Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Governance in the Roman Catholic Church (2009)

What is the Roman Curia?


This piece is prompted - not so much by any immediately current action of the Roman Curia per se, but by a series of signals from the Vatican over the past several years, which certainly neglect, or seem to query the validity of key aspects of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II notably neglected collegiality and internal administration, so that some signals came from the Pope, some from senior members of the Roman Curia. However, the recent unprecedented moves over the Society of St. Pius X by Pope Benedict and members of the Curia have caused shock and uncertainty across the world, both inside and outside the Church.

What is the Roman Curia?

The history of the Roman Curia, like that of the College of Cardinals occupies less than half of the life of the Church, both emerging in something like their present form in the 12th century. It was in that era also when the terminology: 'College of Cardinals' came into formal use. The Roman Curia (with its cardinals) was generally opposed to the Second Vatican Council and continues to hinder its subsequent reception.  'Curia' is Latin for court and the system arose because, initially, it was the court of the Bishop of Rome and slowly, after Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the religion of the empire, the Pope understandably needed more helpers.

Papal Court and Papal States

But as well as helpers, Bishops of Rome also acquired imperial powers and pretensions to match, to rival the emperor's. Papal 'Vatican City' is the remnant of the Papal States only lost to the Risorgimento in the late nineteenth century. During the Renaissance, for example, a pope would go to war to protect his lands. A monarchical structure of governance remains in place in the Catholic Church.

Ill-judged decisions?

An increasingly generally held judgment is that some of these signals—often amounting to instructions—have been unwise in regard to the unity of the Church and in its relations with the world. Examination of the sequence and motivation of these various actions is normally against protocol. But it seems necessary and will be undertaken. Scrutiny will consider present governance in relation to the teachings of Vatican II. Wide discussion and comment is of the essence for a correct interpretation of the Council. Scrutiny is justified in view of the developing Roman insistence that Vatican II was in simple continuity with all that had gone before. While most scholars note that there were no alterations or additions to dogma, they dispute, however, that there was no significant change of course. Personal experience of the pre-Conciliar Church, and indeed pre-World War II, confirms that there was a clear change of course. The most recent Vatican decision to lift the formal excommunication on the membership of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) seems to involve the Vatican in denying this change of course. If this is so, the Vatican seems also effectively to endorse the SSPX's wish to return to the pre-Vatican II Church. This naturally causes alarm when the Council was declared by Pope Paul VI to be the work of the Holy Spirit (1966) which was denied by Marcel Lefebvre, the SSPX founder.


A strongly contributory factor to perceptions in the wider Catholic Church outside Rome, to other Christians and in the world generally is the growing mode of extreme centralization on Rome. This is not due to the Pope alone, although certain unilateral decisions are an issue, but to the power of the Roman Curia.

Summary on the Roman Curia

Briefly, the Curia now consists of some 1,700 people mainly clergy, no longer principally of the diocese of Rome. There is no need for the majority to be ordained as they mostly are, let alone as bishops, or archbishops; but they continue to control the Church, contrary to tradition and to the teaching of Vatican II (see end-piece).

A Website Series on Church Governance

The notes above are representative of a wide swathe of opinion in the Catholic Church. Pending the assembly of known examples of these views from distinguished pens across some 40 years, a piece of journalism from over ten years ago by the present writer may suffice to introduce a series of concerns about the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. These concerns are far from new. It was surprising, however, that this 'Personal View' raised no comment in a conservative weekly.

The Catholic Herald (10 October 1998)
How Catholic is the Roman Curia?
Personal View, by Arthur Wells


SIMPLY TO ASK: "How Catholic is the Roman Curia?" is to invite trouble. But perhaps the account [by Meriol Trevor, one of his biographers] of Pope John's younger experience of suspicion by the Vatican may at least confer validity on the question. And before the present unprecedented surge of curial power, reform was urged by many great bishops and was expected by most informed people in the wake of Vatican II.

