Monday, August 26, 2013

Reforming the Roman Curia

There’s lots of talk these days about Pope Francis reforming the Roman Curia.  O.K.  A quick show of hands – who can name all the Curia organizations?  Their leaders?  What they do?  Their impact on the average person?  Hmmm…. Not a lot of hands out there.  Then how can we know if anything gets reformed and whether it was an improvement or not?

When asked how many people work in the Curia, Blessed Pope John XXIII once retorted, “about half of them.”  The Curia’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) exemplified this with its glacial pace defrocking sexually abusive priests - to the point that one might even think “CDF” actually stands for “Congregation for the Denial of Felonies”.   

Given general global downsizing trends, Pope John’s insight and the Curia’s reputation, maybe reforming the Curia begins by cutting it at least in half.

Since there were so few hands raised to my opening round of questions, let me give a quick overview.  The Curia is the pope’s cabinet and includes over 60 organizations falling into the following categories: 

  • Secretariat
  • Congregations
  • Tribunals
  • Pontifical Councils
  • Bishops’ Synod
  • Offices
  • Pontifical Commissions (not to be confused with Pontifical Councils)
  • Swiss Guard
  • Institutions Connected with the Holy See (such as the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank)
  • Labor
  • Pontifical Academies
  • Pontifical Committees (not to be confused with Pontifical Councils or Pontifical Commissions)

Let’s look more closely at a few of the most influential groups in the Curia – the Secretariat and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.

The Secretariat includes the Vatican Secretary of State, Papal Nunciatures (embassies) and Papal Nuncios (ambassadors).  The Secretary of State historically has been somewhat of a papal puppeteer, or the pope’s other self.  Nuncios provide the Vatican with bishop candidate names.  However, “nuncio” is Latin for “messenger” and therefore Nuncios primarily act as middlemen relaying messages between bishops and the Vatican. 

Before express overnight and electronic mail, having a cadre of Nuncios/messengers was important.  But are they now obsolete middlemen?  In the days when the Papal States occupied sizeable geographic areas, having a Secretary of State might have been important too.  But now the Vatican is just 109 acres, smaller than Microsoft’s Redmond, WA campus.  If Microsoft can thrive without a Secretary of State, can’t the Vatican do likewise?  Therefore, rather than reform this group, why not eliminate the entire Secretariat?

The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) was formerly called the Office of the Inquisition.  It was established to defend the church from heresy.  In the olden days the Inquisitors had secular power and could sentence heretics like Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake for the heresy of wearing men’s clothing.  Clearly this office has already undergone some reform because it no longer can impose secular punishments in most countries and it seems to have narrowed focus to just a handful of topics.  Also, after using it to eliminate tens of thousands of "heretics", burning at the stake is no longer a permissible option for the CDF.

The computer scientist in me couldn’t help but use a flowchart to explain my understanding of the CDF’s current approach to dealing with heresy.  For those unfamiliar with reading flowcharts, the green oval is the starting point, diamonds are decision points, rectangles are actions, and the red ovals denote possible end points.

The CDF also handles laicizing (defrocking) sexually abusive priests.  Again, my inner computer scientist couldn’t resist the opportunity to create another flowchart depicting the CDF’s process for handling sexually abusive priests.

My point is this: no matter who leads the CDF, the processes and governance model seem sub-optimal.  If the processes are not going to change, then fire all the CDF employees and just write some programs with mobile app interfaces.  Bishops can send in information from their smartphones to cloud-based applications.  This can’t possibly be any more impersonal to abuse victims than the CDF is now.  Furthermore, it actually might be more responsive as I truly believe it would be impossible to be any less responsive.

Zealots wishing to report their fellow-Catholics as potential heretics could use the same interface as the bishops for heretic reporting.  This would just streamline the whole witch hunt process.  By Christmas, we could be down to just the self-acclaimed pious people deluded by their superior calls to holiness – and all this accomplished with substantially lower costs than paying the current CDF staff. 

Laypeople could be required to take an online quiz about the CDF's five favorite subjects at SurveyMonkey and be issued a QR code (photo below for those unsure what a QR code is) which clergy and Eucharistic ministers can scan to determine eligibility for communion.  Obviously clergy would need the authority to issue new QR codes in the confessional following repentance.  

“Absurd!” you might think.  If automating the current CDF processes seems absurd, then the processes themselves are absurd because automation only alters the pace not the decision criteria or outcome.  Maybe imagining automated versions of all current Curia processes is precisely what we need to do to identify what needs to be reformed.

What reforms are needed in the church and the Curia? What can you do to help inspire appropriate reform?


  1. If we laicise errant priests it occurs to me that we are saying the laity is more sinful than the priesthood. Just a thought! Margaret Watson

    1. I agree! It is an insult to the laity.

    2. Yes, you raise a valid and interesting point. What do the hierarchy's actions say in the way they handle (or don't handle) sexually abusive priests? And, what is the appropriate, effective way to handle them?

      I think defrocking such priests might be a combination of the hierarchy wanting to reinforce this "in personal Christi" notion about ordained men as well as protecting financial assets by distancing themselves from the person, their care, etc...

      The hierarchy seems to have just 3 tunes to sing: 1) ignore it 2) move the priest, 3) defrock the priest. When those of us working in secular jobs with healthy, effective governance structures look at that pitiful ineffective list, we realize the weak leadership skills immediately. Actually, it's an insult to leaders to call it leadership.

      Step 1 for a bishop should be to call the police which we know isn't happening in the U.S. because Bishop Finn of Kansas City failed to do so and is now a convicted criminal. Yet, he is still a functioning bishop. Which now calls into question Pope Francis' leadership skills that he has not removed Finn and Myers (another bishop in the US complicit in clergy child sexual abuse) from being bishops.

      I'm not sure where sexually abusive priests belong other than in prison. If they are released from prison, it would seem the church should have some facility wherein they feed the guys and keep them out of active ministry. I would think they could do some free labor or something where they contribute to society without in any way being active in ministry with access to children. But, I think the hierarchy does not want the expense of carrying the cost of such priests without being able to use them as functioning parish priests. I think they also do not want the risks - again for financial reasons.

      Cardinal Dolan made a feeble attempt caring for priests in that he paid sexually abusive priests to leave the priesthood. I give him credit for recognizing that sexually abusive priests deserve food, etc... But, he didn't seem to get the point about "call the police". Also, the amount he gave to the priests will in no way support them the rest of their lives. It seemed just a hand-washing by Dolan to rid himself of a long-term financial burden and risk, and did so in a way to assuage his guilt.

      But, if sexually abusive priests went to prison as sex offenders - as they should, then we do need to consider what is the appropriate Christian response when they are out of prison, as well as how to keep them away from inflicting further harm.

      It is also interesting that both clergy raping children and women seeking ordination are grave delicts (the worst sins in the hierarchy's eyes). Yet only ordaining women carries immediate excommunication.

      We could say that sexually abusive priests should be excommunicated but I am of the opinion that excommunication is contrary to Christ's teaching. Plus, excommunication does not solve the issue of protecting other children from such predators. It is not a simple problem.