Beware the Pitfalls of Curial Reform

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A structural reform of the Roman Curia has been one of the goals of Pope Francis and a reason why he was elected pope. Even some in the Curia support the idea. The last two major reforms were made by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, yet many think what they did no longer works.

Details of the Francis reform have emerged, revealing a number of major changes: a missionary uber-dicastery (for evangelization) will be established, and curial offices will no longer be distinguished by rank. Instead of congregations, dicasteries, and pontifical councils, all will be dicasteries. The rationale behind this act of Roman equality is yet unknown. The ultimate number of dicasteries is also unknown. In the area of Vatican finances, arguably the one most in need of reform, serious change seems to be delayed for now. Earlier attempts, including the auditing of the Vatican Bank, ran into stiff resistance. This needs to be rectified because it is in this part of Vatican bureaucracy that corruption is most at home. Moreover, the success of the proposed reform will largely depend on how the dicasteries are funded. I suspect that a hidden motive for the new reforms deals with acknowledging financial constraints.

The creation of a new dicastery for evangelization is very timely: for decades, there has been much talk in the Church about evangelization, but very little action. Aligning the administration with the theological priorities of the Church is most appropriate. With his access to favorable press and goodwill within elite circles, Pope Francis may be in a near perfect position to launch this initiative without it being criticized as an example of proselytism. Making evangelization a priority, rather than one of many pastoral and charitable activities of the Church, is a step in the right direction.

Evangelization is something the Gospel demands and the faith itself teaches. However, it is not logically correct to think that effective evangelization requires the pope to “demote” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Sharing the faith makes sense only if a correct expression of that faith comes first. In turn, Christian teaching not only gives evangelization the highest priority, it also determines what it is and how it is practiced. A proper understanding of the faith would help identify what strategies to avoid because they only serve to undermine the faith.

 

The official line will most likely be that the “Holy Office” has not been demoted since all dicasteries are now equal. Such diplomatic spin merely hides the fact that not all things are equally important even if they are all important and essential. The hierarchy of truths applies here, too. And it is exactly the faith that tells us about priorities, in particular those priorities that do not change over time. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith was once called, at least jokingly, “The Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office” for a reason. The faith is what guides the mission of the whole Church, including the Roman Curia. It also defines its limits. There is no good governance and leadership without the ability to say “no.”

The Roman Curia was changed substantially when Paul VI elevated the Secretariat of State to the level of de facto uber-dicastery. Since Paul VI’s reform, the Church is no longer governed by a collegial assembly of cardinals under the pope’s presidency which made the most important decisions and coordinated the work of the whole Curia. Instead, administrative power shifted to the very non-collegially organized Secretariat of State, and to its diplomatic personnel. The impact of this decision on how the Vatican is governed should not be underestimated: influence shifted from a doctrinal to a political/administrative organ, and at the same time from an assembly of (equal) cardinals to a more-government style office (with a clear chain of command).

Despite this change, Paul VI continued to respect the particular (though no longer supreme) role the “Holy Office” had to play in the functioning of the Curia, and indeed in the life of the Church. The role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) can be illustrated by two anecdotes: 1) A Protestant friend looking for a simple expression of what distinguished the Catholic Church from his own once said to me, “You Catholics have the Holy Office, and we don’t!” 2) Meeting with the superiors of the CDF, some bishops lamented that many people complain to Rome about local doctrinal matters, and that these people are often psychologically unbalanced and should not be taken seriously. Cardinal Ratzinger’s reply was difficult to dispute: the issue is not whether the complainants are crazy but whether their complaints have merit and are true or not.

The fact remains, episcopal conferences (and dioceses) around the world (with few exceptions) do not efficiently exercise doctrinal oversight—which happens to be a core mission of bishops. Apparently, they either underestimate the importance of right doctrine, or they prefer “Rome” to be the bad guy. If the reformed Curia will motivate bishops (and their conferences) to step up their doctrinal game, this would be significant progress; alas, I am not yet convinced they will. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also convincingly argued that one of the key factors that led to the abuse crisis in the Church was doctrinal confusion and infidelity. This is another powerful argument against any structural proposal that wants to limit the importance of doctrine for the life and governance of the Church.

