Curial authority is rooted in humility.
If your key task as pope is to change the way authority is understood and used in the Catholic Church, you could do a lot worse than invite the cardinals to Rome and then leave them there to visit a town famous for its tomb of a pope who resigned. And once there, while wearing a hard hat in a wheelchair, to praise Celestine V’s example while pondering Jesus’ words that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11).
Pope Francis’s visit to L’Aquila on August 28 was sandwiched between two gatherings of the nearly two-hundred-strong college of cardinals, the first time they had been summoned en bloc since 2015. The previous day, at the eighth consistory of his pontificate, Francis created twenty new members of the college, bestowing red hats and rings on metropolitan archbishops and Roman curial heads but many more on pastors from peripheral places like Manaus, Ekwulobia, Ulaanbaatar, Hyderabad, Wa, and Dili. In the case of Ulaanbaatar, the new cardinal is Giorgio Marengo, a forty-eighty-year-old apostolic prefect shepherding just 1,500 Catholics—in numerical terms, a small parish—while Anthony Poola of Hyderabad is the Church’s first Dalit (as the caste-less, former “untouchables” are known) cardinal.
These appointments are teaching moments. God’s style, Francis told the cardinals at the consistory in St. Peter’s, is to be equally at home on a grand, universal level, while at the same time caring for the little things and little ones, who are great in God’s sight. He gave them the example of Cardinal Casaroli, St. John XXIII’s famous secretary of state, who combined global diplomacy with weekly pastoral visits to Rome’s youth prison. The same approach—unafraid of the center but attentive to the margins—was behind the pope’s red-hat selections.
In talking of God’s style of mercy and tenderness, Francis had a deeper point to make. You always know when Jesus is present, he said, because of “the mild kind of fire” he brings; that’s how the disciples knew him even when they couldn’t see who it was. “There exists no other way to accomplish God’s will than to take on the strength of the humble” he said in L’Aquila the next morning. Humility, he explained, means recognizing the true divine source of power and our own poverty in response, rather than basing our worth on the position we hold. So Dante in the Divine Comedy was wrong to describe Celestine V as “the one who made a great refusal” by resigning in 1294 after only five months as pope to return to his life as a hermit. In fact, Francis said, “Celestine V was not a man who said ‘no,’ but a man who said ‘yes’”—yes to authority as humble service. And thus he was truly free, for “there was no logic or power that was able to imprison or control him.”
The following two days in Rome were dedicated to that proposition of authority as humble service. Some 197 cardinals—132 of them young enough to vote at a papal conclave—assembled in the synod hall to consider Francis’s new constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), which was promulgated in June after long years of drafting, consultation, and implementation. Some of the cardinals had grumbled about this: why gather us to discuss a fait accompli? But the purpose was not to ask the cardinals to approve Praedicate (which they overwhelmingly did) but instead to reflect on its implications—not only for the Curia, but also for the wider Church. The pope had called them to Rome in the dog days of August to understand that this was not just about the what, but the how.
I have no idea if Francis had in mind Yves Congar’s pungent little book Power and Poverty in the Church, first published in English in 1964, but this was a good text to look at during the meeting of cardinals. For in it Congar shows Jesus teaching his disciples that their ministry has nothing to do with any merit on their part, but is the power of God flowing from him out through them. Hence Francis’s message to the cardinals as he opened the meeting: to be a cardinal was not a privilege but a responsibility, one that called for a “style that witnesses to the Gospel.” The power handed to the Church—as Jesus showed by ultimate example—is given not to dominate, nor to exact service, but to serve the needs of others, to seek their salvation.
God, who is love, is the source of that power of service, and Jesus’s followers take part in it: the mission of loving service cascades, as it were, from the Father to the incarnate Son, and from Jesus to the apostles and the whole Church. Thus, St. Paul was adamant that his apostolic authority had nothing to do with any ability or merit on his part, but on the spiritual gifts he had received (not earned); and that his ambition was to be like Jesus, who did not grab for himself the rights conferred by “equality with God” but served and died as a slave, raised and given glory by the Father.
