The Modernized Roman Curia

A FEW months ago, in another attempt to implement the guide lines of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI named thirty new cardinals, raising the number in the College of Cardinals to a record high of 145. The new appointments were part of his plan to reform the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church's central government. . .

-an associate editor of Ministry at the time this article was written

A FEW months ago, in another attempt to implement the guide lines of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI named thirty new cardinals, raising the number in the College of Cardinals to a record high of 145. The new appointments were part of his plan to reform the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church's central government. These appointments were eagerly desired and expected by many, especially by those who hoped that they would open up new channels of communication between the different segments of the Catholic world. They might even contribute to the successful resolution of the fundamental issue of the relationship be tween papal primacy and episcopal co-responsibility, making it possible for Catholic bishops to play a larger role in shaping church policy. Appearances to date, however, tend to indicate that the pope's reforms aim more at reorganizing the Curia along lines of greater efficiency than at moving toward collegial government.

The Development of a Machinery

Few will question the necessity of reorganizing the Curia. Designed to help the pope in his ad ministration of the Catholic Church it consists of a number of administrative, legislative, and judiciary bodies through which much of the government of the church is conducted. The most important of these are the fourteen "Roman congregations," committees presided over by a cardinal or some times by the pope himself.

This machinery did not develop on the basis of any one over-all principle, but empirically, by fits and starts through a long series of definitions, additions, combinations, and changes. Most of its development can be dated from the period between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. As for the cardinals, who form a special body of advisers to the pope and are chosen by him, they were not "Princes of the Church" when their office was originally conceived, but, in the literal meaning of the term, "hinges" around which the administration of the Catholic Church revolves as a door around its hinges. Since then their power has dramatically increased, to the point where the Curia has come to be one of the most excoriated institutions devised by men.

It has always been easy to find reasons for detesting it. The Curia was said to be cutoff from practical pastoral experience. It was over weening. It was too Italian and officious. The need to reform it reached a point during Vatican II when it could no longer be repressed. Besides, the mere fact that for more than four years bishops from all parts of the world were together in Rome rebutted the merely pyramidal and juridical understanding of the Catholic Church, stressing its collegial character. The very concept of the government of the church was at stake. Paul VI indicated his desire to weigh the implications involved and to reform the Curia.

Paul VI's Moves

To begin with, a few names were changed. The Holy Office tried to erase the memory of its association with the Inquisition by changing its name to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. The powerful Congregation of Propaganda, noting that propaganda had become a dirty word, changed itself to the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Other reforms followed. Cardinals more than 80 years old were eliminated from participating in the election of a new pope. Instead of Latin, previously insisted upon in any correspondence, any widely known modern language could be used. The Apostolic Chancery and a number of other antiquated and obsolete Vatican offices were either demised or saw their functions transferred to other departments.

Paul VI's boldest move came in August, 1967. Four years after taking over from John XXIII he ordered one of the most sweeping changes in the administration of the Catholic Church made by any pope. The move came at a moment when even the best-informed Roman circles had given up hope in view of the solidity of the central structures of their church. With the Apostolic Constitution "Regimini Ecclesiae Universae," published on August 15, 1967, 1 the Roman Curia was given a new structure. Not only did the papal document fulfill one of the most pressing demands of Vatican II, it also maintained the promise that Paul VI made to the cardinals, prelates, and functionaries of the Curia when, within three months of his election, in the course of a speech made on September 21, 1963, he astonished them by saying: "It is not only easy to foresee that some reforms will have to be introduced in the Roman Curia; they are indeed much to be desired."

The new regulations have brought to an end the dominance of a small clique of elderly Italian prelates who have clung to the levers of power ^for a lifetime and regarded their decisions as if they were decisions made by the pope himself. The regulations specifically delineate the borderline between the pope's own authority and the acts of the Curia, and make clear just where legitimate execution of a superior order ends and where individual officers begin to take unwarranted initiatives. The decree also insists that all future Congregation members have some pastoral experience and be drawn from all parts of the world, thus opening the cardinal-dominated Curia to bishops from outside Rome. A new, more personal link between the central government of the church and the episcopal conferences thus takes the place of the bureaucratic relations and intermittent exchanges of former times.

However, what will probably more than anything else undermine the sense of superiority and perpetual stability that for many centuries has turned the pope into a king and the Curia into the effective government of the Roman Catholic Church is the papal specification that cardinal prefects, members of the departments—be they cardinals or bishops—secretaries and consultors "may not hold office for more than five years." The pope remains free to dismiss or to confirm them in office at the end of the five-year period. At his death, however, all of them automatically cease to hold office, 2 thus leaving his successor entirely free to form the team that he considers the best for carrying out his program.

