Pope Francis and his reforms: Which stage are we at?

What progress has been made by Pope Francis in reforming the various sections of the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the Catholic Church?

 By Aldo Maria Valli, RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana S.P.A.) [www.aldomariavalli.it]

The Pope drew up a summary of the current situation with regard to reforming the Roman Curia in the speech he made to the Curia on 22 December 2016, responding to their Christmas greetings. Nearly four years after his election on 13 March 2013, he listed the steps he has taken so far:

  • “On 13 April 2013 it was announced that the Council of Cardinals (Consilium Cardinalium Summo Pontifici) – the C8 and, after 1 July 2014, the C9 – was created, primarily to counsel the Pope on the governance of the universal Church and on other related topics, and with the specific task of proposing the revision of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus.
  • With the Chirograph [Apostolic Letter] of 24 June 2013, the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Institute for Works of Religion was established, in order to study the legal status of the IOR and to enable its greater “harmonization” with “the universal mission of the Apostolic See”. This was “to ensure that economic and financial activities be permeated by Gospel principles” and to achieve a complete and acknowledged transparency in its operation.
  • With the Motu Proprio of 11 July 2013, provisions were made to define the jurisdiction of the judicial authorities of Vatican City State in criminal matters.
  • With the Chirograph of 18 July 2013, the COSEA (Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure) was instituted and charged with research, analysis and the gathering of information, in cooperation with the Council of Cardinals for the study of the organizational and economic problems of the Holy See.
  • With the Motu Proprio of 8 August 2013, the Holy See’s Financial Security Committee was established, for the prevention and countering of money laundering, the financing of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This was to bring the IOR and the entire Vatican economic system to the regular adoption of, and fully committed and diligent compliance with, all international legal norms on financial transparency.


  • With the Motu Proprio of 15 November 2013, the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA), established by Benedict XVI with his Motu Proprio of 30 December 2010 for the prevention and countering of illegal activities in the area of monetary and financial dealings, was consolidated.
  • With the Motu Proprio 24 February 2014 (Fidelis Dispensator et Prudens), the Secretariat for the Economy and the Council for the Economy were established to replace the Council of 15 Cardinals, with the task of harmonizing the policies of control in regard to the economic management of the Holy See and the Vatican City.
  • With the same Motu Proprio of 24 February 2014, the Office of Auditor General (URG) was established as a new agency of the Holy See, charged with auditing the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the institutions connected with to the Holy See or associated with it, and the administrations of the Governatorate of Vatican City.
  • With the Chirograph of 22 March 2014, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was established, “to promote the protection of the dignity of minors and vulnerable adults, using the forms and methods, consonant with the nature of the Church, which they consider most appropriate”.
  • With the Motu Proprio of 8 July 2014, the Ordinary Section of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See was transferred to the Secretariat for the Economy.
  • On 22 February 2015, the Statutes of the new economic agencies were approved.
  • With the Motu Proprio of 27 June 2015, the Secretariat for Communication was established and charged “to respond to the current context of communication, characterized by the presence and evolution of digital media, and by factors of convergence and interactivity”. The Secretariat was also charged with overall restructuring, through a process of reorganization and merging of “all the realities which in various ways up to the present have dealt with communications”, so as to “respond ever better to the needs of the mission of the Church”.
  • With the two Motu Proprios of 15 August 2015, provisions were made for the reform of the canonical process in cases of declaration of marital nullity: Mitis et Misericors Iesus for the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches, and Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus for the Code of Canon Law.
  • With the Motu Proprio of 4 June 2016 (As a loving mother), an effort was made to prevent negligence on the part of bishops in the exercise of their office, especially with regard to cases of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.
  • With the Motu Proprio of 4 July 2016 (I beni temporali), following the important principle that agencies of oversight should be separate from those overseen, the respective areas of competence of the Secretariat for the Economy and of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See were better defined.
  • With the Motu Proprio of 15 August 2016 (Sedula Mater), the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life was established, in the light of the general pastoral purpose of the Petrine ministry: “I hasten to arrange all things necessary in order that the richness of Christ Jesus may be poured forth appropriately and profusely among the faithful”.
  • With the Motu Proprio of 17 August 2016 (Humanam progressionem), the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development was established, so that development can take place “by attending to the inestimable goods of justice, peace and the care of creation”. Beginning in January 2017, four Pontifical Councils – Justice and Peace, Cor Unum, Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and Healthcare Workers – will be merged into this Dicastery. For the time being, I will directly head the section for the pastoral care of migrants in the new Dicastery.
  • On 18 October 2016, the Statutes of the Pontifical Academy for Life were approved.”


