Pope Francis’ “open and incomplete” leadership and the puzzling “reform” of the Curia

Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, the editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, says the Holy Father’s leadership “is based on the success-error dynamic,” which inevitably “destabilizes whoever seeks certainties…”

Pope Francis and members of the Rome Curia gather in the Vatican's Redemptoris Mater Chapel Dec. 15 for the traditional meditation on the Fridays of Advent. Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, guides the reflection. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Does Pope Francis have a plan for the reform of the Church? The editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, reportedly says, “No.” While that answer sounds counter-intuitive, there are good reasons for giving it, only some of which Spadaro is reported to have spelled out, in remarks he delivered to a group of journalists gathered in Madrid under a banner describing themselves as Periodistas pro Papa Francisco – “Journalists for Pope Francis”.

The event was billed as the I Congreso Internacional, and included participants from 10 different countries around the world, according to one organizer. According to another supporting organization, the actual number of participants was “reduced.” The participants issued a Final Declaration that makes for some fascinating reading on its own.

The only name on the speakers list certainly recognizable to English-speakers was Spadaro’s.

A write-up on Spadaro’s remarks, which appeared in the e-pages of Religión Digital – one of the organizers of the event, along with Mensajeros de la Paz – under the by-line of Religión Digital’s director, José M. Vidal, tells us Spadaro really brought the house down.

Religión Digital reports Spadaro – who really doesn’t like to be called “adviser to” and “confidant of” Pope Francis (so much so that he seems to make a point of expressing his discomfiture at being described in such terms) – as saying some interesting things, mostly regarding what Pope Francis is not.

The piece in Religión Digital has Spadaro quoting Pope Francis as saying, in response to a direct question regarding his intentions as a reformer, “I do not [want to reform the Church]. I just want to place Christ more and more at the center of the Church. It will be He who makes the reforms.”

Nevertheless, Pope Francis was elected with a mandate for reform. A good deal of ink has been spilled in the effort to parse his papacy as one of reform. He has spoken of the need for reform. So, to hear that he does not want to reform the Church is surprising.

Perhaps it ought not be.

To the extent Pope Francis was elected with a reform mandate, it was a specific one to reform the Roman Curia – and the Curia is not the Church (though it is the instrument that assists the Successor to Peter in his mission of teaching, governance, and sanctification of the Universal Church, and that’s something, like it or not). In any case, that work seemed to begin in earnest, with the swift nomination of eight (later extended to nine) members of a “small council,” the “C8” (later “C9” after the inclusion of the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin) Council of Cardinal Advisers, in April of 2013, just a month after his election.

Then, at the end of 2014, Pope Francis used the traditional exchange of greetings with the high curial officials to give a list of 15 ills that plague the Curia. That list is interesting to read in light of what has and has not transpired in the intervening three years. Though institutional reform was and is on everyone’s mind, Pope Francis was clearly, in that address, speaking of – and speaking to – the souls of men.

Spiritual reform, reform of the soul, repentance, conversion, healing, receptiveness to grace, and docility to the promptings of conscience: all these are essential to the life of every Christian, and only more so to the lives of those Christians who are called to assist the Universal Pastor in his governance of the Universal Church. Even so, the Roman Curia is a bureaucracy, and would be a bureaucracy if it were staffed and run by living saints. It is one thing to undertake a reform of a bureaucracy. It is quite another to undertake a reform of bureaucrats.

The institutional reforms undertaken thus far have been piecemeal: two new departments, given the vague designation of “dicastery,” are responsible for essentially the same work they did before, when that work was spread out over nearly a half-dozen different offices.

Consolidation is fine – it makes a good deal of sense whether viewed from the point of view of mission-effectiveness or from that of the bottom line – but the question of nomenclature is not insignificant.

“Dicastery” is usually an informal shorthand used by Vatican insiders to refer to offices of the Roman Curia willy-nilly. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once called La Suprema, is a “dicastery,” but so is the glorified think tank called the Pontifical Council for Culture. Congregations are the big guys: they have governing and teaching responsibilities; councils are usually advisory bodies (the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts is an interesting middle case, but very much sui generis); academies, commissions, etc., are usually ad hoc, more focused on facilitating and being involved in conversations with thought-leaders in and across specific disciplines.

Calling a new department with a broad mandate covering mission-critical areas like Laity, Family, and Life or Integral Human Development (which includes Justice, Peace, Care for Creation, Migrants and Refugees, Health Care, and Papal Charity), by the vague title of “dicastery” does not help anyone understand what the powers of the new offices are or will be, nor does it tell them where they stand in the pecking order.

