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
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
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
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
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.”