A lot of fish to fry

Clearly, Pope Francis has a lot of fish to fry. Practially every sector of the Curia is involved in one way or another in the reforms he has instituted: economy, finance, administration, tribunals, canon law, social communication, health, lay-people, family, and life. There are some very sensitive topics: financial transparency, consistency between evangelizing mission and economics, simplification of processes, effective communication, marriage annulments, paedophilia, the protection of young people, and migrants.

What is the bottom line?

We can find the driving force behind it all in what Pope Francis said on 16 March 2013, just three days after being elected. Speaking to media representatives whom he had invited to the Vatican, about why he chose the name Francis, he exclaimed, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” He wants a lighter Curia, not weighed down by bureaucracy; he wants a body that is truly at the service of the mission to evangelize, and is also a model for the whole Church, an example of Christian living and witness.

The Roman Curia has been reformed repeatedly by previous Popes, but it is semper reformanda – constantly in need of reforming. The world changes, current needs change, and the pace of life changes. The Curia exists to serve the Church, and so, in order to serve the Pope and the Church in the best way, it also needs to change. But as Pope Francis explained at the beginning of the consistory on 12 February 2015, the purpose of the reform is not merely the efficient functioning of the various offices. There is a higher goal: “Reform is not an end in itself, but a means to bear a stronger Christian testimony; to favour a more effective evangelization; to promote a more fruitful ecumenical spirit; to encourage a more constructive dialogue with all.”


Reform as conversion

We know that the Pope has rebuked people in the Curia on different occasions. In his speech of 22 December 2014 he even listed 15 serious “diseases” that could be contracted by people who work for the Holy See or the Vatican City State. This is why what he wants first and foremost is the inner reform which we call conversion. He knows there will always be problems (“because we are men, because we are sinners,” he said to journalists on his journey home from the Holy Land on 26 May 2014), but that will not put him off the work of reform.

In Evangelii Gaudium, no. 26, Pope Francis says that “even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s ‘fidelity to her own calling’, any new structure will soon prove ineffective.”

What method is he following?

Pope Francis has said that at least to begin with he did not have a fully worked-out plan. On 5 March 2014 he said to Ferruccio De Bortoli, then Editor of Corriere della Sera, “Last March I had no plan for changing the Church.”

His guiding thread is pastoral. Pope Francis wants to renew the organizations that work with him and for him so that, as it says in the Motu Proprio Humanam progressionem, dated 17 August 2016, that set up the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, all of them “may better meet the needs of the men and women whom they are called to serve.”

The need for the Council of Cardinals was identified in the course of the meetings of Cardinals previous to the Conclave of 2013, and it plays a decisive role. Its current members are Cardinals Oswald Gracias, Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, Reinhard Marx, Sean Patrick O’Malley, Pietro Parolin, George Pell, Giuseppe Bertello and Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga.

Gracias is Indian; Errazuriz Ossa, Chilean; Pasinya, Congolese; Marx, German; O’Malley, American; Pell, Australian; and Maradiaga, Honduran. Parolin is the Secretary of State; Bertello is President of the Governorate of the Vatican City State.

