Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

Contemporary Role of a Medieval Court

This name attaches to the central bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, whose buildings and personnel are located mostly in Rome. All large organisations - the T.U.C for example - require some sort of central organisation and the Curia does for the Church what the London based civil service does for the government. The main difference is that whereas the officials in Whitehall are accountable to a regularly elected parliament, the Curia is answerable only to the Pope, who has the job for life, and who is elected by a numerically minute oligarchy - the cardinals.

The Curia consists of the Secretariat of State (foreign affairs), nine congregations, like the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples - formerly called Propaganda Fidei, and three tribunals, among which is the Rota which is the supreme court of appeal for matrimonial nullities.


The Curia is the direct lineal descendant of the papal administration of the Middle Ages, when the Papal States was a strong secular power in European politics, with its own army and tax system. At that period it was difficult to draw a clear distinction between the secular and religious operations of the papacy, in the titanic struggle with the German emperors to secure the independence of the Church from the control of secular rulers. The present structure of the Curia remains substantially unchanged since the re-organisation of Pope Sixtus V in 1588 did clarify to some extent its religious orientation. Pope Paul VI made some changes after Vatican II, but it was not a fundamental recasting of the institution, nor did it touch its theological basis. However the organisation became much larger (see below).


In the sixteenth century, thanks to the re-organisation of Pope Sixtus V, the Curia was considerably more efficient than the administrations of most European governments. The work of Propaganda Fidei deserves special credit. It came into its own at the end of the sixteenth century, in the wake of the spectacular voyages of discovery by Columbus, and when missionaries were taking the Gospel to places as far away as Japan, India, Africa and North and South America. The scope for rivalry and chaos was daunting in view of the conflicting interests of Europe’s colonial powers, potential competition between religious orders, and the relations between the orders and the local bishops and their clergy. The mainly smooth operation of that vast missionary enterprise from the sixteenth century to the present day, is one of the most remarkable achievements of the modern Church, and the main credit accrues to the Congregation of Propaganda Fidei.


At the end of the twentieth century the full time personnel numbered approximately 3000, which is roughly the same number of diocesan bishops in the Church. The vast majority of them are priests, and all the top jobs are held by cardinals. Since the work entails no sacramental ministry, why are they recruited from the priesthood? Moreover since all the decisions are promulgated in the name of the pope, no other jurisdictional power is entailed. This means that all the work could be done by lay people. This has a peculiar effect on the recruitment of priests. If a young man wishes to become a priest, the most normal outlet for his work is in a parish. He might also exercise his vocation as a foreign missionary, in a monastic order or as a teacher of theology, though lay people can do that also. What might prompt him to exercise a priestly vocation in the Curia? It is very difficult to see it as the expression of a priest’s role in the Church. However, if he is ambitious to become a bishop or cardinal, statistics show that his chances are about ten times higher than in a normal diocese, and practically all members of the Curia are awarded the title and robes of a Monsignor. About the reasons for entering the Curia, it is best to remain silent, as Wittgenstein said in another context!

The strangest anomaly is the role of Papal Nuncios who are the pope’s ambassadors to governments, not to the Church within their territories. They originated in the days when the Papal States were a real political entity on the map of Europe. With the abolition of the Papal States in 1870, and the establishment of the tiny Vatican City State in 1929, the papal diplomatic service ought to have been abolished also. In fact it has grown larger, and at the end of the twentieth century the Vatican had its nunciatures (embassies) in 167 states. What do they do all day? If on a rare occasion the Pope might need to deal with the British government for example, would it not be more natural to conduct the business through the chairman of the English Bishops’ Conference? The local man would have the advantage of a thorough knowledge of the country in which he grew up, not to mention the ability to speak the language fluently. The whole scene is fraught with inexplicable anomalies, to put it kindly. Professor Parkinson put it less kindly when he formulated his famous law: “Work expands to occupy the time, space and personnel available”.


In the 1990’s the English bishops received permission from the Vatican to allow girls to act as altar servers. The fact that this insignificant decision had to be made in Rome indicates that the Curia has gradually taken away from the bishops so many of their traditional responsibilities, that practically every decision has to be referred to Rome. In vast areas of their work the diocesan bishops are now implementing decisions which are made by the Curia. The seriousness of this power shift cannot be exaggerated. The Roman Curia is a man made creation of the popes, whereas the episcopal office derives from Christ in the founding of the Church. It is all the more scandalous in this age, since the Second Vatican Council explicitly validated the role of bishops, reminding everyone that they are not the delegates of the pope, but derive their authority as successors of the Apostles.

Michael M. Winter

JoomBall - Cookies