The new configuration of the Curia, with a focus on faith and evangelization, is an opportunity for renewal that the Church should not waste. Success will depend on the recognition that faith defines evangelization, not the other way round. After all, only the truth will set us free. Just as the reforms of Paul VI had the unintended consequence of elevating diplomatic and political considerations over doctrinal ones, the new reform might well prioritize the pastoral over the doctrinal. For a long time, being “pastoral” has been an excuse and justification for watering down Catholic doctrine and liturgy. This undermined evangelization by causing significant harm to the Church’s sense of mission. “Pastoral” prioritizing always lowers the demands of the Gospel in two ways: it accommodates the requirements of faith to what appears acceptable (mainly to rich white people), and, more importantly, reduces the power of divine grace and mercy to what (mostly the same rich white) people think they need and want.

More practically, the success of the new reforms on the Church will very much depend on how the roles of Secretariat of State and Holy Office are defined in relation to the new Evangelization office, and to other more pastoral dicasteries. Evangelization is about sharing the faith, about preaching the Gospel, about Martyria. We know from the Gospel and from experience, both past and present, that the Church will neither be capable of, nor successful in, evangelization if it adopts a program of accommodation. Faith is not the “only” thing that counts, but it certainly should come first for those who preach it; otherwise what those listening to them will hear is not the real thing, and they will never come to actually embrace it. Faith comes from hearing—from hearing the Word of Christ—which is the faith (cf. Rom. 10:17).

I am also somewhat surprised that Pope Francis seeks to replace the classical term “congregation” with “dicastery.” Why would he choose to downplay the collegial and synodal character of these institutions which in fact should be emphasized, even re-discovered, especially if the Holy Father would like to link their work more closely with the mission of diocesan bishops? It is ironic, in fact, how Pope Francis, who so often speaks about collegiality and decentralization, has rarely held a substantial consistory, i.e., an assembly of his cardinals. How will he define his own role and how will he exercise the Petrine ministry in respect to the new Roman dicasteries? Would it not be a good idea to return to the ancient form of a collegial church governance, in something like congregations and consistories, where the pope is directly involved, exercising his authority, but also listening to viewpoints that differ from his own?

For the sake of evangelization and overcoming other challenges in the Church, the Roman Curia should not become an apparatus similar to government departments, where offices are run by a minister serving at the pope’s pleasure, while their synodical role is less and less significant. This would undermine the quality of their work and violate their ecclesial nature. This is especially important because finding strategies for evangelization that work globally will turn out to be much more difficult than exercising universal doctrinal oversight. Theologically, the new Vatican emphasis on evangelization will need to be integrated into the pope’s primacy of teaching; yet, issuing directions for evangelization will hardly be of the same binding nature as doctrinal (or jurisdictional) decisions. Today, the congregations are superior to bishops in authority and, therefore, can be asked by the faithful to render binding decisions. Because the work of evangelization is different by its very nature, this new dicastery will not need to make equally authoritative decisions.

The ultimate goal of curial reform must be the preservation and preaching of the Gospel. The apostolic and prophetic logic still applies: “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for ‘their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” It all depends on those words being authentic, orthodox, and true. Faith in God—the authority of truth—is supreme in the Church and nothing else is salvific or can motivate and justify the work of evangelization. Anything else is doctrinally untenable, pastorally incoherent, and ultimately catastrophic in its results. As Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us, true evangelizers must be “cooperators in the truth.”

 (Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano/CNA)

Msgr. Hans Feichtinger

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Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is a priest of the Diocese of Passau, Germany. He holds an STD from the Augustinianum in Rome, a Ph.D. from the Faculty of Philosophy SJ in Munich, and an MA in Classics from Dalhousie University. He was an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2004-2012. Msgr. Feichtinger is now the pastor of St. George and St. Albertus parishes and teaches at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada.

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