Reforming the Church with 'no possibility of return'

By Robert Mickens
La Croix
June 28, 2019

How Pope Francis is initiating processes of Church reform that will be hard to undo

How many cardinals does it take to help Pope Francis reform the Roman Curia? And how many years do they need to get the job done?

Many Catholics – at least those who are hoping the pope can succeed in decentralizing ecclesial power away from the Vatican – have grown frustrated that after some six years there have been no definitive answers to those questions.

After meeting roughly five times annually, the Council of Cardinals (a body initially made of eight members or C8, then quickly expanded to C9 and more recently depleted to C6) has still not given the pope a final draft for a new apostolic constitution to reform the Church's central offices.

But they are getting closer.

Back in April, two members of the advisory council made a big splash by revealing key components of the draft document, confirming its provisional title – Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel).

Cardinals Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras and Oswald Gracias of India then predicted that the final edition of that text would likely be presented to Pope Francis on June 29.

They said the final phase of consultation – with national bishops' conferences, religious orders and select professors at pontifical universities – was drawing to a close. But a few weeks later the bishop-secretary of the C6 poured cold water on the two cardinals' projection.

Bishop Marcello Semeraro, Secretary of the Council of Cardinals, told a Spanish Catholic paper the final draft would be presented for papal approval "within the year, but not on June 29."

Bishop Semararo faced Vatican-accredited reporters this past week and he updated the timeline.

At this point, he said, it looks as if the final draft – with the inclusion of suggestions from the bishops' conference and others, which are still to be submitted – will likely be completed for the next meeting of the C6, which is to take place Sept. 17-19. But keen observers believe even that seems a bit too optimistic. Think more like some date in 2020.

A step-by-step reform in progress

It has been a long and drawn out process. But there is a logic and wisdom to the slow pace Pope Francis has chosen for this major change and reform of a curia that still bears vestiges from its late 16th century precursor.

It's not as if nothing has been done and everyone is sitting on pins and needles wondering what the Roman Curia will look like after Francis gets done with his home makeover.

In fact, substantial parts of the reform have already been put into place. The 82-year-old pope has been rolling them out, piece by piece, over this long period. He's chosen this method carefully and purposefully, the effect of which should soften the blow that is sure to come with some still unknown final touches.

Bear in mind that Francis is an "outsider" pope, the first since St. Pius X (1904-1914) who never studied or worked in Rome. And while he has decided to consult far and wide on how to best reform the curia, he – and he alone – will make the final decision on all aspects of that reform.

Initiating processes

Anyone who has been paying close attention can see that it has undertaken a systematic deconstruction of the Roman Curia's longstanding function as the universal Church's central (i.e., centralizing) bureaucracy, which has traditionally acted as the de facto layer of government between the papacy and the local Churches.

What Pope Francis has been doing over the course of this nearly six years is to put into motion processes (and some legislation) with the aim of giving more authority to local bishops and national (and regional) episcopal conferences.

When the reform of the Vatican bureaucracy is completed, the curia will no longer be a mouthpiece for the Roman Pontiff, but an institution at the service of him and the world's bishops.

Francis is obviously convinced that changes, and a good many of them, need to be made to the Church's structures, methods of doing thing and its overall ethos (mentality). But he knows that these changes cannot be introduced all at once. Some of them will not materialize for years to come.

Time is greater than space

One principle, in particle, seems to be underpinning the project of reform – "time is greater than space."

"This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time," the pope writes in Evangelii gaudium.

That apostolic exhortation, which Francis issued in 2013 just months after his election as Bishop of Rome, is the governing manifesto of this pontificate and the Jesuit pope's vision for a reformed Church.

"Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces," he writes. "Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return" (cf. EG, 222-225).

In other words, Francis wants to make sure that any reforms he and the bishops try to implement – including the reform of the Roman Curia – will be long lasting and not easily reversed.

In a world that is changing…

The project to reform the curia originated in the discussions the Church's cardinals held in the days before the 2013 conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Bishop of Rome.

The cardinals wanted the next pope to rid the Vatican of corruption, cronyism and institutional inefficiency. But few could have imagined that Papa Bergoglio would initiate a reform that would extend well beyond the curia or the confines of the tiny Vatican City State.

Francis, instead, has used the pretext of curia reform to set in motion a profound and radical reform even of the papacy and the entire global Church. He has done so by re-igniting the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its still unrealized intention to bring the Church into the modern world.

"Christendom no longer exists," Bishop Semeraro said at the June 27 press briefing.

He pointed out that the origins of the Roman Curia date back to the end of the 16th century and Pope Sixtus V. It was "an age when the law of the Church was the law of the State, and the law of the State was the law of the Church."

Semeraro noted the obvious – that world is long gone. But what is not so obvious to many, or so it seems, is that there are still a lot of men in miters or with offices in the Vatican who continue to pretend that it still does!

These people are trying to revive Christendom, which is a cultural-ideological system of belief in which the kerygma (the essence of Christian faith) is intrinsically wedded to Greek philosophical thought and given form by the European ancien régime.

The Catholic Church is the last pillar of this collapsing cultural ethos and system. Pope Francis knows this quite well and that is why he is determined to disentangle the Roman Curia, the papacy and the global Church from this old and anachronistic Eurocentric model.

And it is also why he has so many enemies.

Praedicate Evangelium

Bishop Semeraro noted that in this post-Christendom era "it is no longer enough to be concerned with doctrine." The main focus, he said, must be the "proclamation of the Gospel… which must, first of all, generate joy." But this will require a radical reimagining of how to carry out the missionary mandate.

"Go out to all the world; proclaim the gospel to all creation" (Mk 16,15). This is the final command the Risen Christ gives to his disciples – Praedicate Evangelium.

Pope Francis knows this requires that the Church (in all its forms, expressions and various manifestations), once and for all, leave behind any ideas of reviving Christendom. It requires that we turn away from our Eurocentric theology and ecclesiology, looking for new ways to proclaim the gospel in new milieus and cultures.

The long-awaited reform of the Roman Curia is an essential part of the processes Francis has initiated to bring about this radical transformation.

And so it is no wonder that Catholics who are trying to revive an antiquated vision of the Church and its relationship to society, and their conservative political allies, see this pope as such a threat and danger.


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