ROME – Let’s begin by acknowledging two truths about the Catholic Church.
The first is that everyone loves complaining about the Vatican. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, from the First World or the Third, no matter what kind of Catholic you are, griping about the slowness, arrogance and dysfunction of the bureaucracy in Rome is a favorite indoor sport.
Insider jokes about the Vatican over the years have become a staple of Catholic conversation. Perhaps the best-known is one attributed to St. Pope John XXIII, who, when asked how many people work at the Vatican, allegedly responded, “About half.”
A bit lesser-known is another line attributed to John XXIII, based on the working schedule at the Vatican, which has personnel working from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Supposedly, Pope John was once asked if his people didn’t work in the afternoon and he replied, “No, they don’t work in the morning. In the afternoon, they don’t even show up!”
As a result, when a maverick pope comes along vowing to shake up the system, it’s simply impossible not to cheer, and to suspect that the longer and more sweeping reform becomes, the healthier it’s going to be.
The second truth about Catholicism is that if we didn’t have the Roman Curia, meaning the central administrative bureaucracy of the Vatican, we’d have to invent it.
The Catholic Church is a 1.2-billion strong family of faith present in every nook and cranny of the planet, and it’s perpetually in danger of spinning apart, fragmenting into thousands of disparate local churches. Without a strong center of leadership at its core, the Church’s centrifugal energies would simply be too powerful to resist.
Somebody has to codify the teaching, promulgate the laws, develop the policies and issue the guidelines to hold such a far-flung global community together, and obviously no pope can do that all by himself. As a result, something like the Roman Curia is no mere artifact of history, a dusty ecclesiastical convention that could just as easily be eliminated, but rather an absolute necessity that’s as critical to the life of the Church as almost anything one can imagine.
All this comes to mind in light of Pope Francis’s annual speech to the cardinals and other heavyweights who make up the leadership of the Roman Curia, which the pontiff delivered on Thursday.
In it, the pontiff delivered a stirring defense of his project of reform of the Roman Curia, saying the resistance it’s encountered is sometimes “hidden” and “malicious,” the sport that “sprouts in disturbed minds.” He also complained of the dangers of what the Italians call Gattopardismo, a novel about a Sicilian prince during the Risorgimento in the 19th century, who embraces a philosophy of “everything must change so that everything can remain the same.”
Perhaps most importantly, Francis also sent clear signals that the reform is not over.
Despite the fact that new Vatican departments have been created for finances and for communications, and that others have been consolidated into two new super-offices for Family, Laity and Life and for Integral Human Development, he suggests that further personnel changes are on the horizon and that other “commissions, academies and committees” may yet be eliminated in a process of what he describes as “simplification and streamlining.”
The pope also suggested that bringing this process of reform to a conclusion will take a while.
“Gradualism is the fruit of an unavoidable discernment that implies a historical process, analysis of the times and of stages, examination, corrections, experimentation and temporary approvals,” he said. “Therefore, in these cases it’s not a matter of being indecisive, but of the flexibility needed in order to reach a real reform.”
All that, of course, is inarguable as far as it goes. Francis himself noted in the Curia speech a common expression, the Church is semper reformanda, “always to be reformed,” simply because the Church is alive.
Yet there’s a real and present danger to a never-ending cycle of reform, one that Pope Francis and his “C9” council of cardinal advisers will probably have to confront head-on in the not-too-distant future, which is demoralization and paralysis within a workforce that doesn’t know when the next shock to the system may arrive.
Talk to many Vatican personnel today, and they’ll tell you that they’ve been living in a state of low-level anxiety for the past two years or so. Many don’t know if their jobs will still be there when the music stops, and in the meantime, it’s extremely difficult to think ahead or plan long-term projects when it’s not clear whether their office will even exist, and if so, what it might look like or what resources it will have at its disposal.
Granted, some things seem reasonably clear, chief among them that the Secretariat of State will still be the 800-pound gorilla of the Vatican scene when all this is finished. For many other outfits, however, especially those “commissions, academies and committees” of which the pope spoke on Thursday, the forecast is far less clear.
Moreover, some Vatican personnel bristle a bit at the language this pontiff sometimes uses in describing them, whether it was his reference to “spiritual diseases” two years ago or his repeated insistence on Thursday for their need for personal “conversion.”
Most who work in the Vatican do so for low pay, no fanfare and at considerable personal sacrifice, and once in a while, they’d like to hear something encouraging from the boss about the value of their labor.
Of course, Francis was elected on a reform mandate, and he’s carrying out a project that enjoys the strong support of many of his cardinals and other bishops from around the world. On the other hand, he also faces the challenge of ensuring that when the reform is finally over, the people left standing have the confidence and enthusiasm to carry it out.