The Jesuit Pope and the problematic reform of the Roman Curia

2017 was a year in which the micro-fissures in the structure began to be visible to the naked eye. 2018 is likely to be the year in which it becomes clear that major structural reform cannot be postponed.

Pope Francis meets Nov. 13, 2017 with the heads of Vatican offices. (CNS photo/handout, L'Osservatore Romano)

The Cardinal Secretary of State of the Holy See, Pietro Parolin, recently granted an interview to Vatican Media, in which he made remarks that are at once a helpful panoramic view of the world from the vantage point of the Third Loggia, and replete with interesting particulars. Most significant, however, is the opportunity those remarks afford, for a reflection on where we are in the Francis papacy, the leadership challenges that face the Pope and the Church, and the strengths and liabilities of character and personality Pope Francis brings to those challenges in 2018.

This essay takes some of the indications Cardinal Parolin gave in that interview, and uses them as guides to the exploration of a few particular challenges related to the ongoing process of reform of the Roman Curia, with an eye toward the broader questions of Church governance, which will be the subject of another essay.

First, Cardinal Parolin addressed the ongoing project of curial reform, saying, “Evidently, there have already been steps – notable steps – forward. Even last year, the Pope in his speech to the Curia gave a quick rundown of all the measures that had been taken after study, especially by the C9 Council of Cardinals.” So he did. When one puts them all together, it reads like a lot of work, especially if the steps are “unbundled”, as they were in the list the Pope presented.

That speech, however, was arguably more interesting for what it had to say about what the Pope’s vision of reform is not, than for what it tells us about what his vision for reform is.

“[T]he aim of reform is not aesthetic,” Pope Francis said in December, 2016, “[not] an effort to improve the looks of the Curia, nor can it be understood as a sort of facelift, using make-up and cosmetics to embellish its aging body, nor even as an operation of plastic surgery to take away its wrinkles.” He went on to say, “[T]he reform will be effective only if it is carried out by men and women who are renewed and not simply new.”

The Pope seemed in 2016 to be saying that he would be keeping the Old Guard, warts and all, in the hope that they would grow out of their frustration with the loss of their looks and try to take up a sort of spiritual gymnastics apt to increase core strength. Renewal, rather than replacement, then, seemed at the end of 2016 to be the order of the day.

That is fine, but, as I observed in a piece at the end of last year, “It is one thing to undertake a reform of a bureaucracy. It is quite another to undertake a reform of bureaucrats.” Reform of bureaucrats is still the driving idea behind Pope Francis’ efforts, if Cardinal Parolin has the measure of them. “[W]hen we speak of the Curia,” Cardinal Parolin went on to say in his conversation with Vatican Media, still referring to Pope Francis’ remarks at the end of 2016, “it is not so much to insist on structural reforms, with the promulgation of new laws, new regulations, appointments, etc. Rather it is on the profound spirit which must animate every reform of the Curia, and is the fundamental dimension of Christian life; that is, that of conversion.”

Nevertheless, 2017 saw Pope Francis tell us that he would be seeking to replace the Old Guard as their terms expire, and that there was nothing therefore to be read into his decision not to renew the rather outspoken Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s mandate as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Especially in hindsight, the Pope’s decision to let Cardinal Müller go should not have been a great surprise, though some people – Müller among them – were unhappy about the way the thing was done. Normale amministrazione, they say here in Rome. Perhaps it was. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Pope cannot have it both ways, and the folks in the Curia – high and low – have a hard time doing their work, when what “normal administration” is, changes with each reaction to a bump in the road.

There is another perceptible difficulty with the reform effort, call this one mechanical, over which Pope Francis sailed unproblematically in 2016. Point 4 of the Pope’s lengthy and articulate 2016 allocution to the Curia was given the heading, Organizational Clarity:

On the basis of the principle that all Dicasteries are juridically equal, a clearer organization of the offices of the Roman Curia was needed, in order to bring out the fact that each Dicastery has its own areas of competence. These areas of competence must be respected, but they must also be distributed in a reasonable, efficient and productive way. No Dicastery can therefore appropriate the competence of another Dicastery, in accordance with what is laid down by law. On the other hand, all Dicasteries report directly to the Pope.

