Rereading Pastor Bonus, it is hard to see where that document could be meaningfully changed to prevent the kind of financial chicanery we are reading about, other than by the creation of a Secretariat for the Economy, which has already been done. Pastor Bonus outlines what the various Vatican departments are and what matters they deal with, it is not the curial equivalent of a civil service code; that does exist and is called the General Regulations of the Roman Curia, and about the reform of this we have heard next to nothing.

While the reordering of the curial departments might be useful in some respects, like the creation of one department to handle everything pertaining to the laity, it cannot prevent or address ongoing abuses by those who work in those departments.

Pope Francis has spoken strongly and often of his disapproval of careerism in the Curia, yet we have seen sadly little, if anything, done to discourage it. While the C9 group of cardinals was drawn from around the world and could at least have represented an outside perspective for reform, this has not carried over into actual curial appointments. The most high profile appointments under Francis have continued to go to career Vatican civil servants, including Cardinal Parolin, as Secretary of State, and Cardinal Mamberti as head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican Supreme Court, to say nothing of the highly controversial appointment of Mgr Ricca to the IOR, or Vatican Bank. All of these appointments were made by Francis under advice from the very Curia he is trying to reform, with the ridiculous consequence that he has had to write to his own Secretary of State reminding him to run the Church according to the rules.

It should also be noted that the only true outsider given a real position of authority in the Vatican under Francis has been Cardinal Pell, who has come in for the most sustained criticism from within and been the subject of a campaign of leaks himself.

While a new version of Pastor Bonus will be an interesting, and probably helpful, development in the governance of the Church, it is not going to be the panacea of reform many are hoping for. If we ever hope to see real transparency in the governance of the Church, there needs to be reform, not of the Vatican departments, but of those working in them.

Thus far, the only substantive personnel policy that has been announced is a hiring freeze, which merely ensures that there is no scope for outside input at the functional level. If Pope Francis wants to see a real change of thinking in the Curia, he could do worse then imposing a strict limit on the number of years clerics can work for any curial office and aim for as many new staff as he can get in the meantime; as we keep reading, money is clearly not an object.

No matter how good the structural reforms end up being on paper, at present he is asking the foxes to build him a better hen house.