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  • John Thavis

As Curia reform moves (slowly) forward, Cardinal Muller weighs in

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

I’ve seen this week described as “crucial” for Pope Francis and his plans for Vatican reform, a “turning point” in his pontificate, a make-or-break moment for the Francis “revolution.”

But so far, there have been no dramatic announcements and no final decisions, just a series of progress reports from an array of councils and commissions that seem to meet a few times a year.

This doesn’t mean important things aren’t happening. But they are happening at a slower pace than many would have foreseen two years ago.

Pope Francis came out of the gate fast. Elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia and streamline Vatican structures, he quickly named a council of eight cardinals (now nine), established financial watchdog agencies and let it be known that his reforms would be deep, not superficial. Later he set up a child protection commission, another commission to revamp Vatican communications and brought in outside consultants to make recommendations on best practices.

But Francis soon came face to face with an inconvenient reality: The Vatican operates in its own time zone, a dimension where you can check your watch and calendar at the door, and where change is always in slow-motion.

When Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters that he hopes the statutes for the Secretariat for the Economy (instituted a year ago) will be ready soon, there was soft laughter in the room. The reporters know that, in Vatican time, “soon” can mean months or even years.

Today, Lombardi was asked whether the College of Cardinals, when they meet Thursday and Friday, will be reviewing a draft for the new constitution of the Roman Curia. The answer was no.

“We’re still in a phase of considering the outline of the structure of (Vatican) agencies. Considering that legal experts are being consulted when these texts are pulled together, it’s not going to happen in a very brief time,” the spokesman said.

Yesterday, Lombardi referred to an interim report presented by the commission studying how to better coordinate the Vatican’s media structures. He underlined that it was too early, of course, to be looking for final proposals – the commission began its work only five months ago. But before that, there was a separate seven-month study of Vatican media by outside consultants.

The Vatican’s child protection commission held a press conference this week, and its members sounded mildly optimistic about the progress they had made. But Peter Saunders, an abuse survivor and commission member, summed things up when he said: “I have learned that the church and the Vatican operate in a slightly different time dimension than the rest of us.” Given that reality, he said he was willing to allow the Vatican another year or two to take steps to make bishops accountable for covering up abuse cases.

The line-up of important meetings at the Vatican this month has included the Council for the Economy, a 15-member panel of lay and clerical experts. They are trying to figure out how the Vatican’s new economic agencies will operate and coordinate their specific activities. One big task is to more clearly define the competencies and authority of the Secretariat for the Economy, headed by Australian Cardinal George Pell. This month’s meeting ended with no conclusions, at least none that were published. (Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, who is on the council, said after the meeting that the rollout of economic reforms has been met with some resistance, even by those who were “shouting the loudest” for the Vatican to clean up its act during the 2013 conclave.)

In a sense, this is the “working out the details” phase following the bold steps announced by the pope. But it’s a phase that involves not only issues of efficiency and transparency, but also questions about the very nature of the Roman Curia.

That was the subject of a very interesting article written by Cardinal Gerhard Muller and published a few days ago in the Vatican newspaper. Cardinal Muller, who heads the doctrinal congregation, said it was important that Pope Francis’ reform project be understood as a spiritual purification, and not as a rearranging of ecclesial power, influence and prestige.

He strongly defended the traditional role of the Roman Curia, which he said helps the pope in a special way to exercise his primacy, reflecting the unique function of the “Roman Church” in the pastoral and doctrinal governance of popes.

“The Synod of Bishops, bishops’ conferences and the various groupings of particular churches belong to a category that is theologically different from the Roman Curia,” he said.

For that reason, Muller said, decentralizing the church’s administrative structures “does not mean giving more power to bishops’ conferences.” As for the Synod of Bishops, he said, it does not really belong to the Roman Curia.

“The Curia and the Synod are formally distinguished by the fact that the Roman Curia supports the pope in his service for unity, while the Synod of Bishops is an expression of the catholicity of the church,” he said.

Cardinal Muller’s words seemed to sound a note of caution about Pope Francis’ idea of enhancing “synodality” in church governance. There has been talk, for example, about giving the Synod of Bishops more authority, or of making the pope’s “Council of Nine” a permanent advisory body that would give greater voice to the world’s bishops in papal decision-making.

Muller’s article helps explain why the pope cannot rearrange the Vatican’s bureaucratic landscape overnight. Francis would face objections and resistance if reform is not done carefully, and with some level of consensus. There is an equal risk, however, of allowing time to slow the pope’s momentum and take the edge off reforms.

I remember that when Pope John Paul II unveiled his reform of the Roman Curia, it turned out to be a rather disappointing touch-up rather than an upheaval. It was a project that took the Polish pope ten years – a flash in Vatican time.

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