Jesus, in short, overturned the concept of authority, and it was time for the Church to get back to the Gospel understanding. In Augustine’s formula, the power in the Church is ministerium rather than potestas. The authority is real, as is the power it grants: to cast out devils, to teach about God, to bind and loose, and so on. But, firstly, it is always vicarious—that is, it is a participation in a power that comes from God. The proper response of ministers is therefore humility, for they are merely vessels of this authority, not its source. Secondly, as Francis said in his inaugural homily as pope: “Let us never forget that authentic power is service and that the pope, too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the cross.” The “authentic” power conferred on St. Peter is a power to serve: “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” As Congar puts it, the faithful “are our masters, since we are their servants,” for “their welfare must decide how our effort shall be applied.”
This Gospel concept of power has seldom survived unscathed in the history of the Church. Congar’s essay sketches its development in the early “synodal” era of martyrs and monks, its weakening under Constantine when Church offices were given temporal power, and its corruption in the eleventh century. The new legalism that arose then can be seen, says Congar, “in the importance attached to the formal validity of authority, to its possession of an actual title in law.” Over time, this legalism meant that the ecclesia ceased to be the body of the faithful possessed of charismatic authority, and became identified with clergy, the hierarchy, and the pope. As the current synod reports show, this is still the image of the Church that Catholics have, even fifty years after the Second Vatican Council—as an object outside them, rather than the body to which they belong.
This is what Francis has set out to change in the curial reforms of Praedicate, in his call for a synodal Church, and in the past nine years of teaching and example. The background to this reform is what he calls the cambio de época, the change of era, which Congar foresaw in his little book as a return to a “pre-Constantinian situation in a pagan world.” As Congar described it: “while we lose nothing of value acquired in the course of history, we shall recover wholly evangelical ways of exercising authority in the new world in which God calls us to serve him.”
The cardinals gathered in the synod hall are aware of the transformation captured in Praedicate, and they like it. Of course, the reform of the Curia is a work in progress. It still takes too long to reply to letters. Translations of major documents can be too slow. Candidates need to be better examined for curial roles. But on the big-picture reform, the cardinals are overwhelmingly supportive of what Francis has sought to do with the mandate they gave him nine years ago.
They like Praedicate’s emphasis on evangelization through service and on the new synodal spirit that permeates the Curia’s culture. They like that the evangelization, doctrine, and charity dicasteries now come first. They are glad that Francis has addressed the Church’s sex-abuse and finance scandals not just by imposing new laws and regulatory systems, but above all by tackling the deeper spiritual corruption at their root. They see the curial reforms as restoring trust in the Church’s mission. Some even say that the Roman Curia is now an example to local Churches rather than an obstacle to evangelization.
And what they appreciate most of all is the shift in how bishops are treated on their ad limina visits, when the bishops of a given country or region travel en bloc to Rome. Where once they were given marching orders or scolded by imperious curial officials, there is now fraternal dialogue with the dicasteries. Experiences are shared. Everyone listens. There is welcome and respect. The Curia is at the service of both the pope and the bishops, not an intermediary wedged between them. One cardinal spoke of how curial officials now “look us in the eye” and how the language of their letters is softer, more pastoral, more respectful.
But on the hot-button issue in the cardinals’ two-day meeting—the opening of the Curia to lay leadership—there is much that still needs to be thought through. Praedicate states that, because the Curia’s authority is received directly from the Roman Pontiff, “any member of the faithful can preside over a Dicastery or Office.” Clericalists have argued that, because the debate over the origin of authority in the Church—does it flow from the sacrament of ordination, or directly from canonical mission?—is still unresolved, the status quo must prevail: authority in principle rests with the ordained. But Praedicate goes the other way: lay people can in principle head any office, though there are reasons why some offices will still be reserved for the clergy. For Cardinals Marcello Semeraro and Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the brains behind the new apostolic constitution, while the theological-ecclesiological debate may continue for a long time to come, in practice the issue has already been resolved. When a lay judge on a marriage tribunal decrees the annulment of a marriage, for example, does anyone doubt that she is exercising an act of jurisdiction, one delegated to her by a bishop?
Marc Ouellet, who is due to retire soon as prefect of the bishops’ dicastery, reminded the cardinals that the power of governance in the Church is firstly the fruit of spiritual charisms—which, as Congar shows, is how the pre-Constantinian Church understood it. As Ouellet explained in an important article in L’Osservatore Romano, ordination confers a specifically Christological authority expressed in the power of the sacraments and the hierarchical structure of the Church. But the pope can entrust a layperson or a religious with a canonical mission of curial leadership without in any way undermining that structure, and it is right that he should. The alternative—to restrict governance to those with ordinary potestas of sacred orders—would be to slide back into the juridical mindset of the past and resist the gifts the Spirit is pouring out on the Church.
