• John Thavis

Don't look for laity in top Roman Curia positions under reform plans

Updated: Feb 19

“Downsizing expectations.”


That’s the title I’d give Father Federico Lombardi’s briefing today on the College of Cardinals’ meeting to discuss Roman Curia reform.


For one thing, the cardinals were told it could take years to complete the reforms. An explicit comparison was made to Pope John Paul II’s modifications to the Roman Curia, which took 10 years to design and implement, with multiple stages of consultation and approval.


I’m not sure Pope Francis has 10 years to dedicate to this project.


The cardinals were also offered a vague outline of a proposal to combine six or seven pontifical councils into two new congregations, which are more important Curial agencies. The hypothesis, which has been floating around a while, would foresee a Congregation for Laity, Family and Life, and a Congregation for Charity, Justice and Peace.


The latter congregation, Father Lombardi said, may have a special sector for environmental issues and “human ecology,” which are the focus of an encyclical that Pope Francis is expected to publish this year.


But the Vatican spokesman illustrated the limits of change when he said it was “unthinkable” for any Vatican congregation – even one for laity – to be headed by a lay person. Because of the level of responsibility involved, that position will no doubt continue to be filled by a cardinal, he said.


That tells me that whatever the pope’s advisors have in mind, Curia reform is not going to touch the fundamental clerical framework of decision-making in the Vatican.


Nor is there serious discussion of adding a “moderator” office to the Roman Curia, a position responsible for coordinating the various activities of the Vatican’s many agencies. The role of moderator will probably be implicit in the role of the Secretariat of State, which would be no change at all.


In this morning’s discussions, it appears that even relatively modest proposals like rolling some councils into congregations met with objections. Some said congregations had a traditional function in church governance, while councils did not.


There were different points of view, as well, on whether term limits for Curia officials made sense. Some favored distinct terms, and others thought experience sometimes argued for open-ended terms.


The cardinals only began to explore the concepts of collegiality and synodality, which the pope wants to strengthen in the way the Roman Curia functions. Those issues probably offer material for many years of further discussion.


It seems to me that it may take some forceful leadership moves by Pope Francis to advance this reform movement beyond the “endless study” stage.

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