Pope Francis has a long to-do list, and it starts with the Curia

Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis comes into office riding a wave of good will but facing a host of challenges both inside and outside the Catholic Church. Whether he can tackle them, however, may depend on his ability to tame the Roman Curia, the dysfunctional papal bureaucracy that was uppermost in the minds of the cardinals when they elected him on Wednesday (March 13).

Yes, the electors wanted a pastoral figure after eight years of the astringent rule of Benedict XVI, an introverted scholar who struggled to connect with the flock. And in Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio they got one – a humble Argentine Jesuit who champions the poor, lives simply, cooks his own meals and takes mass transit around Buenos Aires.

Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday (March 13) in Vatican City. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday (March 13) in Vatican City. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Yet naming yourself after St. Francis of Assisi is one thing. Running the Vatican is another.

It’s not something the new pope wanted to do even back in the conclave of 2005, when he reportedly ran second to Benedict, at one point signaling to his fellow cardinals to stop voting for him.

“In the Curia I would die,” he said in an interview after that conclave. “My life is in Buenos Aires. Without the people of my diocese, without their problems, I feel something lacking every day.”

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider that many believe the intrigue and isolation that John Paul I encountered in the Vatican after his 1978 election contributed to his death of a heart attack only 33 days later. Just this week, the elderly mother of Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn expressed fears that her son, if elected, “would not be up to the bitchiness in the Vatican.”

‘An unreformed Renaissance monarchy’

So how do you go about fixing it? There are any number of proposals, promoted by critics across the Catholic spectrum, and they focus on the things that good government advocates usually propose: hiring better personnel, term limits for department heads, and altering the management structure, which is a particular challenge in the Curia.

“An institution with 1.2 billion members all over the globe cannot be run by what is essentially an unreformed Renaissance monarchy and its elderly cosseted courtiers,” The Tablet of London, a leading Catholic weekly, wrote in a tart editorial ahead of the conclave.

The Vatican administration is made up of dozens of congregations, councils and commissions, as well as a bank with a troubled history, all run by (mostly Italian) bishops and cardinals. Each department acts like its own fiefdom, and curial officials are not above undermining their opponents with the kind of unseemly court intrigue that became public in the “Vatileaks” document dump that dominated the final year of Benedict’s papacy.

But it is also a question of who can undertake this reform.

“There are two general views,” Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley told reporters before going into the conclave. “The first one maintains that, since the current church’s problem comes from the Curia, we should elect someone outside the Curia; the second contests that there is a need for an internal leader, since the first commitment of the new pope should be the Curia reform.”

The cardinals delivered their answer Wednesday night when they elected Bergoglio, a man with no experience in the Curia, nor much regard for it either; he reportedly called for the Curia’s reform in a brief but potent speech to the cardinals in the pre-conclave meetings.

‘Self-absorbed vanity’

In an interview last year, Bergoglio also railed against the preening and clericalism of many in the hierarchy – peacocks, he called them, displaying a “self-absorbed vanity” that is “the worst sin that could be committed in the church.”

“He comes across as shy and reserved,” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said of the new pope, but “he’s a man of confidence and poise.”

In fact, church sources who know Francis and Buenos Aires say that the archdiocese was a well-run shop, and that he has the administrative chops that his predecessor never did.

“He has always carefully kept his distance from the Roman Curia. It is certain that he will want it to be lean, clean and loyal,” Vatican expert Sandro Magister wrote on his blog on Wednesday.

Early clues to Francis’ management style as pope probably won’t emerge for a few weeks or even months. By tradition, he is likely to quickly reconfirm the heads of all the major Vatican departments who by church law had to resign when Benedict did. But he will also begin to replace them. How quickly he does that, and who he chooses to take over, will give a better sense of how successful he will be.

A declaration of independence

Much more is at stake in this reform project than just “fixing” the Vatican to work more efficiently. A pope is, above all, the church’s chief evangelist, and he has to rely on his managers to keep the headquarters running smoothly so that he is free to do his real job. They have to support the pope’s mission, not hinder it.

That kind of support will be especially critical for someone like Francis, whose charism is that of a simple priest rather than a Roman monarch ruling over his court.

The new pope has won hosannas at the start of his papacy precisely because he has so far shunned the trappings of power and glory. In the ritualized world of Rome, that’s already a powerful declaration of independence — and a source of moral authority that he will have to preserve to be an effective messenger.

Benedict, on the other hand, came to the papacy straight from decades in the Curia, and happily wrapped himself in the pomp and traditions of the Holy See until one day the pope found himself so bound up that he could not make a move, except, in the end, to resign.

As Benedict reportedly lamented to a visitor who came to beseech him for a favor, “My authority ends at that door.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

About the author

Alessandro Speciale

Alessandro Speciale has been covering the Vatican since 2007 and wrote for Religion News Service from 2011-2013. Born in Rome, he studied literature at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, and journalism at City University, London. He has appeared as an expert on Vatican affairs on CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera English.


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  • Moving the curial furniture around is a priority; but it will not be enough.
    Pope Francis needs to convene a general council now while he has time and the trust of many Catholics.
    For an explanation, please see my remarks as a lifelong Catholic and retired Harvard trained international lawyer, “Pope Francis: Is He For the Poor, NeoCons, Kids or All?”, accessible at:

  • Mr.Slevin, you call yourself a lifelong catholic? Shame! I have read your article and You sound more like a bitter enemy of the church. As Catholics, we must restrain ourselves from false accusations and prejudiced conclusions. At the end, we will ALL stand in front of the son of God and be judged according to our actions.

    Let us embrace our new Pope Francis 1 with love and prayer. Lets pray for the Holy Spirit to fill his heart and lead our church to a beautiful, genuine spiritual renewal.