Pope Francis’ Church governance reforms are unlike any since Vatican II


Pope Francis speaks during the traditional greetings to the Roman Curia in the Sala Clementina (Clementine Hall) of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican on December 22, 2016. (AP/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)

After the full implementation of the reforms announced by Pope Francis, the Vatican Curia will never be the same. His recent predecessors talked about reforming the Curia, but compared to Francis, they were only reorganizing the deckchairs.

Francis’ changes, most set out in his March 19 apostolic constitution Evangelium Predicate (“Preach the Gospel”), are the most dramatic additions to church governance since Pope Paul VI, who in 1965 established the synod of bishops to advise the pope. This innovation never lived up to its potential as synodal bishops were forced to defer to curial cardinals. It was only under Francis that the Synod Fathers were free to speak boldly.

Paul also reformed the papal election process by increasing the number of cardinal electors to 120 and barring cardinals over the age of 80 from attending papal conclaves. He also required cardinals in the curia to hand in their resignation at the age of 75.

Francis’ reforms are equally dramatic.

He opened almost all Vatican offices to lay leaders, including heads of dicasteries (formerly called congregations). This means that even the Dicastery for Bishops, which recommends candidates for the episcopate worldwide, can now be led by a nun. The head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith could be a female theologian. Even the secretary of state, the highest Vatican official under the pope, could be a layman.

Needless to say, these lay people cannot be chosen from the street people. They need the theological, diplomatic, legal or administrative training and experience required for the positions; no easy hires, especially if the Vatican cannot offer competitive salaries. In addition to having the necessary training, clerics and religious are less expensive.

Francis sees the role of the Curia in a totally different way from previous popes. “The Roman Curia is not placed between the Pope and the bishops, but is at the service of both, according to the modalities specific to the nature of each”, according to the apostolic constitution.

In other words, the curia is a staff and not part of the chain of command. It is more of a civil service than a governing elite.

It’s revolutionary. It moves the papacy away from its monarchical model, in which the pope is king with cardinals and bishops as princes and nobles, towards a collegial model put forward by the Second Vatican Council. Francis wants to enhance the potential of episcopal conferences, not denigrate them, as Jean-Paul and Benoît did.

The sun sets behind St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on December 5, 2019. (AP/Gregorio Borgia)

The sun sets behind St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on December 5, 2019. (AP/Gregorio Borgia)

However, Evangelium Predicate reflects the intentional ambiguity of Vatican II, which advocated collegiality and also sought to preserve the absolute power of the papacy. Francis’ constitution cites Vatican II as stating that the pope, “in the exercise of his supreme, full and immediate authority over the universal Church, employs the various departments of the Roman Curia, which act in his name and by his authority for the good of the Churches and in the service of the sacred pastors.”

Ultimately, the Curia will only be as collegial as future popes want it to be. We have already seen Francis manifest a willingness to intervene directly in dioceses where a bishop has failed to protect children or has otherwise failed in his duties. The right balance between papal authority and collegiality is a difficult, if not impossible, art to legislate.

A lot of Evangelium Predicate simply codifies the reforms that Francis has gradually implemented since his election in 2013. Most important is the Secretariat for the Economy, the new Vatican financial cop created in 2014, which “exercises control and vigilance in administrative matters, economic and financial with regard to curial institutions, offices and other institutions linked to the Holy See”.

The financial scandals that have ravaged the Vatican convinced the pope of the need for this office, which has the power to control the budget, expenditures and investments of all Vatican offices, including the Secretariat of State. He also prepares the annual budget and establishes purchasing guidelines.

The first appointed as economics secretary, Cardinal George Pell, faced strong opposition from the curia and eventually had to resign to deal with his own legal troubles in Australia. The current secretary, the Jesuit Fr. Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves is an economist by training with administrative experience in the management of the main institutions of his order in Rome.

The Secretariat for the Economy operates under the aegis of the Council for the Economy, composed of eight cardinals or bishops and seven lay people, chosen by the pope for a five-year term and responsible for following “internationally recognized best practices in the field of public administration and the effort for an administrative and financial management that is both ethical and efficient.”

Pope Francis arrives for an audience for the annual exchange of Christmas greetings with members of the Roman Curia at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican on December 23, 2021. (Vatican Media)

Pope Francis arrives for an audience for the annual exchange of Christmas greetings with members of the Roman Curia at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican on December 23, 2021. (Vatican Media)

Best practices for the Vatican, as in Italy, are not what they are elsewhere. It’s hard to fire anyone. Vatican communications, for example, centered on print and radio, have struggled to adapt to the digital media environment. Rupert Murdoch can ruthlessly fire employees, but the Vatican cannot. Professional development and retraining must be strengthened in the Vatican.

Additionally, clergy and religious, unlike lay people, are supposed to leave the curia after five years, to discourage careerism. But it also makes it difficult to retain experienced professional staff. (Fortunately, exceptions can be made.)

Much has been said in the press about the supposed equality of all the dicasteries. It is however inevitable that some dicasteries are more equal than others. Major jurisdictional disputes; struggles over who decides what should be submitted to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, but still, someone has to butt heads and arbitrate disputes over policy.

Under Paul VI, the sostituto (substitute) in the Secretariat of State was the key actor in coordinating the policy and action of the Curia. Under John Paul, the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith was supreme in matters of curial documents, while the Secretariat of State was supreme in matters of diplomacy and politics.

The new constitution entrusts the sostituto with the responsibility of “fostering cooperation between the dicasteries, agencies and offices without prejudice to their autonomy”, but gives the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith the right to examine the documents “through a process of discussion and mutual understanding will help to make the right decisions.”

A major flaw of the new constitution is that it does not streamline the disciplinary functions of the Curia. The Vatican needs a Ministry of Justice to investigate and prosecute ecclesiastical crimes, including heresy, sexual abuse, and financial crimes, especially those committed by a bishop or Vatican official.

This office would ideally employ lawyers to present its findings to independent courts, which would render a judgment. It is a violation of due process to have double investigators as judges.

Francis has made great strides in the reform of the Curia requested by Vatican II and the cardinals who elected him. These reforms need to be implemented and this will take time.

Moreover, new circumstances will require new structures; new popes will have different priorities. New ways of functioning in the secular world will provide ideas on how to improve church governance.

Like the church, the curia is semper reformanda – still in need of reform.


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