Vatican reform gets underway

Francis wants to strengthen the local Church, writes Austen Ivereigh

Pope Francis on Saturday bestowed red hats and Roman churches on 20 bishops, many from impoverished and far-flung places, following a two-day meeting of the cardinals to discuss a radical shake-up in the Vatican bureaucracy.

The consistory, attended by 165 cardinals, began on February 12 with Francis issuing a call for unity and ended on Sunday with a powerful attack on religious legalism that many took to be one of the most significant mission statements of his pontificate.

Francis opened the consistory by reminding the cardinals that the reform had been mandated by the cardinals themselves prior to the 2013 conclave. It was about enabling the Roman Curia to better serve the needs of the local Church, and to further the Pope’s own mission, “to strengthen the unity of faith and communion of the people of God and promote the mission of the Church in the world”.

But he warned that getting there would not be easy and needed time, determination, cooperation and above all prayer.

The thinking behind the curial redesign was presented by Francis’ council of nine cardinals, or C9, who have spent over a year working on the plans.

Quality of staff

Its secretary, Bishop Marcello Semeraro, said the restructuring would address “the problem of relations with the bishops’ conferences” as well as “considerations governing the quality of staff” and “the presence of laypeople in the service of the various dicasteries”. The reform, in other words, seeks to reduce Vatican centralism and its dependence on poor-quality staff recruited more because of who than what they know, while increasing the number of laypeople, and especially women, working in the curia.

Although no draft yet exists of a new constitution to replace St John Paul II’s Pastor Bonus, at the centre of the restructuring will be the abolition of the 12 existing pontifical councils – advisory bodies set up under Blessed Paul VI – while placing their activities inside existing or new congregations, which are powerful, legislative bodies. The purpose is to increase collaboration and prevent duplication, while making it easier for the Pope to have regular meetings with the department heads as a body.

Bishop Semeraro confirmed plans for two new, high-profile congregations which will absorb at least half of the existing councils. The new congregations for Laity, Family and Life, and for Charity, Justice and Peace, will effectively raise the status of these concerns while giving laity and family the same legal standing within the Vatican as clergy, bishops and religious.

The charity congregation would include within it health care, migrants, the Vatican’s aid fund, Cor Unum, while also having a new section dedicated to “safeguarding creation”, the subject of Francis’ major encyclical, expected in the summer.

The laity and family congregation will coordinate the mobilisation in support of marriage and family that is expected to follow from the synod. Although the new congregations would need for legal reasons to be headed by at least a bishop, there is no reason why the secretaries, or number two roles, could not be occupied by laypeople.

It is slow work. The Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, said a new constitution will not happen this year and that “there is a long way to go” in terms of deciding which departments will be merged or closed.

A particular difficulty is posed by bodies that do not fit within the remit of existing congregations, such as the councils for legislative texts and social communications, as well as those that coordinate Rome’s dialogues with other Churches and other religions.

A major theme of the consistory discussions was how to narrow the distance between Rome and the local Church, as well as the question of subsidiarity – which issues are best dealt with centrally, and which in dioceses and bishops’ conferences.

While a strong Vatican is necessary to support local Churches under pressure and to unify the Church worldwide, Francis has a clear mandate to allow local Churches greater latitude, referring in Evangelii Gaudium to the need for bishops’ conferences to have some teaching authority as well as the freedom to determine pastoral strategies.

But Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stressed that decentralisation “does not mean giving more power to bishops’ conferences” but is about allowing them to “exercise the genuine responsibility they have based on their members’ episcopal power of teaching and governance, naturally always in union with the primacy of the Pope and the Roman Church”.

Cardinal Müller’s article in L’Osservatore Romano, published on the eve of the consistory, helps explain why the Vatican’s bureaucratic landscape cannot change overnight: reform is as much about theology as it is about structure, and there are contrasting views.

Some of the frustrations expressed by bishops over the years with the Vatican are already being dealt with by more fluid contact between local Churches and Rome.

The C9, the reformed synod, as well as what are now annual two-day senate-type consistories, all indicate that the balance has already tilted markedly in the direction of greater collegiality.

There are suggestions that Vatican staff need to come from outside and return there afterwards – “one hope is that people don’t spend too long in a particular office, but that they can go home to their diocese to be really aware of what people have to deal with in life”, one of the new cardinals, John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, told Vatican Radio. Another suggestion is for new mechanisms of “structured collaboration” between bishops’ conferences and the Vatican, to improve the flow of ideas between them.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston reported on the meeting earlier this month of the 17-strong Commission for the Protection of Minors, now expandedto include abuse survivors. Having agreed its remit, the commission now has a permanent office and will soon have a dedicated website, as well as 11 working groups to recommend policy changes.

There were also four presentations, complete with slides, by the new Economy Secretariat, the first time that the cardinals have ever been given such a detailed briefing on the state of Vatican finances.

Cardinal George Pell, who heads the Secretariat, reported more than $1.5 billion (€1.31 billion) in assets that had previously been concealed from the auditor by the different financial bodies.

“We’re sound,” Cardinal Pell later said of the Vatican’s financial condition. “We’re muddled, it’s been muddled, there’s been inadequate information, but we’re far from broke.”

He said that the financial clean-up initially met with some resistance from Vatican departments long used to a high degree of autonomy, but has moved fast in the direction of transparency and accountability.

At the consistory ceremony at St Peter’s on Saturday, Pope Francis told his 20 new cardinals, 15 of them of voting age, to be models of charity, firm in condemning injustice and joyful in the service of truth. Celebrating Mass with them the next day, he spoke of Jesus’ compassion leading him to reinstate the outcast, and in the process scandalising the closed-minded rigorists.

It was hard not to think of the forthcoming battles in the synod when he described “two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost,” adding that even today “we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking.”


Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (Allen & Unwin), will be speaking in Dublin on March 3 and in Limerick on March 4. See page 6.