To pre-empt misunderstanding, individual Catholicity and good faith are not doubted. The problem rather is the institution, which can acquire a life and mindset of its own. Whether or not each member has that mindset is important, but not as important as the ongoing outlook of the institution. Men die, but institutions can continue with undesirable accrued characteristics. Are Curia characteristics wholly Catholic? A further question is: How long has the appointment of bishops been solely in the hands of the Vatican? The answer is only since 1917 – no long tradition.

Inevitably, a short article must be inadequate, but the latest flood of curial instructions is deeply worrying, particularly those inhibiting discussion. Sixty-five years before Ad Tuendam Fidem ("For Defence of the Faith", 1998) in 1933, aged ten and full of penny catechism, I joined the apostolate. Moving from convent prep-school to (secular) grammar school, my brief to defend the faith was clear; Fr Bloggs gave it to me from the Bishop whose remit was from the Pope. Everything from Rome was Holy Writ. At ten, life was simple; I was within the church. Others were not; their hope of salvation lay in baptism of blood or of desire.

I now pay respectful, but not uncritical attention to Vatican documents, because many views about what is de fide, or even real, do not always coincide. However, Fides et Ratio [An encyclical by John Paul II] seems newly hopeful: we cannot philosophise without thinking or discussing. I long remained ultramontane, first by convention, then on principle. By 1953, absorbed in Catholic Action and the study of scripture, the Knife Edge of Experience (Rosemary Haughton) offered another - less comfortable - view of the Church. Come the Council, it was a relief to find oneself effectively mainstream, alongside some 2,500 bishops. Was their one mistake the failure to institute mechanisms to implement their teachings? As a student of the Council, I see much of it untaught, ignored or even frustrated and wonder how this can be.

I retain a firm belief in the Petrine Ministry as essential to the Church, but worry about its exercise. When, in Ut Unum Sint, His Holiness asked other Church leaders how his ministry might be better exercised, it would have been thoughtful to ask his bishops also and perhaps as Newman suggested that the faithful be consulted. As we are in the ecclesial front line, that too would have been appropriate. It is easy to over-simplify, but one straight-forward answer from the letter and the Spirit of the Council clearly says that the Church is normally governed by the Bishops with the Pope at their head and never without him. Does the Curia get mentioned?

After thirty years, can neglect of the Council be Catholic? The Council stance was above all inclusive. Now exclusion seems to be in fashion again; this is not Pope John's "aggiornamento". In conscience I cannot avoid holding certain (now apparently dissident) opinions, but turned 75, it seems absurd, impossible even, to be driven out of the Church. My defence would be the teachings of the Council, not least the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

Chapter 1 of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church is headed "The Mystery of the Church". It begins: "Christ is the light of all nations" (Lumen Gentium - LG). The term "mystery" indicates that the Church as a divine reality inserted into history cannot be fully captured by human thought or language. Formulae of words are often the best we can do, but formulae can be dangerous; some openness is essential for the Spirit to breathe. Pope Paul VI noted (1963): "It lies, therefore, within the very nature of the Church to be always open to new and greater exploration."

Our Lord taught by parables and images and was condemnatory about little, excepting legalism and oppression. We need authority, but the gospel also promises freedom. The mind cannot be coerced when conscience is honestly and prayerfully formed. In almost every document, the fathers of Vatican II pointed the way towards a resolution of this very human tension; we should study them. Is Vatican II not at least one essential benchmark of Catholicity? [End - 1998]

End-piece (2009)

The great majority of bishops at Vatican II (with the Pope) formulated the teaching that the world's bishops were to govern the Catholic Church, but always together with the Bishop of Rome. This was no novelty, but a recovery of practice in the early Church. There would need to be representation in some way and a 'Senate'of bishops in Rome, with the Pope, was seen as a practical way forward. The Roman Curia, officially as a civil service was to be fashioned to serve both Pope and bishops governing as a 'college'. Over forty years after the close of the Council, the civil service has tightened its grip on power over the rightful government: the world's Catholic bishops, always with the Pope. In a further article senior witness will be presented (part 2) to confirm what is already obvious to any informed observer.

Arthur Wells