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Reforming the Roman Curia

Prior to the conclave that elected Pope Francis, the Cardinals who met together identified the need for a reform of the Vatican finances and a broader reform of the Roman Curia. Shortly after Francis was elected, work began on the reform of the Roman Curia. There was wide consultation including with the various bishops’ conferences around the world. Several times there was speculation that publication was imminent. Certain interim reforms were implemented along the way including some mergers of different offices, a re-structure of the Congregation for Divine Worship, de-centralisation of certain competences to local bishops’ conferences, and the amalgamation of the communications functions into a single dicastery.

Pope Francis, on the feast of Saint Joseph, has promulgated an apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium (To preach the Gospel) to bring all the curial reform into a single document.

Reform of the Curia has been attempted before within the context of each historical moment. Praedicate evangelium notes a major reform occurred in the sixteenth century, with the Apostolic Constitution Immensa aeterni Dei of Sixtus V (1588) and in the twentieth century, with the Apostolic Constitution Sapienti Consilio of Pius X (1908). After the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI, referring explicitly to the wishes expressed by the Council Fathers, promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Regimini Ecclesiae universae (1967). Pope St John Paul II promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus (1988).

The broad orientation of this reform is captured in the imagery of Jesus’ action at the last supper when he washed the feet of his disciples. Evangelisation and missionary service is at the heart of the document. The Roman Curia is to be at the service of the Pope and the local churches. ‘The Roman Curia does not place itself between the Pope and the Bishops, but rather places itself at the service of both in the manner that is proper to the nature of each.’ (8)

The way one approaches an understanding of the role of the Roman Curia will be determined by one’s ecclesiology. Building on the classic text of Avery Dulles and his models of the church, one could easily approach the purpose of the Curia from the institutional model: as the body that preserves the church’s institutional structure and stability.


'Political jousting between offices is undermined with the statement that each body is explicitly said to be juridically equal, thus removing a past tendency for some to consider they had a preeminent position.' 


Without any ambiguity, Pope Francis begins with the model of communion. There is a specific reference to synodality, that is, to a church of mutual listening and walking together.

The role of the laity is acknowledged: ‘It cannot be ignored in the updating of the Curia, whose reform, therefore, must provide for the involvement of lay people, even in roles of government and responsibility’. Further, ‘any member of the faithful can preside over a Dicastery or an entity, given the particular competence, power of governance and function of the latter.’ This opens the way for lay women and men and to take significant leadership roles, but it remains to be seen how this will operate in practice. Clergy and religious provide a less expensive workforce but the criterion should be competence. At least the clarity of the statement should open more possibilities for lay appointments at the highest levels.

Political jousting between offices is undermined with the statement that each body is explicitly said to be juridically equal, thus removing a past tendency for some to consider they had a preeminent position. The previous distinction between Congregations and Pontifical Councils has been abolished. Functions have been amalgamated where there is overlap although there will no doubt be discussion about whether the reforms have gone far enough.

The Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization has been absorbed into the Dicastery for Evangelization which comprises two sections. The first deals with evangelization in general including catechetics. The second continues the work of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples with its responsibility for the missionary churches. 

In some areas, such as the appointment of bishops, there are now three competent bodies. Understandably the eastern churches are responsible to a separate dicastery. For the rest there are some territories, generally referred to as ‘missionary’ under the former Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and the rest under the authority of the former Congregation for Bishops.

In an increasingly globalised world one might query whether the designation of territory as missionary is still relevant.

This was raised in commentary prior to the publication of Praedicate evangelium which rightly predicted that the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and the Pontifical Council for Culture might be absorbed into a Dicastery with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Massimo Faggioli put the question in these terms, ‘And what will happen to the powerful Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples — commonly known as Propaganda Fide — now that entire Catholic Church is considered missionary territory and is in need of being (re-) evangelized?’

If the focus of the entire church is on mission, then an arbitrary division of the church into mission and non-mission territories may no longer be opportune. However, such a radical re-ordering may have been a step too far. Reform must work within the limits of what is achievable.


