Must the Roman Curia be Italian?

Although he’s not very well known in the U.S., save among members of the Sant’Egidio community (of which he’s the founding father), Andrea Riccardi is a major figure in the Catholic Church in Italy: a historian of the papacy, a commentator on all things Catholic, and a player in various ecclesiastical dramas.

Most recently, according to Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, Riccardi has taken to defending the Italian character of the Roman Curia, which, after a period of internationalization, has become more pronounced over the past decade. Magister quotes Riccardi as arguing that “the Curia cannot become a kind of U.N., because it is part of the Roman Church and must maintain a particular ecclesial, human and cultural connection with it.”

Permit me to disagree.

The pope is the Bishop of Rome; Rome is an Italian see; the pope governs the diocese of Rome through a cardinal vicar. It is entirely appropriate that the cardinal vicar be Italian and that the personnel of the Vicariate of Rome be predominantly Italian; they are, after all, at the service of the local Roman Church.

Because he is the Bishop of Rome, the pope is also “the universal pastor of the Church” (a title used by the Vatican’s official yearbook in noting the beginning of the pope’s solemn initiation of his Petrine ministry). The more traditional title, “supreme pontiff of the universal Church,” denotes the same reality. In this Petrine service as supreme pastor of the Church throughout the world, the pope employs the Roman Curia. Curial history is complex and need not detain us here; the crucial point is that the Curia today exists to inform and give effect to the pope’s ministry as pastor of the universal Church. The Vicariate of Rome attends to the pope’s mission as a local bishop; the Curia attends to the pope’s ministry as supreme pontiff of the universal Church.

Andrea Riccardi is quite right that “the Curia cannot become a kind of U.N.,” but probably not for the reason he intends. The Curia ought not be “a kind of “U.N.” because the U.N. is a self-serving, bloated and often corrupt bureaucracy. But it makes no sense, today, to argue that the Curia is “part of the Roman Church,” save in the obvious sense that it is located in Rome and therefore takes part in the life of the local Roman Church. The Curia’s purpose, however, is not local but universal: and that is why it is counterintuitive to suggest that any one national culture has a particular aptitude for staffing the Roman Curia, or that the Roman Curia as a 21st century institution has a unique connection to the local Roman Church.

It is true that the Curia’s modus operandi remains largely Italianate and that Italian language competence is a sine qua non of effective service in the Curia today. But the former is not without its difficulties, as the Banco Ambrosiano scandal of the early 1980s, the oft-remarked languid Curial pace, and persisting patterns of Curial cronyism and nepotism ought to demonstrate. And while the Roman Curia may well be the last holdout against English as the primary working language of international centers across the globe, it will almost certainly succumb at some point.

In his service as universal pastor of the Church, the pope must be able to draw on talent from all over the world Church; Italy will surely contribute some of that talent, but it has no monopoly on it. Curialists often speak of “the way we do things here.” Yet those ways, some impressive, some not, were formed in a distinctive epoch of Catholic history – Counter-Reformation Catholicism – that is coming to an end. The universal ministry of the pope in the Evangelical Catholicism to which Vatican II and the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI are giving birth is going to require a different kind of central administration, a different kind of Roman Curia.

It certainly shouldn’t be “a kind of U.N.” But there is no reason for it to be dominantly Italian, either.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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