The cardinals mostly embrace the fact that in the future more laypeople will take on leadership roles in Rome, as they already have under Francis. Yet the transition will not be simple. Praedicate restricts senior positions in the Vatican to a five-year term, renewable only once, in order to discourage careerism and to reassure bishops of local dioceses that if they send good priests to Rome, they can be confident they’ll get them back. But could a layperson with a family really be expected to leave his or her career in Asia or Latin America for an appointment in Rome that lasts just five or ten years? But if an exception were made for laypeople, would that make them more susceptible to careerism? And wouldn’t short-term contracts with high rewards, which one often sees in the business world, “corporatize” the Vatican, derailing the culture of service Francis has been trying to instill? After all, worldly laypeople can be just as appallingly clericalist as the clergy.
The cardinals want more clarity about which roles require orders and which do not. All seem to agree that the Dicastery for Communications (currently the only one whose prefect is lay) and the Secretariat for the Economy (currently headed by a Jesuit) can happily be headed by the non-ordained, but not the dicasteries for the clergy, bishops, doctrine of the faith, or divine worship. Yet all senior Vatican roles require being steeped in the sensus ecclesiae, and even “technical” offices such as finances and communications touch on questions of doctrine. A prefect of a dicastery with good technical background but poor theology and ecclesiology would hardly advance the cause of lay leadership.
Hence the concern among cardinals that laypeople who work in the Vatican have the good of the Church at heart and are properly formed. Choosing the right people will demand careful discernment. As Francis pointed out at the start of the meeting, Praedicate does not exempt anyone from the need for discernment, which is the “ordinary means” by which the Church carries out its mission.
As they spilled forth from the synod hall into the basilica for the final Mass, the cardinals praised the meeting as authentically “synodal,” a time of free dialogue and listening. They want more of these meetings, and they will need them. It isn’t happening now, or even soon, but a papal transition is on the horizon: now the cardinals must learn to discern as a body.
Francis has made clear, over and over, that he will not hesitate to follow the examples of Celestine V and Benedict XVI in handing over the fisherman’s keys. If authority in the Church is rooted in charism, rather than the privileges of office, then all must be permanently open to moving on to the next mission—even the pope.
“They address us as ‘Your Eminence,’” Francis told the 190-odd cardinals in his homily. “There is some truth in this, but there is also much deception.” The deception, of course, is to suggest or believe that somehow a cardinal is made eminent by the authority he has been given, when he ought to be humbled by the eminence of sharing Jesus’ mission. As the cardinals sat in mitered rows to his left in the splendor of St. Peter’s, Francis warned them against the worldliness of the Father of Lies who, step by step, “takes away your strength, takes away your hope, prevents you from seeing the gaze of Jesus who calls us by name and sends us out.”
A minister of the Church, he went on, is one who “loves the Church and stands at the service of her mission wherever and however the Holy Spirit may choose.” To minister is to be awestruck—to experience stupore, amazement—not just at the plan of salvation itself, “but at the even more amazing fact that God calls us to share in this plan.” In the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God, it turns out, you lose strength by claiming dominium, yet are filled with wonder at the power of ministerium that flows through those who share in Christ’s mission. By the same token, the willingness to surrender office for the sake of the mission does not diminish authority but confirms it, for all authority in the Church participates in God’s own loving service of humanity through the kenosis of his own Son.
To see this loving service as somehow reducing “power”—as rendering it weak or ineffective—is to get it completely wrong. This is the power of God; it is the true power that moves the heavens and the earth. Francis’s curial reforms remind us that true authority is ultimately moral and spiritual. As he sheds ever more of the Vatican’s pomp—not just the imperial bling, but the imperious hauteur—the Curia no longer speaks with a stern authoritarian voice, but with the true authority of those who serve with God’s own ministerium. Meanwhile the pope himself, now often seen in a wheelchair because of a torn ligament, has become ever more quasi unus ex illis—among us as one of us. Yet his authority has never been greater than now, when he stands ready to give it away.
Austen Ivereigh Fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, Oxford, is a biographer of Pope Francis, with whom he collaborated on the book Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future (Simon & Schuster, 2020).
Reproduced with permission from Commonweal Magazine.