This is not something that escaped the attention of the men principally responsible for the reform of the Curia. As the Secretary to the C9, Bishop Marcello Semeraro, noted in 2016:

[T]he distinction present in Pastor bonus between Congregations and Pontifical Councils is operated on the basis of the exercise, or not, of a [governing] power. It is useless, however, to circumvent the impression that comes from it (not only in public opinion) of dicasteries of first and second order! [sic] This will also be taken into account in the general organization and this is why in the most recent implementations the more general terminology of ‘Dicastery’ has been used, which in ecclesiastical parlance is already used as a synonym and omnicomprehensive (Cf. Pastor bonus art. 1 & 2 § 1 & 2).

Among the counsels received were those insistent and widespread calls for a simplification and a streamlining of the Curia: the merging, or merger, of dicasteries according to matters of competence, as well as internal simplification of the individual dicasteries; the possible suppression of offices that no longer meet the needs of current contingency; the insertion and, possibly, reduction of commissions, academies, committees, etc. within the dicasteries. There have also been calls to reorganize the specific competences of the various dicasteries, moving them, if necessary, from one dicastery to another.

All this takes note of the fact, but does not account for it – nor does it explain how people are to go about their work. If one were to gather the impression that the inevitable confusion is not an unintended consequence, but the real desired result of the reform, one could hardly be blamed.

The one new dicastery that does have a specific designation is the Secretariat for Communication, which has a clear mandate, but is headed by a priest with the rank of monsignor, while the other secretariats are headed by cardinals who are also archbishops.

Nota bene. This is not a question of vanity.

The new communication secretariat’s first task is to implement the recommendations of the two independent blue-ribbon panels (the first conducted by the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co. and the second by a special commission headed by Christopher Francis Patten, Baron Patten of Barnes) that studied Vatican communications from 2013 to 2015, and came back with advice that came to: cut costs, and get the message under control. The cost-cutting work has been hard and painful – more so since Pope Francis told the leadership of the new secretariat they could not wield the sword of redundancy – but the message-control part of the mandate is made measurably more difficult by the circumstance of ecclesiastical rank. Said simply: prefect or not, no monsignor can tell a bishop what to do, let alone an archbishop or a Red Hat – and the major problems with message discipline have never really come from the communications outfits now under the direct control of the Secretariat for Communications. The Secretariat for Communications, ongoing challenges notwithstanding, did just this past week clear a major hurdle when it rolled out the revamped web portal Vatican News for beta testing.

So, there’s that.

Meanwhile, the C9 cardinals studying the reform of the Curia continue to meet – their 23rd working session is scheduled for the end of February – without so much as a rough outline having been presented to the public to date (though we are promised it is “more than ¾ ready”).

Perhaps it is as Spadaro is reported to have said to that group of “Pro-Francis” journalists, i.e., that Pope Francis “does not have a plan for the Church,” though a less-reserved observer might suggest that a plan for the Curia is arguably neither too much to ask at this point, nor really entirely lacking. One need only know where to look – and the place to look is Santa Marta, where all the shots are called and all the stories start and end.

Here, too, Spadaro offers some words that are in line with what we have seen of the Holy Father’s own characterization of his working methods. Francis’ leadership, Spadaro is reported to have said, “is based on the success-error dynamic,” which inevitably “destabilizes whoever seeks certainties,” insofar as “discernment is not based on human certainties, but on enabling the unfolding of God’s will in history.”

Spadaro reportedly described the Holy Father’s thought as “open and incomplete” – a turn of phrase that is meant to place Pope Francis’ thought in contrast to that of a closed system or self-contained ideology.

If this really is an accurate picture of the Holy Father’s mind, it would mean Francis conceives his mission as essentially that of the discerner-in-chief. How that understanding squares with the expectations of his electors, or with the hopes of those they elected him to lead, is still very much to be seen.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 221 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Christopher that’s the pretense. Christ is the reformer not The Great Reformer (Ivereigh). Certainly articles such as your’s that raise the right questions as futile as it seems have value in keeping the discussion moving and informing the Church at large. We’ve reached the point of no return to orthodoxy, unless there is divine intervention that seems more likely now than ever because the Great Reformer has implemented premises adopted by many including conservative Hierarchy that the notion of mitigation of responsibility for grave sin, inviolability of conscience v Revelation, the virtual impossibility of determining the validity of exchange of vows, the premise that sexual orientation is not inherent by nature rather subject to preference. This is the master plan to dismantle Christ’s Church, seduce the faithful that it’s merciful and from God. As if God’s Justice is rigid. We have one choice. To resist and counter the ruse that the Pontiff is a benevolent pastor searching for God’s will, seeking relevance for the Gospels. It is by this time clearly evident Pope Francis is on a determined mission to remake the Church in his own image. Not that of Christ.