Pope Francis convokes the Council periodically (once every two months on average) and before stating his case he invites opinions, advice and requests. All five continents are represented. Two of the cardinals are Emeritus Bishops and two have been Apostolic Nuncios. Their range of skills and expertise is altogether a rich and broad one.


Vatican-centered no more

For Pope Francis the Church, and especially her central government, cannot and should not be a centre of power. Accordingly, anyone who works there should abandon the idea of “pursuing a career”. He also sees the need to get rid of any “Vatican-centered” view of things.

Although he has sometimes spoken somewhat harshly about the people in the Curia, Pope Francis has stated that he wants a reform with the Curia, not against the Curia. Accordingly, before he began to decide on what steps to take, he asked for a large amount of documentation to be compiled, and made a space for the requests received by the Cardinals from Bishops all over the world.

The regular meetings are useful in evaluating how the reform process is going, but also in chanelling the requests that come in from the dioceses.

Synodality, collegiality and decentralization are the principles that Pope Francis values most, and he has spoken about them frequently (for instance in his speech on 17 October 2015 for the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, when he spoke of synodality as “a constitutive element of the Church”).

The Pope said on that occasion, “We need to reflect on how better to bring about, through these bodies, intermediary instances of collegiality, perhaps by integrating and updating certain aspects of the ancient ecclesiastical organization. The hope expressed by the Council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. We are still on the way, part-way there. In a synodal Church, as I have said, ‘it is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound decentralization’.”

An ambitious goal

Overall it is an ambitious goal. Fr Federico Lombardi, former head of the Holy See’s Press Office, explained in a meeting with journalists on 3 December 2013 that it was not a matter of “making simple modifications or marginal changes to Pastor Bonus (the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia by John Paul II, dated 28 June 1988), but of working to prepare a constitution with major changes, a new constitution.”

Currently the Curia is composed of Congregations and Pontifical Councils. Congregations are more important, having greater power. Pope Francis wishes to get rid of the difference between them so that they are at the same level. This is why he prefers to use the comprehensive term “Dicastery”.

Two needs come up again and again: better coordination between the various dicasteries, and lower numbers of staff in the offices. The Pope feels that the Vatican’s different organizations do not talk to each other and work in a disorderly way. Added to that is the fact that some of them are redundant and need to be abolished, merged or reorganized.

One example is the new Secretariat for Communication, entrusted with the task of managing all the Vatican media and organizations connected with communications, including the Press Office.

Another example is the new Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, which has taken over the responsibilities of two Pontifical Councils: that for the Laity and that for the Family. A similar method has been used with regard to the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which has taken over the responsibilities of four Pontifical Councils: Justice and Peace, Cor Unum (for Human and Christian Development), Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and Healthcare Workers.

It is noteworthy that the Pope has decided to head the section for the pastoral care of migrants himself for the time being. This choice shows his special concern for this problem, although perhaps it also shows the difficulty of finding the right person for this task.

ishop Marcello Semeraro, Secretary of the Council of Cardinals, explains that the wish of Pope Francis is “to work by a process of trials and adjustments before setting in motion a general reorganization”. There are already several measures which have been approved as experiments for an indefinite period, so as to leave the way open for changes and corrections. This shows the Pope’s pragmatic approach.


The economic tangle

The most difficult matter is the reform of the economic sections. The reorganization of the IOR or Institute for Works of Religion – the “Vatican Bank” –, the Prefecture of Economic Affairs and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (A.P.S.A) has had many obstacles to overcome.

It would be no easy task to follow the stories through all their ramifications. The Pope’s actions can be summed up in two words: transparency and checking.

Before proceeding to any reform, Pope Francis set up (as mentioned above) a pontifical commission for the IOR (24 June 2013) and the COSEA (Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See) (18 July 2013). Both commissions completed their remit on 22nd May 2014.

