Given that the subject matter is bureaucratic organisation, it is permissible to ask: should Catholics be interested in curial reform, the principal subject of the discussions at the consistory of cardinals last week? I confess that the topic is one that I find hard to get interested in, let alone excited about.
I have no strong views about whether the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant Peoples should continue its independent existence, or whether it should be a secretariat within a larger Congregation for Laity, as is apparently being proposed. I don’t actually have any view about the Council for Migrants and Itinerant Peoples at all. During the five years I was member of the Vatican press corps and frequented the press office most days, I can’t recall that I ever wrote about it or, for that matter, many of the other dicasteries of the Roman Curia.
The entire College of Cardinals discussed last week how the Vatican organisation chart should be revamped. This was thought to be a good use of their time because at the meetings before the 2013 conclave there was urgent talk about the need to do something about the Roman Curia. So now something is being done.
On those issues where there is a clear sense of direction, reforms are moving at a rapid pace. Financial reforms are in the lead, with the explicit goal of using international standards of best practices for accounting, budgeting and auditing of all the Vatican’s entities. New protocols for budgeting, oversight involving lay experts and transparent reporting have been quickly implemented. The reforms are in continuity with the direction indicated by Benedict XVI, but Pope Francis is proceeding with much greater vigour.
It has to be counted a clear success of his still young pontificate.
The big news of the consistory was Cardinal George Pell’s report that, having properly consolidated all of the Holy See’s disparate budgets, assets were some £975 million greater than previously thought. That was comforting news, inasmuch as on the flipside he also reported a long-term pension liability in the neighbourhood of £550 million. The good news on the asset side meant that the Holy See’s total assets are close to £2 billion, or about 20 per cent of just the endowment at the University of Cambridge.
The comparison suggests that the Vatican balance sheet ought not to be a matter of global interest, for its fortune is relatively small. Many mid-size cities have annual budgets far greater than that of the Holy See. Yet Catholics ought to be interested and pleased that the financial reforms are proceeding apace because the goal – to be a model of good financial stewardship and not a source of occasional scandals – is one that enhances the credibility of the Church’s witness. At the very least, it removes obstacles to people hearing the Gospel. The very worldly management of finances thus has a clear evangelical impact, and for that reason it is of high importance.
Analogously, the report from the council charged with co-ordinating the Church’s sexual abuse response was a matter of high interest. Consolidating the major reforms that began in 2001, and extending best practices to all parts of the Church is not only a matter of justice, but also an evangelical imperative. Therefore it too is welcome news.
As for the revamping of congregations and councils and assorted dicasteries, that is proceeding rather more slowly, which is also welcome news, for there a clear goal is still lacking. Is it to reduce the Vatican bureaucracy, or merely to reorganise it? Is it intended to save money? Is it meant to reduce the number of curial cardinals? Will reforms make the Curia more efficient or adaptable? Is there a clear enough link between proposed reforms and evangelical effectiveness?
The Vatican does not operate by the Westminster system, but no project of bureaucratic reform is immune to the temptation always facing a Prime Minister to apparently solve a problem or indicate new priorities by shuffling the Cabinet, renaming the ministries, changing reporting structures and creating new interdepartmental co-ordinating committees.
Nothing may be achieved, but the appearance of reform usually satisfies the demand that something should be done. It creates much activity in the implementation.
It’s easy enough to lampoon the creation of offices itself as a substitute for good governance. The Holy See is not a Westminster spoof – there will be no Congregation for Silly Walks. Yet the success of the targeted reforms to date indicates that the broader reforms probably need to mature until concrete goals with evangelical impact are more clearly articulated.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/2/15).
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