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Robert Royal | author
Nov 01, 2014
Filed under Columns

Pope Francis and Vatican reform

ROBERT ROYAL contends that Pope Francis’ reforms are moving along smoothly . . .

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

It’s an old joke. A pope is asked how many people work at the Vatican. He replies: “About half!” But the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the Church, is no joke.

And Pope Francis — following the wishes of the cardinals who elected him — has made Curia reform a central concern of his papacy. Indeed, he’s gone so far as to appoint a nine-member council of cardinal advisers to revise Pastor Bonus, St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, which specifies how the Curia is to function.

About 3,000 people work at the Vatican — 2,400 are lay people involved in the practical running of the tiny city-state, not the governance of the worldwide Church. There are always calls for the Curia to be reformed and simplified, a good goal, properly understood. But simplicity has to be balance alongside some other considerations:

• The Catholic Church has 1.3 billion members scattered across all seven continents (the U.S. has one-quarter that number and there are 3 million federal employees).
• Exact numbers vary, of course, but at any moment there are roughly 5,200 bishops, more than 400,000 priests, and tens of thousands of men and women in religious orders.
• The Church is the largest provider of charitable and social services of various kinds throughout the world.
• Catholic charitable organizations carry out complicated financial transactions involving individual governments, crossing multiple national borders and legal systems.

And that’s just for starters. The Vatican has large responsibilities — not only of teaching and sanctifying — but of governing the largest and longest continuously existing institution in the world. So even as the Pope has consolidated some offices, he’s creating others. He constantly reminds the world that everything must be oriented towards the Church’s only mission: to bring people to the love of Christ and neighbor.

Francis’ reforms must proceed between two necessities. He’s changed personnel in the Congregation for Bishops, for example, which with only a small staff and about 30 bishop-advisors handles the replacement of bishops who retire or die around the world. It also manages the ad limina visits that all the world’s bishops make on a rotating five-year basis to the Holy See. Similarly, the Roman Rota and Signatura — both appeals courts of a kind — deal with many cases from around the globe each year, with only a small staff. When a diocese goes a long time without a bishop or someone waits years for a final decision on a complicated annulment, it’s often because of the staff-to-case workload. Francis has created a new commission to study annulments, and he wants to streamline and perhaps even shift the way in which the Church handles such problems, even marriage questions.

Pope Francis has moved most boldly, perhaps, in reforming the Secretariat of State and the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), colloquially called the Vatican Bank. He’s made the Secretariat of State much more directly accountable to him personally. The IOR has long been accused of vulnerability to corruption — less theft than “money laundering,” shifting of funds across national borders for unclear purposes. Francis appointed a new set of financial managers to bring the IOR into harmony with European transparency and banking rules. He went even further on the economic front in February, creating a new Secretariat for the Economy, led by Australian Cardinal George Pell.

Since Benedict XVI, the Church has also been seeking to bring global charitable donations in line with Catholic moral and spiritual principles. Caritas International, for example, had been dealing with local organizations and governments in many countries. Some believed that this had led to compromises on morally contested questions such as contraception, abortion and homosexuality. Initially, the plan was to bring all charitable contributions under the aegis of Roman offices, but that proved unworkable (rules for 501(c)3 non-profits in the U.S., Britain, and France, for example, prohibit the wholesale transfer of donations to foreign entities). Other arrangements, however, are in the works.

And all this has to be organized while the Vatican continues to welcome tourists and pilgrims, preserve the artistic and musical patrimony of the Church, maintain diplomatic relations with 180 countries, and engage in special missions to promote peace in places like the Middle East, where no one else speaks with such moral authority.

It’s a huge task. And maybe an even bigger one to attempt reforming how the whole operates. But Francis has shown in just 20 months a capacity to move the large mass of the Church forward with skill, energy and love.

ROBERT ROYAL is an author and founder of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing.


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  1. Pingback: What Do 2,400 Vatican Workers Actually Do? | Defenders of the Catholic Faith | Hosted by Stephen K. Ray

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