In point of fact, however, all Dicasteries are not juridically equal under the present disposition. Some of them have governing power, others are advisory bodies. If the reform is aiming to create condition of juridical equality among the Dicasteries, it is difficult to understand how the whole thing will work, without some Dicasteries being more equal than others. It is more difficult to believe that a bureaucracy – and whatever else the Roman Curia is, it is a bureaucracy – can be stably functional over time without a better and more clear articulation of this principle.

The key is likely to be found in the last line, which strongly suggests that the Pope – this Pope, at any rate – is at present more interested in governing by force of personality, than by any other means. That is fine for now, by the way, and arguably necessary: the last years of the reign of Pope St. John Paul II were ones in which the physically weak and sickly Pontiff did not really govern at all; the dancing mice of the Curia in those years kept up the dysfunctional ball throughout the reign of Benedict XVI, whose pontficate was marked by the turmoil that got us a Conclave with an appetite for reform.

In short, 2017 was a year in which the micro-fissures in the structure began to be visible to the naked eye. 2018 is likely to be the year in which it becomes clear that major structural reform (or engine rebuilding, depending on one’s preferred analogy) cannot be postponed.

Second, then, is the insight both the 2016 speech and Cardinal Parolin’s remarks at the start of 2018 give, into the personality of the man, who would govern by force of it.

The short version is this: Pope Francis – the dyed-in-the-wool Jesuit and Jesuit provincial – may understand that he cannot govern the Universal Church as though it were his religious province, but evidence strongly suggests he is operating under the presumption that he can govern the Curia as though he were its Jesuit superior and the officers his personal assistancy.

At the end of the 2016 speech, Pope Francis recalled a brief exchange he had the year before with Cardinal Brandmüller – one of the four Cardinal-signatories of the Dubia, which had just been made public at the end of 2016 – who, shaking Pope Francis’ hand at the end of the 2015 allocution on the ills of the Curia, said, “Acquaviva!” – literally “living water” but also the name of an early Jesuit General famous for his own “back to basics” reform effort. Pope Francis offered this reflection on his exchange with Brandmüller:

At the time, I didn’t understand, but, later, thinking about it, I recalled that Acquaviva, the fifth Father General of the Society of Jesus, had written a book that we students read in Latin. The spiritual directors made us read it and it was entitled: Industriae pro Superioribus ejusdem Societatis ad curandos animae morbos, that is, on curing illnesses of the soul. Three months ago, a very good edition came out in Italian, prepared by the late Fr. Giuliano Raffo, with a good introduction. It is not a critical edition, but it is a very fine translation, very well done, and I believe it could be helpful. As a Christmas gift, I would like to give it to each of you.

One of the things I noted almost as soon as Pope Francis was elected – I began to see it within minutes of the announcement – was how profoundly and completely the Ignatian ethos has permeated him. Whatever else he is, he is a “formed” man. Some people might have been alarmed by this very fact – some people I know and admire were worried and even disheartened – but this former Jesuit schoolboy and Gesuita mancato was thrilled.

I also began to see how Francis is also very much of the “old school”, as evidenced by his willingness to preach about spiritual warfare, the real danger of hell, and the need for frequent recourse to Confession, as well as by his personal simplicity and deep devotion to Our Lady. Indeed, his constant recommendation to pastors, that they foster and encourage popular piety and private devotion among the faithful, is water in the desert.

Not only.

The Holy Father’s insistence on the Divine origin of the Apostolic Faith, and his insistence on the need not to be bound by the structures that have heretofore embodied it, is of a piece with the Ignatian commitment at once to the authority of the Church founded by Christ on St. Peter, and to seeking God fearlessly in all things.

The Society of Jesus has never – not for one single hour of one single day since the promulgation of Regimini militantis – had an unproblematic relationship with the hierarchical leadership of the Church. Ignatius wanted his men stalwart “Pope’s men” and at one and the same time fearless theological envelop-pushers. The whole Jesuit charism is ordered to the right management – in the Company and in the souls of its members – of the tension that arises instantly and inevitably when those two poles are activated.

Since their activation, and with rare though significant exception, that tension has resonated with powerfully creative spiritual energy. It has been – it continues to be – immensely fruitful. Jesuits like the great Saints Francis Xavier, Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Peter Claver, José de Anchieta, or even Andrej Bobola, Peter Faber (a special favorite of Pope Francis, whom the Holy Father canonized in 2013, as a birthday present to himself), and Edmund Campion, needed to be able to operate without the security of structure or safety nets, for the very simple reason that, where they were going, there were none – at least, none that could be trusted.