'These new structures reflect Pope Francis’ vision of a missionary church at the service of the world.' 


This has relevance for the work of the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS), which the reforms largely bypass. There may be some local churches in places where the presence of the Catholic faith is very much a minority or otherwise fragile that fall outside the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. On the other hand, there may be churches that are under its jurisdiction that have reached such a point of maturity and self-sufficiency that they no longer need the support of PMS.

By way of illustration there are 1,117 circumscriptions under the care of the Congregation. The seven dioceses of New Zealand are included but they are neither financially poor, nor young, nor fragile in any way. There are 110 Metropolitan Archdioceses. To what extent can their current status be reviewed to ascertain whether they still fall within the criteria that merit inclusion within the jurisdiction of the Dicastery or still merit support from PMS?

Perhaps the criteria for support from PMS is not about which jurisdiction the local church is under but its needs. A ‘mission church’, according to this approach will be a church that lacks resources for the work of evangelization due to the intrinsic poverty of the local community, the fragile circumstances of the local church due to its minority status with the local community, its early stage of development, or circumstances of persecution.

As previously announced, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is divided into two sections. One deals with questions of faith and morals and the orthodoxy of teaching. The other deals with disciplinary matters including crimes reserved to the apostolic see.

Within this dicastery is the Commission for the Protection of Minors. Some early commentary queried whether this would prejudice the Commission’s independence or downgrade the Church’s commitment to safeguarding.

As reported in the Vatican News Service the President of the Commission, Cardinal Sean O’Malley welcomed the new arrangements. ‘Linking the Commission more closely with the work of the new Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith represents a significant move forward in upgrading the place and mandate of the Commission,’ the Cardinal said, ‘which can only lead to a stronger culture of safeguarding throughout the Curia and the entire Church.’ The Cardinal praised the decision to maintain the Commission ‘as a separate body within the Dicastery that enjoys direct access to the Holy Father and with its own leadership and staffing’.

The reforms of the financial administration of the Holy See, as initiated by Cardinal Pell, have been consolidated with a clear statement of purpose for the Council for the Economy overseeing the Secretariat for the Economy.

Importantly the Human Resources Directorate of the Holy See, within the Secretary for the Economy, deals with personnel matters. This should enhance consistency and efficiencies relating to recruitment and ongoing formation of curial officials.

These new structures reflect Pope Francis’ vision of a missionary church at the service of the world. Structures are important but the commitment to this vision by those who work within them will ultimately determine the success of this reform. More importantly will be the way in which those in the local church orient their attitude to the Roman Curia. Will it be seen as a constructive partner in the work of evangelisation or a bureaucratic obstacle that is best avoided?




Brian Lucas headshotFr Brian Lucas is National Director of Catholic Mission Australia. 

Main image: Pope Francis addresses members of the Roman Curia (Vatican Media). 

Topic tags: Brian Lucas, Roman Curia, Reform, Pope Francis, Praedicate evangelium



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Existing comments

It is apt that this article is penned by someone like yourself, Brian. As a trained lawyer and a longterm ecclesiastical bureaucrat, no one is better suited to guide us through the maze of Vatican legislation and bureaucracy. The Curia always reminded me of one of those bizarre Heath Robinson contraptions. My query was always how they managed to work. The Curia should serve the Church, not vice versa. My query is how long will these reforms last after Francis' pontificate?

Edward Fido | 29 March 2022  

‘‘The Roman Curia does not place itself between the Pope and the Bishops, but rather places itself at the service of both in the manner that is proper to the nature of each.’ (8)’

Unlike the three irremoveable institutions of the US Constitution which rub not without friction and at cross-purposes, the missionary Church also has three irremoveable institutions which ensure that God’s desire that all should be saved is not a theoretical intention but a practical project which is perpetually in motion, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, each complex intelligence being simultaneously also a complex organisation because of the multidirectional flow of personality and, thus, intention.

The Spirit is not a cypher of Father or Son but a discrete personality and intentionality at the service of both in the manner that is proper to each, the Son having nothing of his own but what comes from the Father, the Father leaving all in the discretion of the Son, the Spirit, if the Father and Son are discrete persons, constantly in flow with each mind in order for three minds to know and be known by each before any action can by common consent be executed through the Spirit.