On 24 February 2014 the Secretariat for the Economy (S.P.E.) was created, instantly dubbed “the Vatican’s Ministry of Finance” by journalists. It is headed by a Cardinal Prefect, assisted by a general secretary and an auditor general. The auditor general has the job of supervising the financial accountancy of all Vatican organizations. The Secretariat has several purposes: managing the Church’s property better, rationalizing expenditure (to guarantee that Church funds are correctly used for the good of the poor and the Church’s evangelizing mission), effective budgeting, and guaranteeing transparency.

The setting up of the S.P.E. provoked an internal conflict with the A.P.S.A. In July 2016, after months of arguing, Pope Francis decided that the A.P.S.A. would continue adminstering the Holy See’s property and the S.P.E. would be responsible for overseeing and auditing accounts.

As another result of internal conflicts, Pope Francis wrote in “I beni temporali”, “By further detailing and amending as needed what has been previously decreed, I intend to emphasize the fundamental directive that it is necessary to separate in a clear and unequivocal way the direct management of the Holy See’s patrimony from the control and vigilance over the activity of management. For this reason, it is of the utmonst importance that the entities responsible for oversight be separate from those being overseen.”

And if problems arise, the Pope decreed that any conflicts “shall be submitted to the decision of the Delegate of my choosing, with the support of his collaborators.”

In the same document the Pope underlined that the Church’s funds and property must be used for divine worship, the maintenance of the clergy, the apostolate, and works of charity, especially at the service of the poor. The Church has a major responsiblity, wrote Pope Francis, “to ensure that the administration of her economic resources is always directed to those ends.”

In order to keep watch on economic management and supervise both the offices and the administrative and financial activities of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia and institutions connected with the Holy See and the Vatican City State, the Pope set up a Council for the Economy, replacing the Council of Cardinals that studied the economic and organizational problems of the Holy See – known as “the Council of 15” – set up by John Paul II to approve balance-sheets.

The Council for the Economy also has 15 members, but 8 are chosen from among the Cardinals and Bishops, and the other 7 (here lies the novelty) from lay-people of different nationalities who are experts in financial matters and have proven professional competence.

The Vatican Bank

With regard to the IOR, the Pope has confirmed that its purpose is to offer specialized financial services to the Catholic Church throughout the world. The IOR’s balance-sheets are now audited and published.

The balance sheet for 2015 showed a dramatically lower net profit than the year before – 16.1 million euros, as against 69.3 million. There is an ongoing review of current accounts (some suspicious, others inactive) which in the past three years has led to the closing of almost five thousand of them.


Less expensive canonizations

Pope Francis also aims to sort out the costs of the causes of beatification and canonization. Aware that these causes “on account of their complexity require much work, involve expenses for the dissemination of knowledge of the figure of the Servant of God or the Blessed, for the diocesan or eparchial inquiry, for the Roman phase and, finally, for the celebrations of beatification and canonization”, he has decided that the Holy See will cover the costs of the Roman phase, “in which the Actors participate with a contribution”. Constant vigilance will be exercised to ensure that “the costs and expenses are kept within limits so as not to impede progress.”

About a year ago an investigation by the Catholic News Service, the US Bishops’ Conference press agency, revealed that a cause of canonization, from the first steps to the Mass at St Peter’s, could cost around $250,000.

Fight against paedophilia

Finally, Pope Francis has strengthened the provisions of the laws with regard to Bishops guilty of covering up cases of paedophilia and sexual abuse.

The Pope has laid it down that Bishops can legitimately be dismissed from office if by negligence they cause serious harm (physical, moral, spiritual or otherwise) to individuals or communities.

Equally rigorously, he has set up the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, whose members include two people who were themselves victims of abuse as children.

A work in progress

Pope Francis, then, has set in hand a very wide plan for reform, which is still in progress. Instead of working sector by sector the Pope has chosen to act on all fields at once. Some observers are of the opinion that there is no system or overarching strategy, but that so far he has just responded to events as they emerged, and this tactic has led to conflicts between sectors or offices. However, all of that may be inevitable in undertaking such a vast reform.

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