Benedict must reform the Curia rapidly
Vatican-watchers have spent the bitter Roman winter waiting anxiously for the first sign that Benedict XVI is about to launch a sweeping reform of the Curia. The tension has been building ever since the Pope was elected last April. In interviews he had often expressed his exasperation at Vatican bureaucracy, and after only a few days in the post he was complaining ominously about the towers of paperwork that filled the papal in-tray. The months of inactivity that
followed heightened the sense that when reform finally came it would
be far-reaching and dramatic.
Last week that moment appeared to have arrived. When the Vatican announced, in a terse press release, that Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, was bound for Egypt, a frisson went through the Roman press pack. But was this truly the start of what Rome correspondents are calling (in an unfortunate metaphor) the curial "tsunami"?
What makes the answer particularly hard to determine is that much of the reportage is based on the implicit assumption that the Roman Curia is a dysfunctional bureaucracy populated by shiftless officials. This image of the Curia is so well established in the popular imagination that it is difficult not to see the reform of the Curia as a stniggle between "goodies" (the Pope and his closest advisers) and "baddies" (powerful and long-serving heads of departments).
But, as John Allen pointed out in All the Pope :v Men, his magisterial study of the Curia, the reality is far more complicated. It would be crude, for example, to say that Archbishop Fitzgerald's new appointment was a demotion and a sign that he had lost the Pope's trust. In fact, the roost senior Englishman in the Curia is well liked in Rome and admired for his simple and holy lifestyle. The argument that he is being punished for being too conciliatory towards Islam is also, at best, only partly true: if Benedict thought that Archbishop Fitzgerald was too weak he would not put him in charge of the Church's dialogue with the Arab Muslim world.
The true significance of this move will become apparent only after the Pope reveals the full extent of his plans for the reform of the Curia. For now, we must continue to rely on rumours. The most credible of these suggest that the reform will have two stages. In the first, Benedict XVI will reduce the number of Pontifical Councils. There are currently a dozen of these bodies, some with hazily defined areas of responsibility, such as the council for culture or the family. Many of these, sources say, are likely to be absorbed by the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
The second stage of reform will focus on the role of the Vatican Secretary of State. The present incumbent, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, wielded immense influence during the final years of John Paul H's pontificate. The new Pope, it is widely rumoured, wants to curb the Secretary of State's powers. Not, it must be said again, because of any antipathy towards Cardinal Sodano — though he is unpopular in Rome — but because he believes that the Vatican is, foremost, a vehicle for the proclamation Of the Gospel, and only after that a sovereign state.
We should expect the Pope to carry out these reforms carefully, with respect for the officials who have dedicated their lives to working for a pittance in the Curia. Carefully, but not too slowly: Benedict is, after all, older than any of the men he is thinking of retiring, and there is no time to lose.