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Reforming the Vatican is like nailing jelly to a wall

Is it optimistic to think it might actually happen this time?

Reforming the Vatican is like nailing jelly to a wall
Fr William Grimm MM, Tokyo

May 1, 2013

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Among moves we can expect to see under Pope Francis will be an attempt to reform the Vatican Curia. The pope has appointed eight cardinals from around the world to advise him in making that reform happen.

Solutions to careerism, corruption and abuse of power in the Curia were sought at least as early as the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. As Vatileaks and much current experience make clear, we are still searching in the twenty-first century.

A half-millennium of attempts to reform the central administration of the Catholic Church has not succeeded. Hopes that the Operations Octet will perform better against entrenched special interests than others have in the past are probably excessively optimistic.

The most radical, and therefore probably the most effective and necessary reform of the Curia would be its abolition. Most, if not all, of what it claims as its scope of authority could and should be handled by regional, national and local bishops’ conferences and synods of leaders and laity. Some curial work need not be handled at all, but is the sort of make-work that bureaucrats invent to kill time until collecting their retirement pensions.

Over the centuries, Vatican officialdom has usurped various functions that need not and should not be dealt with there. The translation or even the creation of liturgical texts, annulling marriages, dispensing clergy from ministry and such should be within the competence of the communities that celebrate those liturgies, witness those marriages or ordain their clergy.

However, such a sweeping change in an institution in which there are so many vested (in both senses of the word) interests is unlikely to happen.

Failing that, the second-best alternative is to move the administrative functions of the Church out of Rome.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, all educated people in Europe not only read Latin, they spoke and wrote it as well. Erasmus of Rotterdam reportedly spoke better Latin than the Dutch of his homeland. The pool of talent available to the Latin-speaking Vatican administration was as wide as the Church in Europe. Latin provided officials with access to news, views and ideas unlimited by geography.

Today, the language of the curia is Italian, which has been called "a corrupt provincial dialect of Latin," spoken almost exclusively in one small country. The talent pool that can work in that language is limited to Italians, non-Italians like Pope Francis who learned a bit from their emigrant parents and those who have learned the language as a career move in the Church, restaurant or fashion businesses.

The solution is not to start teaching three-year-olds to speak Latin so that we can restore the past. The solution is to make one or more of the world’s international languages that function as Latin once did the administrative language of the Church. Then the Church could once again draw upon a world of talent, knowledge, information and experience without being limited to clerical natives of one country or careerists.

The move, however, should be more than linguistic. It must be geographic. A friend once commented that the Vatican should be relocated to the foot of an active volcano. "Every morning, they open their windows in Rome and look out at the Eternal City. No urgency."

A Church that claims to be global must globalize. That means that, like the United Nations, it must have major parts of its operations outside the headquarters, in places where communications, international transportation and a global ethos make for efficiency and a broader vision. New York, Brussels, Nairobi, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, London and many more places come to mind as places where Church offices could function and have better contact than they can have in Rome with the realities that Catholics and others throughout the world face. 

One of the things we have learned from Vatileaks is that having all the offices in one place staffed by people of one culture (whether native or adopted) does not guarantee communication among them. On the contrary, proximity seems to foster rivalry, backbiting and secrecy.

So, scatter the administrative offices of the worldwide Church across the world. If officials can be convinced to make use of modern communications tools, it is likely that cooperative communication among the components of administration will improve. Apparently, they cannot get worse.

Until the centralization of Church administration in the Roman Curia is brought to an end, the Catholic Church will remain an anachronistic and inefficient parody of forms of governance that both the French Revolution of 1789 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 showed to be unviable.

Is such a change impossible? No. Is it likely? No. But I would love to be proved wrong on that point.

Fr William Grimm MM is publisher of and is based in Tokyo

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