It happens fairly frequently that I need to explain to intelligent and otherwise well-informed outsiders what the Roman Curia is and is not. Usually, my interlocutors have a picture – roughly sketched but colourful and impressive – of the Curia as a scene from a baroque painting, with Cardinals and Archbishops and Monsignors in their finery bowing and bustling, friars ducking in their habits under ancient archways to carry business day and night, and priests plotting in corners and anterooms.
The Roman Curia is the Church’s central governing apparatus. It has existed ever since St Peter said to someone or other, “Can you take a letter?” It is not going anywhere, and it will never be anything but what it is: a bureaucracy. Officials high and low and in between are workaday folk with office jobs – important work, and some of it really is indispensable – but its essence is bureaucratic humdrum.
I remember a few years back, now, when I was first writing for the Catholic World Report about Pope Francis’s “open and incomplete way of thinking” – a description that comes from papal comms guru and confidant Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, not me – and the reform of the Roman Curia. I recalled Francis’s 2014 Christmas address to high curial officials on the 15 ills that plague the Curia, which ranged from excessive self-regard to rivalry and vainglory, sycophancy, cliquishness, and avarice. Briefly, the list and the pope’s treatment of the items in it showed that Francis was more concerned with reforming bureaucrats than he was with reforming the bureaucracy.
Francis was not wrong about the need for curial officials to convert, believe in the Gospel, and live as though they actually believe it.
It is always dangerous to make personal conversion the precondition for institutional reform, because it tends to identify the officers – mere functionaries – with the DNA of the institution itself, and at the same time puts the cart before the horse. Bureaucracies are what they are, and would be if they were staffed entirely with living saints. Kant was wrong when he said that prudent devils might order a state. The well-designed bureaucracy, however, will suffer minimal performance lag – at least in the short term – were it staffed by devils, let them only be competent bureaucrats.
Curial lifers get a bad rap, too. Everyone knows that climbing is a thing, and has been a thing since before the Twelve argued over who would be first in the Kingdom, and will be until Our Lord decides – in His own good time – to settle the question once-and-for-all. In the meantime, institutions muddle. As they go about their muddling, they need a mix of energetic types. Some will be more genuinely diligent than ambitious, others more ambitious than zealous. There must be insiders and outsiders of both types. There must also be many quiet, mostly diligent worker bee types, who grind things day-in and day-out and find their true happiness elsewhere.
That is what we have in the Curia today, and what we have always had, since Peter asked that guy to take that letter.
Some of them are living saints, and others are of the other sort. Some come in to climb a spell, while others rise and rise and others still come up and then stop coming. We hope that all of them are on a path that will lead them to blessedness. The bureaucratic machine, however, ought not be the primary vehicle by which they reach the end. A bureaucracy designed to work on the assumption its elements are already there, or well on their way, is a recipe for confusion, if not outright disaster.
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