Internationalization of the Curia

The principle that all offices are to be reviewed every five years and automatically vacated on the death of a pope is bound to have considerable significance. It could mark the end of a system that for centuries has allowed some clerics to make the Curia their entire career. The most significant step in Pope Paul's reform, however, seems to be his "internationalization" of the Curia. In 1961, for in stance, there were 1,322 members of the Roman Curia, of whom 56 percent were Italian. By 1970 the Curia had swollen to 2,260, of whom 62 percent were non-Italian. Within ten years the national proportions had been reversed. Pope Paul's sudden designation on February 2, 1973, of thirty additional cardinals underlines the trend. Not only has membership in the College of Cardinals climbed to an unprecedented 145, but it includes other firsts: the first Polynesian, the first Kenyan, and the first from the Congo Republic. Of the 145 known members of the college, eighty-five came from Europe. Of that number forty-one, or less than 25 per cent, were Italian. Latin America has twenty cardinals and North America fifteen, Asia has twelve, Africa nine, and Oceania four.

But internationalization did not work out quite as intended. Facts have shown that a mere increase in the number of "foreigners" in the Curia does not resolve the problem of making it more universal. In most cases Rome's power of assimilation is such that Americans and other foreigners became "more Roman than the Romans." Others, who brought to their jobs good will and open-mindedness along with a flagrant ignorance of Roman ways, were simply out smarted by the local team. More over, they make little impact as a group, for they do not act in a concerted way.

It has become evident that simply mechanical application of the international criterion might be useless and even harmful if there is not at the same time an authentic dialog between the powerful bureaucracy of the Catholic Church and the local churches. The problem is one of structure more than of nationality. What is needed is a reform of the Curia based on a new relationship between the Catholic episcopate and the governmental organs of the church as suggested by Vatican II.

Has the Curia changed six years after Paul VI inaugurated his plan of reform? The general feeling is that the Curia functions better. It has become more internationally representative, and there has been an increase of competent personnel in higher and lower positions. There has also been an increase in the pastoral element of life; there is greater coordination among the various Congregations and other offices; and there is better relationship with local hierarchies throughout the world.

Increasing Centralization

Paradoxically, however, a result of the reform has been to concentrate power in the hand of one man, Archbishop Giovanni Benelli. Within the Curia, since Paul VI's reform, all lines of authority lead to the Secretariat of State, which in some ways is the Pope's private office. It is headed by a French man, Cardinal Jean Villot. As the Vatican's secretary of state, he might be compared to a kind of prime minister. Probably even more influential, however, is Archbishop Benelli, whose official title is misleadingly modest. He is called sustituo, i.e., the substitute or deputy to the cardinal secretary of state. In fact, the 52-year-old Italian prelate is responsible for moving the whole, complex curial machine on consistent and coherent lines. It seems to be a sensible idea in order to define areas of competence and prevent duplication of work. But the effect has been to transform coordination into control.

Everything passes through the office of this highly efficient administrator. No one in Rome is in any doubt about the growing power of Msgr. Benelli, the Pope's closest and most trusted adviser.

Without a doubt Pope Paul's attempt has been the first in Roman Catholic history to undertake a general reform of the Roman Curia. However epoch-making his decision may be, the result has more clearly been that of reorganizing the Curia, an administrative revolution, rather than that of fostering the constitutional change implied in associating bishops more closely with him in determining Catholic policy.

The Future of Collegiality

Catholics who believe the church to be a family of local churches with and under the bishop of Rome—with the emphasis on "with" rather than "under" —had hoped that Paul VI's reforms would, as a forward-looking application of the principle of collegiality, call on an increasing number of Catholic bishops to join the Curia and in an up-to-date way share in the government of the church. But Paul's reforms in fact aim at coordinating the executive powers of the Curia. They hardly foreshadow the possibility of a collegiate collaboration of decisions in relation to the universal church.

Most of the Catholic bishops to day are aware that their authority is no longer what it was at the end of Vatican II. They also know that by temperament the Pope prefers to deal directly with a small group of people who have his confidence, leaving them to deal with prelates who might want to raise other opinions. Hence, under Paul VI, the Curia remains the papal right hand, his executive to the local churches, an instrument designed to make sure that the lines of government laid down by the Pope are being faithfully followed. This model marks a retreat from some of the high points achieved at Vatican II, especially in regard to the principles of collegiality and co-responsibility.


1. One ought not to neglect the Motu Proprio "Pro Comperto Sane," published three days earlier.

2. With the exception of the Substitute of the Papal Secretariat, who will be responsible to the College of Cardinals.

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-an associate editor of Ministry at the time this article was written

May 1974

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