Reforming the Curia

Eight ideas for reforming the Vatican.

Pope Francis has set up a committee of 8 cardinals to advise him how to Canon of St. Peter's 2009reform the Curia. (I get this from a good Huffpo report by Nicole Winfield.) The small size and non-Italian composition of the group indicate he means business:
Maradiaga (Honduras), chair; Errazuriz Ossa (Chile); Gracias (India); Marx (Germany); Monsengwo Pasinya (DR Congo); O’Malley (USA); Pell (Australia), and one Italian Curia incumbent, Bertello. The secretary, Monsignor Semeraro, is also Italian.

The ideas being canvassed by reforming cardinals are quite radical. I cite, but number them for convenience of commenters:
1. “Term limits on Vatican jobs to prevent priests from becoming career bureaucrats.”
2. “Consolidated financial reports to remove the cloak of secrecy from the Vatican’s murky finances.”
3. “Regular Cabinet meetings where department heads actually talk to one another.”
4. “Bringing more laymen and women into the Vatican bureaucracy, ”

A thought experiment for policy wonk commenters. You have been appointed a consultant to the Gang of Eight. What is your advice to make the Vatican more efficient, honest, and responsive in serving the Pope, the bishops and the Catholic Church as a whole? To keep the exercise interestingly difficult, let us rule out changes in theology and basic structure, so no sounding off on reproductive rights, liberation theology, women priests, and Papal fallibility please. (I’m with you really! Trust me!)

To start you off, three more suggestions from me:
5. An FOI bull, throwing the archives systematically open to independent researchers after a short period, with exceptions for privacy (annulments).
6. Adopting English as the main day-to-day working language. With an Italian-Argentine Pope this will not work, but it follows the sensible practice of many non-Anglo multinational companies like ABB and Deutsche Bank.
7. Appointing women and lay cardinals. SFIK priestly orders are not technically required. Women have played leadership roles in the Church for centuries – probably more in the Dark Ages than now, with Hilda of Whitby and Odile of Alsace. Abbesses were usually like them Hilda surplus younger daughters of the nobility, and quite capable of steamrollering mere priests of lowly origins. [Update: Odile’s trajectory was a bit different – she rejected an arranged marriage and took to religion after a row with her (noble) father. It annoys Alsatian Catholics that the Vatican has never recognized her as a proper saint, possibly because of the unsettling example of independence, but that doesn’t stop them from venerating her at a hilltop shrine.]

I don’t have a good suggestion for making the Pope’s pro-poor rhetoric operational. An advisory committee of development economists (idea 8) looks rather feeble, but the Vatican does need a lot more expertise here not to let the pseudo-Marxists and neoliberals have all the best tunes. The Chinese Communists listened to Kenneth Arrow, why shouldn’t the Pope?

Source for photo

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

29 thoughts on “Reforming the Curia”

  1. With regard to (or perhaps, In re:) 5, wouldn’t Latin make much more sense, given the institution and (I think) the fact that priests learn Latin as part of their training (or at least did so until recently)?

    1. That’s the status quo, and look where it brought the Church. One of the immediate problems is cleaning up the Vatican bank. How do you talk about risk-weighted capital ratios and money laundering in Latin? Laboriously and inefficiently, if at all. The deeper problem is the isolation of the Curia from the laity and the non-Catholic world, including the world of ideas. Spanish would be better than Latin, but it has insignificant presence in Africa.

      1. While I don’t disagree with your larger point, money laundering is not a hard concept in a language that originated the phrase “pecunia non olet”. 🙂

        It’s also worth noting that there’s a Latin ATM in Vatican City.

      2. a) obviously I meant 6, not 5, but everyone seems to have recognized that mistake, so this is just a correction for the record, and
        b) apparently I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Perhaps the Church should return to the original Aramaic, or if that is too far back, Greek. Back to basics. If it works for schools, it should work for the college of cardinals!

        1. If you’re looking for a traditional religious language that can be used to talk about modern technology and so on, you could do worse than Hebrew. That would be fun.

    2. It would not be impossible — after all, Latin was the spoken language of a significant part of the human race once — but difficult. There are too few fluent speakers of Latin in the world.

      Part of the reason is that Latin is primarily being taught as a written language; you can study Latin for years without being required to speak it or to understand it in spoken form.

      The Latin grammar is more complex than the English one, with much of its structure depending on the suffixes of the inflected forms of a word; this potentially makes a poor choice for communication between speakers with different native languages, where pronunciation may vary.