As Ross Howard mentioned in another place, you can’t trust if you don’t know. Further to that, it could be said that you can’t delegate if you can’t trust. The Father trusts and delegates to the Son who trusts and delegates to the Spirit which seems to be the executing agent of the Godhead.

Perhaps a Trinity of perpetual trust and delegation would have had to be invented, if it did not already exist, to serve as model for a secular organisation like a federation of local churches within a universal church which could not fail to become complicated with the risk of ‘each going his own way’, a beneficence which does not exist for faiths with the modelling of a unitary deity.

Happily coincidental also is the fruit for musing offered by the fact we live in a system which pictures two virtues relevant to the Trinity. It pictures to us every day through the separate juridical entities of Commonwealth and States an intention to model, if not always very well, the divine administrative principle of subsidiarity which exists within the Trinity and, also not always well, to model a constitutional link to and anchor in the Trinity itself through the constitutional convention of divine right to rule in a monarchy (whose natural home, coincidentally. also practises formal subsidiarity through a unity of countries).

roy chen yee | 30 March 2022  

I was just going to make the point that this initiative of Pope Francis' is not meant to create more bureaucratic merry-go-rounds, but to strip the decks for action, as they used to say in Nelson's Navy. Jesus, in his short ministry, was a man of action. The Pope knows it is time for action. He is actually something the Catholic Church needs to be today: relevant to the life of ordinary people of all faiths or none.

Edward Fido | 31 March 2022  

Perhaps the test of the success of this reform will be whether we see the Pope in the future promulgating a constitution or similar flanked by lay persons?

Joanna Elliott | 31 March 2022  

Of course, none of this will work, Brian, unless and until you acknowledge that justice is an incontestable and irremovable aspect of mission. What would be the point, then, of a Missionary Church without the Justice of the Gospels at its epicentre? Hence, where might these promising reforms and restructure be without opening up Holy Orders to Women? 'Ay; there's the rub'!

Michael Furtado | 01 April 2022  
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Since "justice" necessarily involves natural rights and admission to the ordained priesthood is not a right for anyone, how is it possible to argue validly for women's ordination under a banner of justice?

John RD | 01 April 2022  

Because if a woman can marry a man, surely a man should be able to marry a man. Of course, that means, justice being based upon consent between 'mature' intellects rather than limited by natural realities (or, rather, that the intellect is sovereign over reality), if two women should agree to marry one man (and an oil-rich sheikh would do very well, thank you), or two men one woman (less likely because men aren't usually big on sharing certain things --- it must have been the selfishness engendered by The Fall), those, too, should be the case.

roy chen yee | 01 April 2022  

Aside from the reform of the Roman Curia, the photograph is interesting as it portrays wealth, power and opulence.
The pope is reading from an elegantly carved timber Mahogany lectern. The multi faceted stone background empanelled with marble and polished granite portrays permanence and solidity. The surround of interwoven flowers must have cost a fortune.
The two cardinals each with a book on his lap (one black, one red) richly clad in scarlet and black, give the impression of some secret knowledge denied to lesser mortals.
Its reassuring to see that our "leaders" are the cornerstone of the Catholic empire.
Therefore I wonder why they ignore and snub the findings of the Royal Commission? Perhaps too confronting to their claim to power and prestige? Why they don't send a contingent or cohort of Bishops and Cardinals to Kiev to both earn their keep and confront the carnage wrought largely by the Russian Orthodox church.

Francis Armstrong | 08 April 2022  

Reforms are urgently required in the Catholic church.
Take just one issue and you will see quickly why the pews are emptying. In 2022, the Catholic religion has failed to reform a universal issue - clergy child sex abuse.

Hundreds of thousands of children have been raped (and more even adults) and yet after numerous State Inquiries and Royal Commissions into Child Sex Abuse, Pope Francis has failed to implement zero tolerance for clergy sex abusers and concealers in church employment worldwide.

