Reforming the Vatican: What the Church Can Learn from Other Institutions

By Reese, Thomas J. | Commonweal, April 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

Reforming the Vatican: What the Church Can Learn from Other Institutions


Reese, Thomas J., Commonweal


Too often when someone proposes the reform of church structures, the reformer is attacked for borrowing from the secular political field, as if this were necessarily a bad thing. But throughout history the Vatican has often imitated the organization of secular political institutions. Today the governance of the church is more centralized than at any time in its history. To make the church more collegial, the Vatican should once again adopt practices of the secular political world.

When St. Peter arrived in Rome, he did not immediately appoint cardinals and set up the offices that we see in the Vatican today. He had only a secretary to help him with his correspondence. In early centuries, the bishop of Rome had helpers much like those of any other bishop: priests for house-churches, deacons for charitable assistance and catechesis, and notaries or secretaries for correspondence and record keeping.

By the fourth century, notaries were a permanent fixture in the papacy, as they were in the imperial court. As staff for the pope, these men wrote letters and kept records of correspondence and other official documents. They took minutes at the Lateran Council of 649 and prepared its acts. Because of their training and experience, they were sometimes sent by popes on diplomatic missions or to ecumenical councils in the East.

By the thirteenth century the apostolic chancellery was an important office, and the chancellor was the pope's principal adviser and assistant, just as chancellors were the principal advisers of European monarchs. Before becoming pope, John XXII (1316-1344) had been chancellor to the French king, and he used his expertise in organizing the French chancellery to handle papal business. The chancellery was later eclipsed by the apostolic datary, then by the office of the privy seal, and finally by the secretary of state. All of these had parallels in secular society.

Likewise, the college of cardinals evolved from a group of the principal priests and deacons of Rome to a papal court that advised and elected popes. The cardinals often compared themselves to the old Roman Senate. As time went on and papal business increased, the practice of consulting the college of cardinals in consistory became common. At first the college met monthly, but by the beginning of the thirteenth century it was meeting three times a week--on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In many ways the pope and the cardinals functioned as a court, similar to the royal courts of Europe during the Middle Ages; but the fact that the cardinals elected the pope gave the college of cardinals a kind of power not enjoyed by the nobility in most nations. Later the role of cardinals was severely curtailed by increasingly powerful popes, just as the power of nobles was curtailed after the rise of "absolute" monarchs.

So the structure of the Roman curia has changed over time, and popes have frequently borrowed or adapted practices from secular government. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that changing the organization of the Vatican today by adopting practices from the contemporary political world would be in keeping with the long tradition of the church.

Centralized papacy

The contemporary papacy rules the church with powers that would be the envy of any absolute monarch: the pope holds supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority with few checks on his power. This power is especially evident in the appointment of bishops.

In the first centuries of the church, the local bishop was chosen by and from the people. Ideally, the people gathered in the cathedral, where, after praying together, they selected a holy and talented man to lead them. In practice, factions supporting opposing candidates would often clash, sometimes violently splitting the community. The faithful did not always speak with one voice.

As time went on, the selection process evolved to include not only the people, but also the local clergy and the provincial bishops in a system of checks and balances. …

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