Much criticism has been directed at the Roman Curia in the past few months and that has only intensified in the immediate run-up to the 2013 conclave. The media, fuelled by documents emerging from the so-called VatiLeaks scandal, have portrayed it as a dysfunctional bureaucracy mired in sexual and financial impropriety. Some even depict it as the root cause of all the Church’s problems. Others maintain that the alleged corruption and vice inside its various departments prompted Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation from the Chair of St Peter, in a similar way to the moment when the 1968 student riots led him to leave his professorial chair at the University of Tübingen.

Defenders of the Roman Curia and those who want to reform it were reportedly the main two opposing blocs squaring off in the conclave. At least that’s the storyline many reporters and commentators were following, especially the pundits from Italy.

However compelling, the “Curia vs reformers” billing has been simplistic. Think of this: at least 51 of the 115 cardinal electors have worked in the Vatican’s central bureaucracy, either currently or in the past. And like the so-called reformers, almost all of them agree that “the Pope’s own house has to be put in order”, as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, a non-Curialist, so vividly put it.

Certainly there are divisions in the curial camp; some quite sharp. But these factions still agree on at least one thing – that Curia reforms should be led by insiders like themselves who already know where all the light switches are in the Apostolic Palace, rather than by outsiders who are coming in from the dark. Indeed, there is a long-standing view that only a pope who is an insider can be trusted with reforming the Curia. That’s what happened with the election (exactly 50 years ago next June) of Paul VI. And it was supposed to happen with the election in 2005 of Benedict XVI. Unfortunately, it did not.

But Francis is the first Pope from the Americas, and the first from outside Europe in over 1,000 years, and there is a firm belief among the cardinals and many bishops around the world that he must show a greater interest in administration than his predecessor did. That includes carrying out an internal bureaucratic reform at the Vatican.

The Roman Curia is, after all, “the complex of dicasteries and institutes which help the Roman pontiff in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office for the good and service of the whole Church and of the particular Churches”. That description comes directly from the ­apostolic constitution, Pastor Bonus, the ­document that Pope John Paul II issued in 1988 to – yes – reform and reorganise this centuries-old institution once known as the papal court.

It is generally acknowledged that this was only a mild reform compared to the radical reorganisation that Paul VI carried out in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. On the day before the council came to an end in December 1965, Paul issued a motu proprio to reform the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith).

It was a highly symbolic first step in a rapid succession of decrees that would culminate in the complete overhaul of the Curia in 1967 with the apostolic constitution, Regimini Ecclesiae Universae.

This 46-year-old text remains to this day the basic blueprint for the Vatican’s central bureaucracy. It began the process of inter­nationalising a Curia that was for centuries monopolised by Italians. It took steps to make the Curia’s work more efficient and internally coordinated by decreeing that the various offices hold regular inter-dicasteral meetings. And it made diocesan bishops members of the major Vatican offices, which was seen as providing a practical way for them to assist the pope in governing the whole Church. Pope Paul’s restructuring effort was thus aimed at enhancing the Vatican II doctrine of episcopal collegiality.

In the first years after the council it seemed to be succeeding, even despite resistance from the Curia’s “old guard”. But by the second half of the long pontificate of John Paul II, that resistance had regrouped and many bishops around the world began complaining that the Curialists had clawed back much of the controlling power that Paul’s reforms had taken from them.

More and more the Roman Curia began forming policy without widespread consultation. Then during the last eight years under Benedict XVI, there was yet another turn. Rather than reform the Curia, the Pope just ignored it and began issuing motu proprio decrees. These were decrees issued by his “own initiative” and seemingly without consultation, either with the Curia or the world’s bishops.

When the cardinals who gathered in pre-conclave meetings spoke of Vatican reforms, they were mainly addressing the pope’s and the Roman Curia’s relationship with bishops and their national conferences. The media, on the other hand, seemed to be looking only at the more sensationalist aspects of dysfunction in the Curia – the alleged scandalous activity that was hinted at in the VatiLeaks documents.

“How is this next pope going to govern the Church?” asked Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor before the conclave got under way. “A lot of bishops and cardinals think it has to be done perhaps in a more collegial way. It is not just the pope who rules the Church, it is the Pope with the bishops,” he said. In other words, it is not the pope with the Roman Curia, and certainly not the pope with the Curia instead of with the bishops.

The Secretariat of State, the nine congregations, three tribunals, 12 pontifical councils and a variety of other offices provide support services to the Pope. In principle these departments deal only with matters “reserved to the Apostolic See and those which exceed the competence of individual bishops and their groupings, as well as those matters committed to them by the Supreme Pontiff” (Pastor Bonus, 13).

Decisions of “major importance” are not supposed to be taken without the Pope’s explicit approval. The people who staff these offices – including the executive officers – are appointed to five-year terms, though many of these men tend to spend their entire priestly lives in the Roman Curia, often in the same office.
The office heads are supposed to meet ­“several times a year”, though there is no fixed rule. Additionally, there is a council of 15 ­residential cardinals, from dioceses around the world, that studies the economic and organisational questions related to the administration of the Holy See. It meets “usually twice a year” under the presidency of the Cardinal Secretary of State.

There seems to be no overall coordination and it is strange that only the heads of a few of these offices even have regular meetings with the pope whom they are meant to serve. This must change.

A Roman Curia that is not functioning well will have a crippling effect on the effectiveness of the Pope’s ministry and on the Vatican’s relationship with particular Churches throughout the world.

Pope Francis I should make it a top priority to appoint a Secretary of State and other top aides that will move immediately to fix “his” Curia and bring it more fully into line with the vision set out by Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council.

However, that alone will not resolve the Church’s more crucial crisis, which is its increasingly anachronistic model of ­monarchical governance. Francis I could provide a marvellous service to church unity if he consults widely with the world’s ­bishops and tries to find a fruitful way of restoring the more ancient and more ­evangelical model of synodal governance. Tinkering with the Roman Curia while ­ignoring this bigger ­problem would be like healing a broken foot on a cancerous body. As Paul told the Corinthians, if one part ­suffers, every part suffers with it.