      Latin also has a fairly small vocabulary, estimated at about 50k-60k words. This can make it difficult to capture modern concepts; while the vocabulary has been extended to cover some, this is often cumbersome, and sometimes you have to describe concepts that have established words in other languages in an ad-hoc fashion, making communication more difficult than necessary.

      In short: While it’s possible, you’d be creating obstacles to communication rather than facilitating communication.

      1. There are a bunch of interlocking problems with the Vatican’s use of Latin.

        I’m not worried about “lack of modern vocabulary”. This is something that languages handle really well and transparently. An English speaker learning Spanish probably thinks that “la bolsa de me madre” is cumbersome—“how do they get along without a real possessive?” I don’t know what circumlocutions Latin has invented for things like “hypertext” and “soap opera” and “district attorney”, but I’m sure that a fluent Latin speaker perceives them as ordinary compound words, not as cumbersome hacks.

        The problem is the tiny number of fluent Latin speakers. When you’re talking about running a large institution, you need good staff. How on Earth does the Vatican hire staff—secretaries, webmasters, accountants, archivists? From what tiny Latin-speaking talent pool do they draw? I’ve seen academic departments where the chair’s admin assistant was the biggest force for reform in the whole building; can the Vatican ever get that? Is there a two-tier system where fluent and non-fluent cardinals speak past one another? And Latin is a giant barrier for any sort of outside audit or assistance. What’s the Latin-speaking equivalent of Accenture or McKinsey?

  2. Excluding women priests from this discussion seems wrong to me. I think the Church’s problems basically are exactly what you would expect from an organization led by men who feel they never have to take direction from a woman.

    So if that’s off the table, the Church is unreformable. (Fortumately for Catholicism, I think that is on the table long term.)

    1. There is widespread corruption in governments, banks, schools, private companies, charitable organizations, law firms, Protestant and Jewish (etc. etc.) religious organizations, and community groups. All of which allow women in all manner of official and leadership positions. In other words, there is widespread corruption in groups of human beings.

      The Church’s problems are “basically what you would expect” from an organization. Period.

      1. Actually the child abuse coverup (reassigning priests so they could raape more kids) and the stupid teachings on nonprocreative sex are basically unique to Catholicism. And that’s what happens when you are led by men who feel God made them superior to women.

        1. The cover-up of sexual abuse to protect the institution from criticism is indeed evil. But its hardly unique to the Catholic Church. Similar behavior has been documented among other religious communities (including more than one Episcopal diocese that allows both married and female Priests) and among numerous public school systems – and that’s just in the U.S. Heck – even the BBC is currently on the ropes from revelations that network officials covered up sexual abuse on the part of a beloved children’s television star.

          And within the Catholic Church, numerous orders of nuns have been implicated in covering up sexual abuse – both on the part of their own (female) members and on the part of (male) priests who were posted to overlapping assignments with their members (look it up). The idea that the presence of more women in leadership positions in the Catholic Church would have resulted in less sexual abuse of minors or less cover-up of that abuse is highly debatable.

          By “stupid teachings on non-procreative sex” you basically mean “religious doctrines I don’t personally agree with.” Which is of course fine as far as it goes, though I wonder if you’d be so quick to say things like “stupid teachings on being God’s chosen people” or “stupid teachings on Muhammad being a Prophet of Allah” or “stupid teachings on the transmigration of souls.”

          1. They REASSIGNED priests so they could have fresh meat!

            I am sick of people defending that church on this. NOBODY else said “hey, go lead another cub scout troop” or “here’s another first grade class you could rape”. ONLY that church did that!

          2. And separately, no. Tax cuts for the rich I disagree with. Sex is wrong unless the two partners are open to conceiving a child is stupid. That means gay people have to remain celibate, unmarried people can’t learn if they are sexually compatible before marrying, people have no right to do one of the most enjoyable things with their bodies most of the time, couples where one partner has HIV can’t use a condom, and old people and infertile people only skate by because the church invents some additional convoluted reasoning to dampen the effect of their own doctrines.

            No, that stuff is stupid. And no, God doesn’t care about any of it. It’s just a bunch of men who are just smart enough to invent a logically consistent system but way too stupid to realize that logical consistency is not nearly the only thing that nattets.

          3. “I am sick of people defending that church on this. NOBODY else said “hey, go lead another cub scout troop” or “here’s another first grade class you could rape”. ONLY that church did that!”

