Those who follow politics in this tumultuous election season often hear pundits refer to this or that candidate or staff member as “wonky,” that is to say immersing themselves in the detailed minutiae of a particular field. It may seem that those interested in curial reorganizations could have this word applied to them in the sphere of ecclesial life. But I would counter that what Pope Francis is doing in this area of the Catholic world could actually be cementing his legacy more than any of his other images, gestures or phrases.
The curia is the body of the pope’s chosen (or inherited) aides in governing the universal church. At the death or resignation of the pope, all positions are only renewed at the new pontiff’s behest. But there is inertia, protocol and the need for continuity involved, and so this is more complicated than it sounds.
Both the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Pope John Paul II’s 1988 vision laid out in Pastor Bonus organized the curia in its current iteration, an ever-evolving process. But even the late 1980s presented a radically different world in terms of needs and historical context. Pope Francis has seen it as part of his mandate to reform the curia.
Even Pope Benedict XVI’s most ardent supporters do not often argue that he was a magnificent administrator. That is not a criticism, but a statement of fact. It was clear that in the wake of the Vatileaks incident and other scandalizing miscues, change in some elements of curial life was necessary.
It did not take Francis long to make clear that his would be a different style of management, excoriating some long-entrenched attitudes in a famous 2014 holiday season speech. (“Pope Francis to Curia: Merry Christmas, you power-hungry hypocrites,” one headline famously, and maybe a bit excessively, put it). It’s often easy to villainize anonymous princes of the church, when in fact many good and diligent people, both lay and ordained, work in these offices. Yet it was clear that Francis was undeniably diagnosing some ailments.
He’s now taken the next step to remedy what he sees as this real illness: the curia’s defensive and self-referential posture over and against other elements of the church and world. In addition to the efforts made toward mandating financial transparency and greater protection of minors and vulnerable peoples, he’s now created a new dicastery (office) for Integral Human Development. Its constitution makes clear that lay people can be in direct positions of authority and influence within it. The work of the body will draw upon the social teaching of the church and absorbs the functions of the previously separate Justice and Peace, Cor Unum (charitable works), Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, and Health Care. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana will be its first head. Interestingly, the pope chose to personally retain direct oversight for issues involving migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. This follows the creation of another mega-office: Laity, Family and Life, which will be run by former Dallas bishop Kevin Farrell, whose brother is a long-time official at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
These changes which Francis is implementing (and not without resistance) echo his desire to reinvigorate the synodal nature of the church. Anyone wishing to understand what this means should read his Oct. 17, 2015 speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the creation of the synod of bishops. Perhaps more than any other document, it succinctly and clearly lays out the pope’s desire and strategies for developing a church that more perfectly listens to one another and walks together (caminando) as pilgrims toward the Lord.
His vision will almost undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the way the church operates and makes decisions well into the future, regardless of whether or not his eventual successor shares his priorities. Perhaps this seemingly behind-the-scenes, while in-plain-view revolution, even more than “a poor church for the poor,” or a “mercying” community emulating that characteristic of God,” will be what future historians view as his most important contribution.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.