• John Thavis

Decision time on Vatican reforms? "Pazienza"

I’m in Rome, where Pope Francis’ “Group of 8” cardinal-advisors are meeting this week to discuss prospects for administrative and economic reforms at the Vatican.

As Francis’ one-year mark approaches, many are expecting to see the pope’s reform agenda take concrete shape in structural changes, new policies and bureaucratic streamlining.

But judging by the comments of Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, the week is likely to pass without major decisions on reforms.

That kind of lengthy timeline is not a surprise to those who have followed Vatican affairs – Pope John Paul II’s Curia reform effort took 10 years to prepare, and it was a relatively minor touch-up of the Vatican’s network of offices.

But I think the wider audience will soon be asking, What’s the hold-up?

Part of the answer is that Pope Francis has named several advisory bodies, in addition to existing ones, to help him in the reform process. Their tasks sometimes overlap, and that complicates things.

This week and next week, for example, the Vatican is experiencing a virtual gridlock of commissions, councils and consistories. There’s the commission on administrative and economic reforms and a separate commission on the future of the Vatican bank, both of which have reported to the Council of 8. Tomorrow, the “Council of 15,” an advisory body of cardinals established by Pope John Paul II to monitor financial affairs, will meet with the Council of 8. Thursday and Friday, a special consistory of cardinals will discuss themes of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family, and next week the synod’s secretariat will hold a two-day meeting. The Council of 15 will hold its own session next week, too.

For reporters asking when decision-time might arrive, Father Lombardi was very cautious, noting that all these entities are advisory. Essentially, Pope Francis will decide when to decide.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, who with 18 others will become a cardinal at a special liturgy Saturday, has been actively taking part in the meetings of the Group of 8. No one would be surprised if the pope makes Parolin a permanent member of the group, which would mean that the Secretariat of State would be weighing in on every proposed reform.

Let’s not forget that the Vatican has also hired outside consulting agencies to help simplify and coordinate its bureaucratic structures, especially in communication, and has turned to other financial management consultants to review Vatican financial practices. Their input also must be evaluated.

At today’s briefing, Lombardi cast doubt on predictions that the major reform decisions could be made by late April, when the Council of 8 is expected to meet again in Rome.

If I had to predict, I’d say that the framework for reforming the Vatican’s economic affairs and in particular the Vatican bank will come first, and changes in Roman Curia offices will take shape much later.

(UPDATE: On Wednesday, Father Lombardi said the two commissions looking at financial affairs handed in sets of proposals to the pope, who will now study them. That’s further evidence that Francis wants to move more quickly on the financial reforms.)

Meanwhile, the Synod of Bishops has a fixed date, Oct. 5-19, and it is expected to take up some controversial topics, including the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Father Lombardi emphasized that the cardinals’ two-day meeting this week on these topics would not “pre-empt” the synod, but was merely a free discussion without proposals or recommendations.

Much has been made of the fact that Cardinal Walter Kasper, who long ago recommended a degree of pastoral flexibility for divorced Catholics, will be giving the opening talk at the cardinals’ meeting. I have no doubt that participants will also hear a strong defense of the current policy, which prohibits divorced Catholics who have remarried civilly without an annulment from receiving the sacraments. For many cardinals, the issue boils down to the defense of marriage as indissoluble.

One member of the Group of 8, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, suggested in a recent interview that part of Curia reform might mean bringing in a married couple to head the Pontifical Council for the Family. Father Lombardi said he knew of no concrete proposal to do that, but he said there were a lot of ideas floating around.

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