  2. The Church without “certainties” is not the Church that Christ instituted….this game of parsing a pope’s statements and intentions is absurd and Francis’s pride in sowing confusion is contrary to a Vicar of Christ.

  3. Fr. Morello speaks the truth.

    Going further, the 4.5 year stage show by “Rev.” Spadaro and Austin Ivereigh’s “Team Bergoglio” reveal themselves as very focused on 2 things: (1) getting attention for themselves, and (2) reminding everyone else that their disbelief is a mark of their exceptional virtue. In a nutshell, it seems to be the 2-part obsession of the contemporary, post-Catholic ideology of “Jesuit-ism” or perhaps better said, “Jesuit-itis.”

    How parhetically small-hearted and small-minded, that men would campaign their way to the seat of St. Peter, and arrive bereft of the capacity for Catholic fatherhood.

    An utter failure to understand or answer God’s vocation.

    • Chris,
      I’ve been thinking of this comment for a couple days now. Are you aware of any further writings on ‘Jesuitism’/’Jesuit-itis’ as you posit here being today’s post-Catholic ideology? Would love to read more. Thanks.

      • JD –

        Hello, and happy 4th Day of Christmas.

        No, my reflections are my own. Over the past 20 years, I have more carefully watched and listened to what has been going on, and caught up on recent history, and I have paid very close attention during the pontificate of B16 (who I love) and now Pope F (who I have – reluctantly – come to distrust).

        Without going deeply into personal things, there are people in my family and in-laws family, and in every parish I have attended, who border on worshiping the Jesuits, and I find that very unwholesome.

        The typical thing I see is an exchange: Jesuits tell people that they can dispense with core beliefs of Catholic faith, and in gratitude for getting permission to disbelieve in the faith, people border on worshipping the Jesuits.

        And I have noticed that Jesuits strongly cultivate this dynamic of disbelief in the faith, in exchange for loyalty to “the Jesuit brand.”

        In a word – the Jesuits have made their brand a “commodity.”

        As to it being “post-Catholic” – that is my conclusion.

        When you read the things that they promote (like the non-Jez Cardinal Kasper’s DISBELIEFS in the gospel and Nicea, and the sex-revolution ideology of “Rev.” Martin SJ, snd the odd rejections of the theology of the Mass by the late Fr. Greeley SJ), it all amounts to an abandonment of the content of Catholic belief in Jesus, and an eternal vow of blind belief in the Jesuits.

        In effect, they are putting themselves as the new Godhead.

  4. Pope Francis is not seeking to build any church other than a church influenced by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Our current pontiff inherited a Vatican administration that was not unified, and a Vatican bank needing major reform. This the Pope has being reforming so it reflects will of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church and not the spirit administrators working in the bubble of the Vatican. We need a bit more time for the fruits of Pope Francis’ work to bear fruit, but already many Catholics consider Pope Francis a holy man in touch with reality of the lives ordinary people lead, and not obsessed with pomp and power. That is so refreshing to so many of the faithful.

  5. “This the Pope has being reforming so it reflects will of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church and not the spirit administrators working in the bubble of the Vatican.”

    The Roman Curia should exist primarily for the patriarchate of Rome, not for the Church Universal. This will never be reformed by Pope Francis as his grasp of ecclesiology and the issues regarding the separation with the other Apostolic churches is limited.

  6. In the world of politics the behavior described would be described as opportunism. I’ll grant that Francis appears to believe in the supernatural, but his desire to accommodate 21st century secularism has been plain from the start and has shown up clearly in the synod of the family and preliminary documents (and appoints to) the upcoming youth synod. Francis has said he does not want to make a “mess”, so better make major changes through the back door, (a couple of footnotes in an paper) and a couple of years later the Church finds that that the divorced are welcome to full communion with the Church. He has just gotten started and unless he finds his “mess” in his cavalier attitude toward employing high ranking churchmen seriously tainted with scandal.

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