Then there is the fact of history: Rome has not always looked kindly on Jesuit missionary activity, and the mission of the Church has not always been well served by hasty or imperfectly informed interference from Rome. The Chinese Rites controversy is only one (particularly traumatic) example of such Roman interference, in which a far-away Pope Clement XI (not to be confused with his successor, Clement XIV, who suppressed the Society of Jesus in 1773) issued a ruling against the practice, begun by the great missionary Fr. Matteo Ricci SJ (another favorite of Pope Francis and of Benedict XVI before him), of accommodating the Chinese cultural practice of giving ritual veneration to Confucius and illustrious ancestors. The Jesuits fought for what they believed to be right, and then obeyed. Two centuries later, Pius XII lifted the ban, but the damage was done, and the memory scar remains.

The long and the short of it is that, when you put a Jesuit at the head of the hierarchical leadership of the Church, you risk either collapsing that tension, or exploding it. That is one major reason why we never had a Jesuit Pope before now, and it goes a long way toward explaining why we are in the situation, in which we find ourselves, for good and for ill.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 229 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. As a matter of fact and policy, I am a great believer in “term limits”: for members of Congress, for Presidents; and in the ecclesial realm as well: no man made a bishop before the age of 65, with a mandatory retirement at 75 — including the Bishop of Rome. As a long-time administrator of parishes, schools and other organizations, I think it fair to say, “If you can’t get the job done in ten years, you’ll never get it done.” And, no episcopal transfers (except in extraordinary situations); otherwise, the ring on the finger is a lie (ecclesiastical wife-swapping). That policy would also eliminate or at least marginalize careerism (doing nothing in See #1, so as to get #2 or #3!

    That said, it is clear that the “policy” enunciated to Cardinal Muller does not apply to all the inhabitants of “Animal House”: Coccopalmerio is still on the job, along with many others beyond either the age limit or term limit. Just recently, Monsignor Marini (a great priest, loyal son of the Church and personal friend) was granted a THIRD term — for which I am most grateful, lest a liturgical nut-case take over that very important post. However, we can see that there are norms, and then there are norms in this pontificate.

  2. Pope Francis has already stated publicly that he DISBELIEVES in the words of Jesus etc about hell: “it is against the logic of the Gospel.” He said souls not saved are extinguished.

    While I generally like Mr. Altieri’s essays, I do not share his enthusiasm for contemporary Jesuits, who I believe are typically NOT faithful believers, and whose faith seems to be grounded largely in a very high opinion of their own worth. There are exceptions – men like Fr. Schall, Fr. Fessio, Fr. Pacwa and Fr. Koterski.

    The fruitful Jesuits named by Mr. A are all from bygone ages. The contemporary SJ is sadly represented by men like Rev. Rahner of Germany, Rev. McShane of Fordham and his head “theologians” the abominable Prof. Hornbeck and his heretic colleague Liz Johnson, the pontiff’s sex-revolution spokesman Rev. Martin, and the SJ Superior General Rev. Sosa of the holy tape recorder.

    Time for another SJ suppression, after the candle of “Francis-Kirk” is extinguished.

    • I completely agree. The Jesuit Order as it is today is an imminent danger to the Church, and the efforts of this modernist Pope to centralize the Curia will only result in more modernism and more modernist appointments.

  3. “Indeed, his constant recommendation to pastors, that they foster and encourage popular piety and private devotion among the faithful, is water in the desert.”

    Unless, of course, the popular piety and private devotion in question is a spiritual bouquet, in which case he will publicly humiliate you.

  4. And no one can expect the always trotted out “reform of the Curia” from a man of the caliber of Francis, who took a known sex abuse coverup artist in Cardinal Danneels – took him out of retirement! – after he retired in disgrace for covering up the homosexual predator incest of his friend Bishop Vanerweighe.

    Danneels of course ran F’s election campaign – and he was richly rewarded by F – who put him on the guidance committee for F’s homo-erotic “family synod.”

    Reform under F…after 10 years of torture in the sex abuse crisis, means one thing: the abuser Mafia are back in the driver’s seat.