            Leaving a scout leader who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse, or a public school teacher who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse, in their positions to avoid scandal is functionally equivalent to “reassigning” clergy from one posting to another.

            I’m not “defending the church on this” insofar as I acknowledge that every instance in which a Bishop failed to take action to remove a Priest who had sexually abused minors from ministry is an instance of terrible judgment at best and outright evil at worst. But I am pointing out the fact (because inconvenient as it may be to your narrative – it is a fact) that similar behavior has occurred frequently in other organizations that deal with children. And that these other organizations have neither an all-male or a celibate leadership structure.

            In my own public High School an English teacher was found to have kept a chart in his desk of the relative breast sizes of his female students, was accused by several female students of staring at them uncomfortably in class and was finally caught groping a female student after class. This became known to the administration and parents in the local community. As a punishment he was not allowed to teach “advanced” classes for two years and instead was forced to teach basic and remedial classes. He retired several years later with full benefits. The incidents in question occurred in the early 1990s and the teacher in question was married. The superintendent of public schools in my district was a woman.

            This kind of stuff is all too common in organizations large and small, religious and secular.

          4. No, Stephen, reassignment is worse, because the church is putting the priest in a new location where parents don’t know the guy’s past.

            And yes, the whole point of “other organizations do this too” is to try and minimize the fact that by reassigning priests, the bishops went far beyond covering up and actually aided and abetted the rapes.

            And NOT ONE of those bishops was even fired, another difference from secular organization.

            The Church was the only group that did these things. Because they don’t believe they have to listen to married mothers who would tell them it would not fly.

        2. I don’t think it’s the doctrine that matters, so much as the organizational structure and reach.

          The Catholic Church is a huge international organization with a very top-down administrative structure. Therefore, middle-level functionaries in the church, faced with a priest accused of abuse, not only had the ability to shuffle that priest off to a new location (over and over and over again), but the confidence that underlings who knew the truth would be unlikely to blab.

          By contrast, if, God forbid, the rabbi of my synagogue were suspected of abuse, nobody in the Jewish community has the power to reassign him to a synagogue in a city where nobody knows him, because the rabbi is an employee of the congregation and not of any larger institution. Obviously rabbis can commit abuse, and some have even gotten away with it for years, but there just aren’t the resources that allow religious leaders to cover things up at the same scale.

          This has nothing to do with the fact that rabbis can get married and priests cannot.

          However, one reason the Catholic Church has such a top-down administrative structure is that Pope John Paul II cracked down on dissident elements within the church—and most of those dissidents were more liberal than himself on matters of doctrine.

      2. Ah, yes! The “so’s your ol’ men” rationale.

        When the best “defense” one can muster is a playground taunt, perhaps one should rethink whether the conduct in question is defensible.

  3. #1 Strikes me as likely to do more harm than good. There is a learning curve in working in any large complex organization. Term limiting Vatican jobs might buy a bit less corruption but at the price of a lot more incompetence.

    #2 Strikes me as a good idea. Probably not massively impactful, but a good idea.

    #3 I’m deeply suspicious of. Maybe this would be good. But telling a bloated bureaucratic organization “you need to have more meetings!” doesn’t necessarily make things better.

    I generally think that a slow move in the direction of #4 is a good idea, and indeed the last two Popes have been doing so. But secular governments, which have lots of laypeople and women in them, tend to be corrupt from time to time too! Not a panacea.

    I’d need to think about #5 more. Maybe. #6 strikes me as a singularly horrible idea.

    #7 is the real sea change in terms of structure and outward appearances. But I don’t think it would change things much – for the same reason that I don’t think #4 is a panacea. Appointing more non-Bishop clergy as Cardinals seems a bit more likely.

    The “corruption” problem at the Vatican is really two problems: 1) A problem of slowness and 2) A problem of nefarious self-dealing. The fixes for the two are not necessarily the same (Indeed one could envision a scenario in which either problem were addressed while the other was left untouched).

    There are other problems that people identify in the Church that are not instances of Vatican corruption per se. For example, some people don’t much like Catholic doctrine and think that “reforming” the Vatican will result in changes to doctrine. Pack a big picnic basket for the wait. And some people don;t like the Church’s response to the various sexual abuse scandals. But this has been mostly a problem of corruption at the level of local dioceses, somewhat amplified by the “problem of slowness” cited above and the fact that under Roman Catholic Canon Law the Vatican isn’t nearly as empowered to discipline local Church officials as the popular imagination would suspect. Again – “reforming” the Vatican by itself wouldn’t change that much absent a change in Canon Law that would further centralize administrative power in Rome.

