In his speech to the Roman Curia on the morning of Thursday 22nd, it is important to note the passages in which the Pope states that the purpose of the Curia “is to collaborate in the Successor of Peter’s ministry”, supporting him “in the exercise of his unique, ordinary, full, supreme, immediate and universal authority”. The Pope documents his statement with a substantial number of footnotes. From St Gregory the Great to the First Vatican Council’s “Pastor Aeternus” constitution, from the Second Vatican Council’s “Christus Dominus” decree to Paul VI’s speeches and the introduction of John Paul II’s “Pastor Bonus” constitution, it is significant that the current Successor of Peter wished to recall the nature and essence of the Curia. Not a central body governing local Churches. Not a bureaucratic authority with ministers and ministries that ends up complicating the life of Christian communities across the world but a body that serves the Pope and his mission, that always and only acts in the name and with the authority of the Bishop of Rome, helping him concretely in his ministry.
Some might consider these points of emphasis to be obvious, superfluous even. But a look back through the recent history of the Church and of the current pontificate, shows that this is not the case. Many Popes during the 20th century faced “resistance” from the Curia. One need only think of the so-called “Roman party” that formed against John XXIII and some of his initiatives or the attempts to prevent the implementation of conciliar reform under Paul VI. Naturally, it would be illogical and even ideological to brand any dialectical position, difference in opinion or views or disagreement over how to achieve certain results as “resistance”. Or fears of a possible misunderstanding of certain steps the Pope intends to take. In his speech, Francis explains that resistance, even that which is considered “malicious” – because they are not motivated by a sincere willingness to understand, ask real questions or respectfully make known one’s own objections – is nevertheless a sign of vitality and “is worth listening to, accepting and its expression encouraged”.
Something else has changed and is becoming increasingly evident in modern times. In the past, differences were in most cases kept personal, between the Pope and his collaborators, those who act on his behalf and under his authority. Either that, or they were addressed in consistories and interdicasterial meetings, without them ever becoming public. In other words, there was a shared way of understanding and experiencing service to the Pope within the Roman Curia. For instance, it is common knowledge that on some rare occasions, the most loyal and experienced of Wojtyla’s collaborators, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had ideas that did not quite coincide with the Pope’s. It is no longer a secret, for example, that Ratzinger feared possible misunderstandings of the interreligious gathering in Assisi in October 1986, John Paul II’s prophetic gesture. Nowhere, however will you find any interviews, books or essays (online newspapers and blogs did not exist yet) by the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that may even remotely give the impression that Ratzinger was dissociating himself from the Pope, whom he always faithfully served.
Of course, one could point to a possible precedent in 2000, when Australian cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, made critical statements with regard to the style of the declaration “Dominus Iesus”, which was signed by Ratzinger and published by the former Holy Office. Cassidy pointed out that this text had not been signed by the Pope. Even the dicastery’s then secretary and future president, Walter Kapser, spoke of a “communication problem”. John Paul II intervened, publicly explaining that it was he who had come up with the idea for the document and that he had asked for it and approved it. Regarding Benedict XVI’s motu proprio, which liberalised pre-conciliar mass, public criticisms came from a number of bishops – the former Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, also respectfully expressed a difference in opinion – but there is no recollection of any public criticisms being made by collaborators in the Curia.
In any case, this does not all that easily fit with what has happened over the past three and a half years. In a recent interview with Vatican Insider, the Substitute for General Affairs to the Secretary of State, Angelo Becciu, spoke of “principles I have always been taught by the healthy tradition of the Church: as the Pope's humble collaborator, I feel I have a duty to loyally tell him what I think when a decision is being taken. Once it is taken, I obey the Holy Father fully. The unity of the Church, for which Jesus sweated blood and gave his life, comes before my own ideas, however good they may be. Ideas that have involved disobedience have ruined the Church."
There is also another significant passage in Francis’ speech, that emphasises positive and negative aspects of a reform process that is constantly at risk of spiralling into “functionalism”, which can be seen as an even more underhand form of resistance and an example of “gattopardismo” as the Pope put it in Italian, making superficial changes to keep things as they are. “A permanent formation is not sufficient,” the Pope explained, “what is needed also and above all, is conversion and permanent purification”. Without a change of mentality, without a genuinely evangelical attitude, structural reform is reduced to mere slogans and even Francis’ message can be reduced to new orders which simply replace old ones, without actually changing anything. The period of reform the Vatican is currently undergoing, is in no way free from the real risks of functionalism and efficientism