  5. This is a very encouraging essay in some regards. I hope and pray Francis is in fact trying to help stage a spiritual renewal in the clergy. But Ignatius wanted his men to be “theological envelope-pushers”? I question if he would be very much on board with the modern connotations of such a phrase, or what it even really means. In an era of encroaching secularism we don’t need boundary-pushing speculative theology or praxis: we need comprehensive gospel truth.

  6. “The short version is this: Pope Francis – the dyed-in-the-wool Jesuit and Jesuit provincial – may understand that he cannot govern the Universal Church as though it were his religious province, but evidence strongly suggests he is operating under the presumption that he can govern the Curia as though he were its Jesuit superior and the officers his personal assistancy.”

    The Roman Curia, at most, serves the patriarchate of Rome, and arguably even the patriarchatic system is not divinely mandated for ecclesial leadership. What needs to be done is to scale the Roman Curia down, so that it is clear that it serves the patriarchate and not for the “governance” of the Church Universal, which requires in justice a different system, one that is more collaborative and respectful of all ecclesial traditions and Apostolic churches.

  7. A fascinating informative account of Jesuit history. Matteo Ricci, SJ is a favorite because of his innovative willingness to penetrate Buddhism and alien culture in the great Ming dynasty. Similar to Franciscans in our SW who adapted as much of Native Am culture possible avoiding heresy to convert, at which they were successful. Altieri’s premise “put a Jesuit at the head of the hierarchical leadership of the Church, you risk either collapsing that tension, or exploding it” is valid insofar as a legitimate Jesuit theological perspective. What needs analysis is a theological transition in Jesuit thought [not all as noted by Chris in Maryland] from Christocentric to Anthropocentric. What drives Jesuit Pope Francis, A Spadaro SJ, Joseph Fuchs SJ [see Natural Law], Karl Rahner SJ [see Das Dynamische] is a primacy given to the capacity of intellect that leads to anthropomorphism. Inevitably pride in intellect transfers faith in Christ to apotheosis.

  8. The first order of business in any project of “reform” of the Curia is a thorough-going extirpation of the Lavender Mafia. Instead, Bergoglio gives it a new lease on life with his “Who am I to judge” policy.
    A second order of business in the project is to liquidate the influence of the St. Gallen Mafia. Instead, Bergoglio gives it, too, a new lease on life with his public adulation of Kasper and the restoration as eminence grise of his campaign manager, the pedophile-protector Daneels.
    A third order of business is to rein in State and restore the supremacy of the Holy Office. Instead, Bergoglio relies increasingly on Parolin and cans Muller (sorry, I’m not buying the “term limits” phoniness).
    The Jesuits always have been noted for exquisite casuistry. And casuistry has an essential place in the guidance of consciences. But casuistry comes off the rails and becomes perverse when it descends into consequentialism and proportionalism. Yet, this is precisely what has happened with Bergoglio and his AL and his off-the-cuff grandstanding.
    Finally, it is a calumny of the first order to allege, as this author does, that Benedict XVI neglected the governance of the Church. This is the same kind of drivel with which modernist detractors posthumously smeared Pius XII. Benedict took forceful action against the filth in the Church, appointed strong officials to the Vatican’s financial offices and was taking measured steps (e.g., Summorum Pontificum and efforts toward rapprochement with traditionalists) to excise the rot introduced with the Second Vatican Council — all of which were reasons he was pushed into abdicating.

    • Besides Jesus, no human being ever had the capacity to judge another. Jesus could see into the very soul of a person and know the what and why of every word, thought or deed springing from it. If a sinner tells you that he or she has made peace with God, there is no way you, or anyone else, can judge that person. Should not even try to. Pope Francis was doing the Catholic thing in saying that.

  9. The Jesuit ethos – especially since it is well “formed” – is not suited for the papacy. It functions more faithfully to its originating vision on the outside: proding, challenging, inventing – and, when corrupted (the backside of its ethos shining as a black moon) polished up as a bright example of how not to be.

  10. Though priests may belong to certain orders, each one is responsible for his own words and deeds. I have read about some Jesuits – and also others – who have said things that are not in accord with Church teachings, but I have personally known very well some Jesuits, Norbertines, Columbans, Salesians and even secular priests, who have been wonderful and faithful Catholics. They helped form my faith.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The bishops’ “Apalachin moment” has arrived – Catholic World Report
  2. Vatican "Super Dicastery": A Papal Promise Fulfilled? - OnePeterFive
  3. Pope Francis and the French clerical abuse/coverup report – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman

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