Heading directly in the “eye of the storm,” Pope Francis announced an advisory group of cardinals to proposal reforms to the Curia, the government of the Church. Part of the Curia, the Vatican Bank has been involved in a number of scandals through the years. The office of Secretary of State, second only to the Pope’s office, has so much power that abuse of power has been a real temptation for the office holders through the years. With corruption and scandal in its governance, the Roman Catholic Church risks charges of hypocrisy. After all, Christ threw out the money-changers and instructed his disciples to go town to town without even carrying purses. The Vatican Bank is a far cry from Christ’s instructions. Pope Francis would be well advised to harken back to St. Francis’s view of wealth.
In the absence of radical reform, such as ending the Vatican Bank much like President Jackson of the U.S. put an end to the Second National Bank of the U.S., Pope Francis was smart to name a majority of Curia critics to his advisory council. According to the Wall Street Journal, “(n)early all of the cardinals advising Pope Francis on the administrative overhaul come from local archdioceses far from the insular world of Vatican politics. Only one member, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, comes from inside Vatican City. But the office he currently runs, the Governerato in charge of administering the actual grounds of the world’s smallest state, isn’t considered part of the Curia.” Reaching from beyond Europe also has the benefit of going to where the Catholic Church is growing rather than shrinking. It also makes the Roman Church truer to its claim of being the universal church.
“It’s an epochal shift because it brings the Vatican closer to a more collegial governance,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert. He meant a greater sharing of power between Rome and local churches in governing the Catholic Church. According to the New York Times, this notion “was central to the liberalizing changes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, but critics said both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI consolidated more control with the Vatican. Francis’ new advisory group reverses the trend. ‘For years, cardinals and others said that the Second Vatican Council sought a more horizontal government, that the pope should listen to bishops to resolve scandals,’ Mr. Rodari said. ‘The first big decision of this pope really is that, to convoke a governing board. It’s a revolution.’”
It may go a bit too far to say that the appointment of a group of advisors is “an epochal shift” on the scale of “a revolution.” At most, the move signals a shift back in the direction of Vatican II by not relying on the Vatican insiders to fix themselves from within. For epochal change to take place, the Pope would have to implement a governance form like federalism by amending the governance documents of the Curia. Crucially, the added authority of the regional councils of bishops would have to be protected in terms of canon law from encroachments from the Vatican. The Curia’s authority would essentially be split between two systems—that of the Vatican (i.e., centralized) and the councils (i.e., regional). The Pope could settle disputes between the two systems and act as figurehead for the Church.
Given the different cultural contexts in which the worldwide church increasingly finds itself, Francis’s council of cardinals could do worse than consider federalism as a possible form of governance for the Curia. Federalism has the virtue of being able to accommodate differences while allowing for unity, for which uniformity is not necessary. In fact, uniformity as in “one size fits all” can actually impede unity because the diversity of context is frustrated in its expression and solutions. One way federalism could manifest is by the return of authority to the regional bishop conferences. Those bodies could have a role in holding the Vatican Bank accountable, besides being able to address many of their particular problems.
In conclusion, while Pope Francis has opened the door to reform, too much should not be read into his initial move. An advisory council is just that. Even reform-oriented cardinals will doubtless find the status quo at the Vatican to be a difficult rock to move, even if it is the foundation of a worldwide Church.
For more, see Stacy Meichtry’s article, “Pope Begins Vatican Overhaul,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 13, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324240804578420710330497342.html?mod=WSJ_MIDDLENexttoWhatsNewsSecond
Also, Gaia Pianigiani and Rachel Donadio, “Pope Francis Names Advissory Panal at Vatican,” The New York times of April 14, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/world/europe/pope-francis-names-advisory-panel-at-vatican.html