This was not always the case. For 1500 years the Catholic Church stripped abusing priests of their office and status and handed them over to the state for punishment.

In the past 120 years, six popes changed canon laws to cover up, conceal & shield many paedophile priests from criminal trials worldwide.

Evidence shows HolySee leaders have promoted Cardinals and Bishops who covered up crimes or protected them with plush jobs inside the walls of the Vatican.

This year, Pope Francis supported a Bishop who was charged with raping seminarians in Argentina.
Prior to the trial, Pope Francis provided a posting to the Vatican for the accused Bishop. Last month, Argentian secular courts found the Bishop guilty. Pope Francis remains silent on the matter.

Dual status as both a religion and a country has allowed the HolySee to protect and shield abusive clergy and concealers from criminal trials worldwide.
(The Holy See has no extradition treaties with any country in the world).

Australians witnessed key clergy in the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse and the Newcastle Maitland special commission protecting the worst sort of offenders, failing to report them to the civil authorities, moving them around when it became public information, and 'generally being part of what can only be described as a large-scale criminal protection racket'.
'In evidence to the special commission in Newcastle, Father Brian Lucas said that the obligation to report a serious crime depended on the wishes of the victim.'

The Bishops Guide Book on Coverup and Concealment of Clergy Sex Abuse' seems to promote the use of many excuses including secrecy of the confessional to override obligations to the criminal law.
The recent testimony of Dr Michelle Mulvihill, a former nun turned clinical psychologist who worked for the St John of God brothers from 1998-2007 to help the order respond to sexual abuse claims stated Saint John of Gold were 'Masters of cover-up'.
Ms Mulvahill told the New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care that there was “organisational denial” within the St John of God order, not just a denial of the abuse claims, but also a denial of the effects the abuse had on victims and the order’s moral obligation to fix it.

Mulvihill said this 'organisational denial' was present in most Catholic institutions she has dealt with.

P Boylan | 20 April 2022  

As the Catholic religion is the world's largest provider of schooling, this particular issue of reform is one that the church must urgently take action on.

Vatican headquarters promotes 'the protection of clergy with allegations of paedophilia' yet mostly ignores the crimes committed against the victims.

Evidence shows concealers are often promoted (e.g. Cardinal Law) and (St John of God) as documented in NZ Inquiry 2022.

Church leaders seem to be acting on instructions from the Vatican. Abusive clergy or concealers are protected instead of expelled or reported to the police.

In 1904, Pope Pius X discarded decrees requiring priests who abused children to be sacked and prosecuted. 'In 1922, Pope Pius XI issued Crimen Sollicitationis, which imposed the secret of the holy office. Priests' crimes and scandals were to be kept under wraps. This was subsequently confirmed in 1962. In 1974 the "secret of the holy office" was rebadged as the "pontifical secret". It was confirmed again in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Later Benedict XVI conveniently declared the secrecy provisions extended to allegations of priests having sex with intellectually disabled people.'

After decades of public outings of clergy sex abuse crisis by world media, Pope Francis continues to fail to implement zero-tolerance for clergy sex abusers and concealers.

Pope Francis or his Cardinals (some of who have raped and concealed) have failed to keep up with the moral standards of its Catholic parishioners or the community.
The rape of children (and adults) has impacted the church's future clientele. It's caused a significant reduction in new or continuing parishioners and the destruction of whole families and communities trust in religion. Pope's prayers and hollow apologies to victims are no longer considered sufficient or reasonable.

Bishop's commitment to secrecy to uphold or protect abusive priests or fellow Bishops is no longer an acceptable action and can no longer 'passes the pub test'.

Even, Father Brian Lucas', as he, unfortunately, expressed it, of "seducing" priests to resign, cannot be considered a way out by the church.

P Boylan | 20 April 2022  

Clinical psychologist Dr Michelle Mulvihill told NZ Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care that
21 out of 23 St John of God brothers faced allegations of physical or sexual abuse.

What action has the Bishop owned religious charity, Australia Catholic Safeguarding Limited, done about Saint John of God Order?


P Boylan | 20 April 2022  

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