Pope Francis – Action to Reform the Roman Catholic Church

From the editor’s desk – ‘The Tablet’

Shape of things to come

20 April 2013

In what may turn out to be a momentous change in way the Catholic Church is run, Pope Francis has announced that he is assembling a team of eight cardinal-advisers to assist him, including helping him reform the Roman Curia.

Some of them were among the Curia’s most forthright critics in the discussions that preceded the recent conclave, and none of them is technically from the Curia itself. This move represents a highly significant rebalancing of forces within the government of the Catholic Church, and may pave the way for a form of representative Cabinet-type government instead of the model of an absolute monarchy that many believe has gone beyond the end of its useful life.

The Pope’s intention appears to be to translate into action the Second Vatican Council’s desire for a realignment of forces within the Church that has remained largely theoretical over the last half-century. So far, most of Pope Francis’ actions have been symbolic of his much less grandiose interpretation of the personal role of the papacy than all recent Popes have followed, and he has now given that style of approach some embryonic structural shape.

The new team of eight will not meet as such until the autumn, though it is said the Pope intends to begin consulting them individually immediately. What is more significant is that they have been carefully chosen so that virtually every part of the world is represented, and in most cases by men who have themselves been selected for leadership positions by their episcopal colleagues. Thus the European representative is the German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who is president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community and hence can speak for the Catholic hierarchies of Europe. Similar qualifications – and a similar democratic mandate – apply to most of the others.

This shifts the balance of power in the Church in favour of national or regional conferences of bishops. They have hitherto suffered from lack of status as a result of the ruling by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that episcopal conferences “had no theological significance”. They were mere collections of bishops, and their theological weight was merely the sum of their parts.

If they have now been recognised as key components in the Church’s new architecture, that may go a long way to incorporating the idea of episcopal collegiality at the heart of the Church. The Vatican II decree Lumen Gentium declared that the primary responsibility for the government of the Church lay with the college of bishops with the Pope at its head. Hence the Curia’s role should be as a civil service answering to the college of bishops headed by the Pope, not to govern the bishops on behalf of the Pope – which has been the pattern so far.

This is where putting together a team of eight to advise him, and reforming the Curia, are two parts of the same project. If the team is really the beginning of Cabinet government under a “constitutional papacy”, particularly if the principle of subsidiarity is also to be followed, then the Curia will have to be reshaped and scaled back to provide appropriate structures. Clearly a period of upheaval has begun in Rome, with implications worldwide.


Pope Francis seems to have moved rather quickly in his determination to re-orientate the task of governing the Roman Catholic Church – moving from the Vatican’s generic Supremacy, into a more collegial style of leadership.

The R.C. Church has steadily regressed from the reforming zeal of Pope John XXIII, whose  summoning of the Council of Vatican II provided a great stimulus to that Church’s acquisition of a modern understanding of the place of the Church in the World of today. 

It would seem that the prayers of many of the Church’s Faithful – both clergy and laity – have been heard. Here is a Pope determined to undo the cloud of obfuscation that retreated from much of the forward momentum, in matters of liturgical reform and theological renewal, that marked the immediate outcome of the Second Vatican Council.

Despite the movement towards renewal initiated by the Council Fathers under Pope John XXIII, there has been a climate of withdrawal from its enabling policies – under the inhibiting influence of the last 2 Popes in particular: John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose conservative nervousness has negated any good that came out of Vatican II.

With the crisis of vocations in the Western world, something will need to be done about matters like clerical celibacy, in order to ensure a steady flow of vocations. Also, a radical new incentive in needed to allow for contraception, in a world where excessive procreation could easily threaten the well-being of the surviving population – as a result of a scarcity of food – due to the threat of global warming and climate change.

Pope Francis – like the new Archbishop of Canterbury – will need the prayers of all of us who look to the Churches to provide answers to the exigencies of how to live in a world of decreasing natural resources, increasing violence, and an increasingly disenchanted, secular resistance to pious platitudes.

The new Pope, like his namesake Francis of Assisi, seems to have a deep understanding of the world, both inside and outside of the Church. This will stand him in good stead.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


P.S.  Here is an extract from another article from this week’s Tablet, by Robert Mickens:

Australian Cardinal George Pell, who will be 72 in June, is the final member of the group that got their red hats from John Paul II (2003). Archbishop of Sydney since 2001, he is arguably the most conservative of the eight advisers.He has never been elected to any major leadership position, but he has received several papal appointments, most notably as head of the Vox Clara Committee that supervised the English translation of the Missal. Pell is a no-nonsense, straight-talking critic of the Italian-dominated and inefficient Roman Curia. He represents Oceania as its only active cardinal.”

This is the VERY Conservative Australian Roman Catholic Cardinal of Sydney, whose personal friendship with our own V.C. Anglican Archbishop of Sydney puts him among those in the Christian sphere as being decisively against the ministry of Women Clergy. This would render the group commissioned by Pope Francis vulnerable to a continuing climate of ‘NO WOMEN’ in the Church. Also, both Archbishops have joined in a common antipathy to the rights of the LGBT community in their respective jurisdictions. So no hope for improvement on that front either.

This leads me to ask the question whether, in view of his innate conservatism, Cardinal George Pell can be of any use to Pope Francis in his new position on the reforming body? One can only suppose that – like his friend the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney – he is keen to topple the prevailing order in his branch of the Church, so that he can elevate his own brand of conservatism within the hierarchy of the Church he represents.

Fr. Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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