Pope Francis has not hidden his ambition to reform the Roman Curia, a central element of his program. The project of this reform, about which he has already spoken in 2015 on the occasion of the consistory, before falling into silence again, resurfaced in an interview with Cardinal Müller given to a German journalist last May 6.
The Roman Curia
Before speaking of reform, it is necessary to clarify what the Curia is. The January-February 2011 issue of Fideliter (no. 199, pp. 4-47) provides a solid dossier on the subject.
The Curia brings together the ordinary offices that assist the pope permanently in the exercise of his sovereignty. In this respect, it is an instrument which has neither authority nor power apart from those it receives from the supreme pastor. In fact, at the death of the pope, his power is suspended, and the Curia is confined to administering ordinary affairs which cannot be interrupted.
As for the subjects treated, the Curia—and especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the Holy Office—helps the pope in the exercise of his Magisterium. Whether by delegated authority, or with the sanction of supreme authority, it is normally the guardian of dogma. It accomplishes this task thanks to men—cardinals, theologians—and to sure and traditional doctrine (in ordinary time...). Without these men, deep reservoirs of knowledge and fidelity, the popes cannot do much. St. Pius X, who has benefited from the dedicated service of great men of the Church—i.e., Cardinals Merry del Val and Lai—without them would not have been the holy pope whom we venerate.
Finally, the cardinals represent the eminent part of the Curia. If the cardinalate is relatively new, the same cannot be said about the reality it covers: those who assisted the pope from early times constituted the Bishop of Rome’s senate, composed of the clergy of the local Roman Church, and, in this capacity, they were the principal members of the various dicasteries. “The highest level members of the Curia are by circumstance the cardinal members of the clergy of the particular Church of Rome...The Curia is, in its essence, a part of the Roman ‘presbyterium’ that nothing can dissociate from its bishop,” (Fr. Victor-Alain Berto, Pour la sainte Eglise romaine, Ed. du Cedre, 1976, p. 269).
By divine right, the bishop is pastor of his flock, of which the priests are a part, and no authority can come between them. It is the same for the Bishop of Rome with regards to the Curia. “The Roman Pontiff, like every bishop, is inseparable from his particular Church. Because he is at the same time and indivisibly the supreme Doctor and Shepherd of Christians, his particular church is, and cannot not be, the Mother Church and mistress of all others” (ibid.). That is why all the cardinals receive as “title,” a peripheral diocese in Rome, for six of them (bishoprics called Suburbicarian Dioceses), or a Roman parish.
The reforms of the Curia
Remember that Sixtus V (1585-1590) instituted the first of the Roman congregations (in 1588) and gave to the venerable organism the form by which we know it today. Subsequently, “no less than 22 popes (out of 39) have, more or less directly, or with more or less success, attached their names to the arrangement of its structures,” (Joel-Benoît d'Onorio. Le pape et le gouvernement de l’Église, Fleurus, Paris, 1992, p. 287). But we must especially remember the names of St. Pius X and Paul VI.
The reform of St. Pius X consisted of an overall revision, which coincided with the reform of the Code of Canon Law. It had become necessary so as to make the Curia a harmonious and effective whole. It shows the organizing genius of St. Pius X and his concern to renew the institution, while retaining its underlying structure.
The reform of Paul VI had a quite different dimension, and, in a certain way, it could be described as taking the opposite view: three critics were happy with this reform.
Modernism has never liked the Curia, and fought it directly or underhandedly. The doctrinal aspect was especially targeted. The Holy Office was attacked as a bulwark of the Catholic Faith. Anything was good if it vilified this congregation—its methods were considered to be “inquisitorial,” its judges incompetent or even malevolent, its procedures “secret,” its theology backwards and (neo)scholastic (supreme insult!), its thinking incapable of understanding the evolution of the world. It will suffice, for example, to read the Journal of a Theologian or My Journal of the Council by Yves Congar to be edified.
Progressivism also wanted to “increase” Curia recruitment to introduce within it a diversity more representative of the universal Church. The intention, although legitimate in some respects, was insidious: they wanted over time to obtain a certain “decentralization,” which would lead to a dispersion of the pontifical power. These ideas were very actively promoted on the eve of the opening of the Council. One can find an exposé and a refutation, and a delicious mockery, of it written by Fr. Dulac. (Fr. Raymond Dulac, « Décentralisation internationale et concentrations nationales de l’Église ? » [International Decentralization and National Concentrations of the Church?] in La Pensée catholique, No. 78-79, Editions du Cèdre, Paris, 1962, pp. 15-72).
The attacks against the Curia culminated during the Council, and it could be said that Vatican II was a Way of the Cross for the faithful servants of the Church and the papacy. Throughout the whole Council, the Curia was attacked, ridiculed, and finally defeated. The apogee of this “bringing into line” was the work of Cardinal Frings against the Holy Office, which maintained that its procedure was “no longer suitable for our era, detrimental to the Church, and an object of scandal for many.” The symbol of this was the transformation of the Holy Office,—even changing its name to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,—at the close of the Council, and the abolition of the Index of Forbidden Books. All that was only possible with the tacit or explicit permission of Paul VI.
Consider finally the doctrine of collegiality which essentially made the pope the head of the episcopal body. This is not the place to discuss this doctrine, but two revelatory facts regarding the changes carried out by the Council should be noted. Firstly, the creation of the Synod of Bishops, a consultative organ meeting every three years in Rome, effectively shows the novelty of collegiality. And the fact that, in the new Code of Canon Law, the aforesaid Synod is located before the cardinals.
The reform of the Curia by Paul VI can be explained by what precedes it. “It can be said that this document introduces within the central administration of the Catholic Church notions little known until then, like that of decentralization of affairs, of the internationalization of members,” (Joël-Benoît d’Onorio, op. cit., p. 302). The most important dicastery from that point forward was the Secretary of State, and no longer the Holy Office. Diplomacy supplanted the faith. There is perhaps not a stronger symbol than the substitution of “dialogue” for magisterial teaching. From that point on, the Curia assures the diffusion of the conciliar transformation and of the “spirit of the Council.” The age limit imposed on cardinals, as much in curial duties as for the election of the pope, has excluded the opposition to the new way of doing things, and allows the removal of “conservatives.” Likewise, the limit of the mandate of all the members of the Curia, cardinals included, for a term of five years, as well as the extinction of the mandate at the death of the pope are absolutely new principles that are destroying the continuity that that organ had established from one pontificate to another. It is party logic, democratic and worldly.
(To be continued.)