During the recent papal conclave, great attention was paid to the state of the Roman Curia by the media and the chattering Vaticanisti. This was hardly surprising – reporting news and conflict is their trade. What made the banter more unusual was the presence of large numbers of clerics – right up to cardinals – who wanted to have a public say.
That the Curia is in need of reform was discussed during the general congregations (meetings of cardinals) which preceded the conclave. The last time the Curia was reformed was during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI.
The centrepiece of governance, the Curia includes the numerous dicasteries, congregations, offices, tribunals, pontifical councils, academies and so on that administer the universal Church. Additionally, it includes the Holy See's radio, television and press outlets, quite apart from those associated with the Italian Bishops Conference.
Lack of oversight
One of the problems is the lack of oversight of the administration, and the dicasteries' sometimes conflicting responsibilities. This has given rise to serious problems including protracted delays in the appointment of bishops, and the frustrating failure to answer urgent correspondence from bishops and other organisations.
A symptom of the church's administrative problems can be seen in the Vatican Bank (IOR – Instituto per le Opere di Religione) whose secretive activities lack both oversight and transparency. The Vatican Bank is not technically part of the Curia, but operates as an independent financial institution within the Vatican.
Pope Francis has temporarily renewed the chief appointments of his predecessor, which by law all fall vacant on the death (or retirement) of the Roman Pontiff. This decision gives Francis time to "get the lie of the land" and make considered, long-term appointments in his own good time.
To assist him in the task of reforming and improving the Vatican's administration, the Holy Father has appointed not a committee, nor a commission, but an eight-man "advisory group". This reform group has been carefully chosen, with membership representing the Church's diverse geographical spread and, tellingly, only one Italian member (excluding the secretary). It is clearly intended to provide an independent and external audit of the Vatican administration.
The group's membership includes cardinals from Chile, India, Germany, Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, the United States and Australia (Cardinal George Pell).
Some commentators were quick to claim that the advisory group was the sign of a new "collegial" Church, as though previous popes had not established groups and commissions on every topic from the future of the Catholic Social Studies Movement (1957) to the legal status of the Traditional Latin Mass (1986).
Rather than surrendering his duties as Shepherd and Pastor to a committee, as some would no doubt hope for, Pope Francis is simply acknowledging the fact that, as the first non-European pope in over a millennium, it would be wise to seek advice.
The Curia and its subsidiary bodies form a complex structure which deserves careful consideration, not a blind, headfirst dive destined to end in failure and confusion. Furthermore, a number of the chosen cardinals are current or former presidents of their respective bishops' conferences – a good starting point for considering the issues now before them.
The reform group's first meeting is to take place in Rome this October and initial discussions have apparently already taken place.
There has also been discussion around the role Cardinal Pell will play in the group. In the lead up to the conclave, Cardinal Pell was critical of the Curia and its governance during the so-called Vatileaks scandal.
"I think the governance is done by people around the Pope and that wasn't always done brilliantly," he said. "I'm not breaking any ground there, this is said very commonly."
Of his new role with the advisory group, Cardinal Pell has been very clear about its scope and its powers: "It's not a cabinet. We are not an executive. In no sense does the Holy Fa-ther answer to us."
He has also canvassed the possibility that the group could advise on issues as diverse as Church communications and the sex abuse crisis. Speaking of the Holy Father, Cardinal Pell pointed out that "he's a man that is very capable, very open to receiving ideas even if he doesn't finally accept them. I think he will be a strong man of action".
The media will no doubt be watching for signs of this action, waiting with baited breath for scandals to be unearthed and conflict to ensue. But if there is anything Pope Francis has demonstrated so far in his pontificate, it is an ability to be firm but fair. The media clearly continue to struggle to pigeonhole him – and therein can perhaps be found the great strength of this reform project.
While some await sweeping changes, turning Rome and the Church upside-down, what is more likely is a thorough attempt to apply the principles of transparency, structural clarity and accountability to the Vatican's administration to ensure that it faithfully serves the purpose of furthering the religious and charitable works of the Church.
While reform of the Curia is a pressing responsibility, it is just one of many challenges which confront the Holy Father.
These include the need to revitalise religious life, with many orders in decline in recent decades; to address the tortured relations with communist states, like China and Vietnam, as well as the Islamic world where Christians are subject to discrimination if not persecution; and to build on the improved relations with Eastern Orthodoxy, fostered by Benedict XVI.