    1. “under Roman Catholic Canon Law the Vatican isn’t nearly as empowered to discipline local Church officials as the popular imagination would suspect”

      Oh please. Let a bishop suggest that abortion may not always be a sin, or ordain a woman or marry a gay couple, and the Vatican acts plenty fast. Because, unlike pedophilia, those are offenses the Vatican cares about.

    2. Down the road, a Curia that’s staffed by term-limited priests from all over the world, with women and laymen in positions of responsibility, would have a different institutional culture. It might down the road be more open to changes like women priests. We know the current Curia cannot be.

  4. More power to the parishes. I imagine that the theology dictates that only the pope may appoint cardinals, so straight-up congregationalism is off the table. However, theology says nothing about how cardinal’s jobs are assigned. Let’s have some broad Catholic body—“the priests” or “everyone with holy orders” or, God forbid, “the parishoners”—vote on which cardinal occupies which Curia office.

    1. “I imagine that the theology dictates that only the pope may appoint cardinals, so straight-up congregationalism is off the table.”

      I doubt anything prevents the Pope, as a voluntary rule, from choosing cardinals (and bishops) based on nominations from the laity.

  5. Close to term limits are age limits. They would encourage the appointment of younger people, which (at least in the Vatican) would be a good thing.

    Also, appointment of unbelievers in the integrity jobs (audit, non-Canon legal) wouldn’t be a bad idea. The committee of development economists should, however, be devout Catholic, preferably with some strong theological background. This is the one place where Catholic theology probably has the most to contribute to the discourse of unbelievers.

    1. I like your unbelievers idea. There are precedents: eunuchs in the courts of Chinese and Arab autocrats, the Hofjuden of the Habsburgs, the Emperor Claudius’ Greek freedmen. Advisers who are strictly disqualified for higher office are more likely to be disinterested. Perhaps my advisory committee should be of Jewish economists – Arrow, Krugman, Stiglitz.

      1. Jewish economists? Please no. I know my people; they’ll start arguing with the Canon lawyers on matters of doctrine.

        Jokes aside, I don’t think that Jewish or Muslim economists would be particularly useful. Judaism and Islam (or generic Western unbelief) are far more friendly to commerce than Christianity, Calvinism notwithstanding. A Christian–especially Catholic–economist would be bilingual in a sense that a Jew or Muslim could not, lowering the risk of mutual incomprehension. Of course, this would not apply to the proper individual. But how do you select for cultural empathy?

        1. The argument would at least make a change. I left off Nicholas Stern from my little list of eminent liberal Jewish economists – I’m sure you could think of others. The difficult criterion is liberal.

          The objection doesn’t hold for Protestant economists, who would steer well clear of sola fide. There is I suspect little difference between the statements on inequality, unemployment and climate change coming out of the Vatican, Lambeth Palace and the German Lutherans. American evangelicals are a different kettle of fish, but do they offer any eminent economists?

  6. If the Church is supposed to be a hierarchical organization, couldn’t it be said that one of its bigger problems is that too much goes on, too many decisions are made, under the aegis of people who aren’t responsible or answerable to the pope (any pope) in any meaningful way?

    That’s natural to some extent– it’s a common pattern in bureaucracies, I think, and in this case, after 1600 years or so there are bound to be deep-rooted satrapies– particularly considering that many were created over the centuries specifically to side-step other ingrown satrapies or to evade or encroach on organizational power centers. In my lifetime the popes seem to have been either interested in other things, or too old, or too captive to some of those satrapies, to want to do much of anything affecting the Church’s top-level organization. Ideology, theology, and doctrine, as Anderson says, are different. This pope, though at least as old as his predecessors, has experienced the organization from the provinces for most of his career; that makes a huge difference and may have convinced him to make this a high priority.

    Seems to me a likely result would be more high officials who owe their position to the pope of the day. Fitting, in that the instrument is a special committee that owes its appointment to the pope of the day, and that it’s dominated by provincials.

  7. #1 would be a tough sell but perhaps necessary to remind the clergy that priesthood means being in the service of the church and not the other way around.
    #5 is very good.
    #6 won’t/shouldn’t be imposed.
    #7: the rules for the cardinalate have changed over time. i don’t know if women and laypersons can be named cardinals but i *think* they can. if so, certainly do it.

    and yes the international nature of that committee is a very good sign.

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