By Andrea Gagliarducci
How does Pope Francis carry forward the reform of the Roman Curia? Gradually, step by step, by trial and error, according to Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, who serves as secretary of the Council of Cardinals.
Bishop Semeraro delivered his evaluation of the work of the Council of Cardinals in a lengthy article for the Italian Catholic monthly “Il Regno,” published Sept. 19. There, the bishop provided the criteria that led the Council of Cardinals to their suggested reform of the Roman Curia.
The keywords to understand the reforming method are pastoral conversion, decentralization, and subsidiarity.
Curia reform is already underway, the bishop said.
There is unusual flexibility in the new management of the Vatican departments, known as dicasteries. At present, the newest dicasteries’ rules are approved on an experimental basis but without a time limit. Usually the Church places a time limit on experimental rules.
This decision allows adjustments and improvements as soon as any are needed.
Bishop Semeraro linked the Council of Cardinals’ actions to the “needs for a pastoral conversion” that Pope Francis stated in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
The bishop reviewed Pope Francis’ instructions that established the Secretariat for Communications, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life and the Dicastery for Integral Human development. According to Bishop Semeraro, these show that Curia reform has a twofold meaning.
“First of all,” the bishop said, “the reform wants to make the Curia relevant to the current times, to better meet the needs of men and women.” Secondly, the reform aims at “making the Roman Curia more compliant to its task, that is, collaborating with the ministry of the successor of Peter.”
For Bishop Semeraro, the diverse backgrounds of the cardinals on the Pope’s advisory council bring much experience to their task.
He considered the demographics of the Council of Cardinals. Five are diocesan bishops from India, Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Two are bishops emeriti, one of whom currently heads a Vatican dicastery. There are two cardinals who have served as apostolic nuncios. Of these, one is now Secretary of State and the other is president of the Vatican City State Administration.
How often does the Council of Cardinals meet? To date, the council has gathered 16 times, usually for three consecutive days and with two meetings per day. That makes a total of 93 meetings.
The council started to consider a reform based on Pastor Bonus, the 1988 apostolic constitution of St. John Paul II that regulates the competencies and work of the Roman Curia.
Bishop Semeraro explained that the council made a systematic reading of Pastor Bonus, starting from the section about the Vatican Secretariat of State and continuing with the descriptions of congregations and pontifical councils. At first, the cardinals made a general overview and then went more in depth into topic.
“Some of the issues needed more and more meetings of reflection. When the study was finalized, the council made some specific proposal to the Holy Father,” Bishop Semeraro recounted.
At the Vatican, the traditional method is to study a general juridical and ecclesiological setting first in order to make concrete decisions afterward. The Council of Cardinals is doing exactly the opposite, operating by trial and error.
Bishop Semeraro noted that there was an early proposal to establish a moderator of the curia to coordinate the functions of the Roman Curia, a role that already exists in the separate administration of the Diocese of Rome. The council then suggested that Pope Francis drop the proposal.
The reform in general aims at reorganizing the Roman Curia. While the different names of congregations and political councils might suggest categories of two separate and unequal classes, this is not the case.
“The different names are about a different exercise of their power,” Bishop Semeraro explained. To avoid this impression, he added, the new dicasteries are labeled simply as “dicasteries,” since this terminology already is considered a synonym for both congregations and pontifical councils at the Vatican.
Bishop Semeraro also explained the rationale behind the establishment of the two new dicasteries on Laity, Family and Life and on Integral Human Development.
The Laity, Family and Life dicastery is born out of the need “to consider and value with ever more awareness the status of lay people within the Catholic Church.”
The cardinals wanted to emphasize the role of the laity with an institutional response in the Church’s administration, a response on a par to the consideration given to bishops, priests and religious brothers and sisters.
After that, the cardinals also thought that family could be properly linked to laity, and consequently to life. The proposal aimed “to keep these issues united in the Church’s organization and pastoral work,” Bishop Semeraro said.
Similarly, the Pope wanted to name a dicastery for Integral Human Development from the merging of the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, Migrants, and Healthcare Workers and the human development-focused Pontifical Council Cor Unum, given the goals of Catholic social teaching.
This way, the dicastery works to avoid a situation in which major social principles remain “mere general indications that do not question anyone.”
Bishop Semeraro noted that the Pope himself wanted to take over temporarily the responsibility for the office of migrants and refugees. This choice underscores a specific focus on the world emergency, while his desire for temporary responsibility might be read “as a hope that this emergency will soon be solved.”