Can the Curia Be Reformed?

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Corruption inside the Roman Curia — the Vatican’s vast bureaucracy — is nothing new. In the 15th century, for example, Pope Sixtus IV appointed six of his nephews as cardinals. One of them went on to raise a personal fortune by selling indulgences, or exemptions from eternal punishment for past sins.

In recent years, corruption inside the Curia has taken on a more 21st century flavor. The VatiLeaks scandal revealed deep-seated cronyism inside the Holy See, a battle to control of the highly secretive Vatican bank, and a campaign to undermine the Vatican’s former secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Pope Francis has set his sights on reform: In April, he appointed eight influential cardinals to advise him on how to solve the problems within the Vatican bureaucracy. However, as Gianluigi Nuzzi, the Italian journalist who broke the VatiLeaks story, warned in Secrets of the Vatican, “All efforts to reform the Curia over the last century, enacted by all the popes, failed.”

To learn more about previous attempts to reform the Curia — and the potential for reform — FRONTLINE spoke with the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. This is an edited transcript of that conversation:

The reputation of the Curia was badly damaged by VatiLeaks. What do you see as the underlying problem?

I would divide it into parts. First there are the rumors of financial scandals. And there it’s just like any other non-profit or even profit-making corporation. Where there’s money, there’s temptation.

I think we’re going to see more scandals in the future and I would argue that that is bad news and good news. Bad news because it’s a scandal and it’s an embarrassment, and good news because people are going to be getting caught now by the reforms that have been put in by Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

… That gets to the essential question of what is the role of the Roman Curia? Are they a governing elite or are they to be more like a civil service? In other words, are they princes or are they bureaucrats?

I think what Pope Francis is trying to do is change the Vatican from a papal court into something more like a civil service. He speaks about how leadership is for service — not for power, not for prestige, not for position [but that change is] going to be tough to do because of centuries of operating the way they have.

To that point, how do the troubles in the Curia today compare to the past?

Compared to the past, we’ve got a Vatican full of saints. I mean, they were selling indulgences. They had a half a dozen mistresses.

And of course they had a lot more money back in those days, comparatively speaking. When the Vatican controlled a third of Italy, there was lots of corruption available. In fact, when you got an office, it was presumed you were going to milk for all it was worth. That’s why you wanted it. That’s why you bought it.

So I think the opportunities for abuse are much less today than they were in the past.

Fair enough, but centuries later there are still problems. Why is reform so difficult?

Some of the explanation is quite simple. Have you ever met a cardinal with an MBA? You don’t. Seminarians are not trained in accounting. Seminarians are not trained in management. So suddenly they’re a bishop and they’re running a multi-million dollar operation called a diocese, and they have absolutely no training or experience to do that. No training in human resource management. I doubt if 10 percent of the bishops can read the financial audit that their auditors prepare for them.

So what happens? They make judgments about people based on things that have absolutely nothing to do with their knowledge of finances or management. They’re so ignorant of management and finances and human resources, they don’t even know how to hire someone to do it for them. So this is a problem.

The other problem is that, again, because they are bishops and cardinals, it’s very hard to fire somebody that does a bad job. In a normal corporation, if somebody can’t do the job, you get rid of them. And if you hire somebody and after six months you come to the conclusion [that] this isn’t working, you can fire them.

Well if the pope hires somebody and makes him a cardinal or an archbishop and gives him a job in the Vatican, how is he going to fire him? Once they’re there, you’re stuck with them until they turn 75 and have to retire. In a certain sense, because we’re so charitable and nice to people, we can’t be ruthless in rooting out the incompetence.

So where should reform start?

Three things are needed. One is a real change in the culture of the institution, and that’s what Francis is trying to do through example and preaching, because he talks about it being more of service. Secondly you have to put in good people and that’s what he’s trying to do too. And then thirdly, you’ve got to make changes in organization and structure, and you see him doing that in the financial area already, [but] I think he needs to do more.

For example, I have said for a long time that none of the people working in the Curia should be bishops or cardinals. Until you change that, until you stop making them bishops and cardinals, it’s always going to be a papal court. You have to stop making them bishops and cardinals so that they’ll realize that they’re servants, not rulers.

Are you optimistic?

I’m hopeful. I would not say that I’m optimistic. You could have all the structures in the world, but they only work as well as the people you put in charge of them. So I’m hopeful, but this is something that people are going to have to keep an eye on.

The thing that makes me optimistic, at least in some areas, is the fact that they are now subject to outside examination by Moneyval [the Council of Europe's Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism]. This is new. Reformers come and go, but if you have to make public reports and have people from outside coming in and looking at what you’re doing, that makes reform more permanent.

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