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Cardinals watch as Pope Francis speaks to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
Cardinals watch as Pope Francis speaks to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

AGENDA

Curia reform a top issue for Pope Francis Add to ...

If the Vatican’s administrative arm, the Roman Curia, were in the private sector, it would be torn down and rebuilt.

Almost every Vatican watcher, and more than a few Vatican insiders, think the Curia is broken and in need of an overhaul if it is to help the Pope’s evangelical mission instead of hindering it. The Curia – inefficient at best, at worst a scandal factory – was a source of misery to Pope Benedict XVI, whose efforts to reform it and end its secretive ways came up short. It remains a looming challenge for his new successor, Pope Francis.

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There is no doubt that the cardinals who support a Curia shake-up, and those who resist one, brought those divisions to the conclave that selected Francis. Curia reform is emerging as one of the biggest issues for the new Pope, perhaps the biggest issue, as the church seeks a fresh start under a fresh leader.

Reports in the Italian media said the final pre-conclave meeting set two cardinals against each other: Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, overseer of the Curia as Vatican secretary of state under Benedict, and Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who is in charge of the Curia department that oversees religious orders and congregations. The Brazilian has been critical of the management of the Curia in general, and the Vatican bank in particular; the Italian was apparently critical of Cardinal Braz de Aviz because he had the temerity to speak out against the management of the Curia.

Thomas Reese, a long-time Vatican watcher and analyst with the National Catholic Reporter, says the Curia is in sore need of better management and comprehensive reform. In a note published this week, he noted that the Curia has been guilty of a full range of sins: financial corruption, sexual impropriety, petty infighting among factions, leaking of documents.

“Dealing with these issues is neither rocket science nor theology,” he said.

But reform will not come easily. “Speaking about reforming the Curia is like speaking about reforming the U.S. tax code,” Mr. Reese said.

“Everyone is for it until it affects them.”

The Curia has about 2,000 employees, who work only six-hour days, and it is considered an Italian power base. In one form or another, it has existed for more than 1,500 years, initially employing the notaries that served the Pope, later expanding into a chancery that would advise the Pope on papal business. Mr. Reese said that in the medieval and Renaissance eras, it functioned essentially as a royal court, similar to the ones that served – and fed off – Europe’s most powerful monarchs.

The royal court era still twitches. Note that the cardinals are called “princes of the church” and are treated like noblemen. But acting like professional bureaucrats might be better suited to a global institution dealing with secular duties like ensuring that its bank meets international money-laundering standards; cracking down on bishops who covered up thousands of cases of sexual abuse by priests; preventing the torrent of leaks that erupted into the ongoing “Vatileaks” scandal.

John Thavis, author of the newly published Vatican Diaries who covered the Vatican for three decades for the Catholic National News, said in a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report that “the Vatican bureaucracy is in disarray.” He added: “I think many of the cardinals probably feel that Pope Benedict was not served well by the bureaucratic apparatus at the Vatican, and I think there’s going to be a greater willingness to look at change in the Roman Curia.”

It is an open secret that the cardinals from countries that take governance seriously, notably the United States and Germany, have been highly critical of the Italian-controlled Curia.

At a press conference in Rome last week, well before the conclave started, the American Cardinals Daniel DiNardo and Sean O’Malley were asked their opinions about the Curia and did their best to be subtle.

Cardinal DiNardo said: “We need to look attentively at the work of the Curia. … The Curia is there to serve the Holy Father and there to serve the holy church.” Cardinal O’Malley said: “There is certainly a lot of reflection going on [about] the governance of the holy church.”

The effort to reform the Curia will begin soon after Francis celebrates his first mass as Pope later this month. A potentially epic battle is in store. “Like any entrenched bureaucracy, the old guard at the Vatican protects its own position,” Phil Lawlor, a veteran Vatican watcher, said in a Telegraph newspaper article recently.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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