Swiss Bishop Sees Urgent Need for Reform of Roman Curia

This is an interesting and perhaps challenging time for the Roman Curia, as bishops here and there begin to speak out more openly about the need for structural reforms in the curia, and problems with too much centralism in the Catholic Church. Bishop Felix Gmür of Basel, Switzerland spoke with Blick today. Pray Tell offers part of the interview in translation.

What expectations do you have for his (Pope Benedict’s) successor?
First of all, that he holds together the universal church with its innumerable facets and fosters a culture of dialogue. Second, that he takes up the urgent reform of the curia. When one does not know exactly how the curia functions, this truly does not serve the office of the Pope. It wasn’t among the charisms of this pope to carry out this reform.

Reform in what direction?
A feeling of lack of transparency dominates. There should be clearer areas of authority. Also, the curia should take to itself only what is truly necessary and leave the greatest possible scope of action to us bishops and the local church. Sometimes the curial offices worry about things that simply are not their beer.

The new pope will have to concern himself with a few demands that keep coming up. That women can be ordained as priests, for example. Unthinkable?
No, it is not unthinkable. But one must appraise the possible consequences. I am convinced that this break with tradition would lead to a split, as among our Anglican brothers and sisters. Is that what we want? When a split looms, women’s ordination certainly cannot be the first priority on the agenda of the next Pope. But what we should discuss is the office of the diaconate for women…

… they would sort of be priests’ helpers, they could preach, baptize, marry. But not celebrate Mass or hear confessions.
Yes. Here there are starting points in the tradition – in contrast to female priests, where there aren’t such starting points. And I consider it important that women hold important offices in the diocese. …

Many want to abolish mandatory celibacy. You also?
Celibacy is a good manner of life appropriate for priests. It’s thus not a question of simply abolishing it. In the church there is a long tradition that the call to be a priest and being unmarried belong together- but I think that this link is not absolutely binding. Thus, as I see it, celibacy of priests can be reexamined.

Grassroots calls for reform are getting louder. In the canton of Lucerne alone, 180 pastoral ministers – including many priests – signed the Pfarrei-Initiative. How much does that put pressure on you?
We have 1.1 million Catholics in the diocese, so 180 aren’t terribly many. But I do not undervalue the concerns of the Pfarrei-Initiative. I will meet with the initiators and others interested for five half-days about various topics. I believe that we will come together.

In Austria there is the very similar Pfarrer-Initiative. The Austrian bishops were called to Rome because of it. Is the same imminent for the Swiss bishops?
That is entirely possible. We have discussed this in the bishops’ conference. But now a new pope is coming, and possibly such things will no longer stand at the top of the list of priorities.


  1. The cracks are showing and change is coming.
    In my opinion the one man who would be in a position to promote all of the above would be Cardinal Schonborn of Austria. First, his age, 68, a conservative at heart but not an uber conservative or a partisan. He has a willingness to listen particularly to change celibacy from mandatory to optional and women deacons. The best part is his willingness to take on the curia as he did with Sodano about a year ago. That alone is enough to make him papabile.

    1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #1:
      I have similar positive sentiments re Schönborn. He saw first hand the disastrous attempt by Rome to force ultraconservative bishops on the Austrian church to change its direction. It blew up in their face. The faithful in Sankt Pölten diocese (a sleepy little rural diocese) rose up, and there were demonstrations in cathedral square with 1,000, then 2,000, then 5,000 demonstrators. The bishop couldn’t go to a parish confirmation without a protest rally. 1/3 of his priests stopped saying his name in a Eucharistic prayer. He removed a Benedictine pastor but both parish and abbot disagreed – the man simply stayed and the bishops’ decree was ignored.

      Now there is the Pfarre-Initiative, with 100s of priests simply declaring that they support women’s ordination, will allow women to preach at Mass, will allow remarrieds and gay couples to receive Communion, and so forth.

      Schönborn has spoken out about the need for reform of the Roman curia because he has seen first hand the depth of the problems, and the disastrous consequences of heavy-handed and incompetent politics of the curia.

      But: now is the time to moderate our expectations. Anything could happen.

      A “John XXIII” moment is not likely – all the candidates were appointed by JP2 and B16. On the other hand, Ratzinger was an outlier in terms of his lively interest in re-directing liturgical reform, his personal passion about what went wrong, his strong writings on how to right things. The odds that the next Pope will share this passion don’t seem high – who else has his track record?

      I’m ready for anything, including the worst. I hope it’s not unreasonable to hope for at least a modest thawing in the church, some modest reforms in the direction of collegiality and respect for local churches. I think the English-speaking candidates are aware that something went wrong with the Missal translation.


  2. Where some here see ecclesiastical problems and view them as the result of a “heavy Roman hand” I see the result of years of poor pastoral practice and the ill fruit of decades long but badly implemented renewal. At the least, objectivity would seem to require us to admit that things like this occur in more than one way. Does no one here recall the result of putting a somewhat (at least liturgically) progressive bishop in charge of the Evreux diocese in Normandy, the transfer of a successful pastor, and the reaction in Thiberville? The strength & endurance of the traditionalist movement in the French Church would seem to be indicative of a lay reaction in the opposite direction from what we see in Sankt Pölten.

    Also, wouldn’t Cardinal Burke be one of the English speaking candidates? Do we have reason to believe that he thinks something went wrong with the recent missal translation?

  3. Fr awr, one ray of hope is that we are seeing cracks and bishops seem willing to disclose them and considering that most of the cardinals chosen by B16 were bishops themselves recently (not counting the curial appointments) and the problems the church is facing are universally known to them unless they have been living under a rock all these years.
    It is interesting that the previous conclave that elected B16 was almost entirely chosen by JPII but the liberal Martini won some of the early votes but didn’t have a majority. Furthermore, it was stated that an older “transitional” pope was needed after JPII. Most did not realize that B16 would be that uber and I think they won’t make that mistake again. Also, the majority of cardinals were placed by JPII, not B16 and I think many of them feel that B16 “threw JPII under the bus” when discussing the sex abuse crisis. B16 minions were also critical about JPII liturgies and complained bitterly about them publicly in their online blogs, a big faux pas.
    Mr McKernan, I am not as well versed as you are on these particulars. From where I stand in the trenches I prefer to look at the “forest” whereas you look at the “trees”. I my opinion, considering everything as a whole rather than selected cases will be more predictive of what is to come.
    Silence on the part of the majority of cardinals doesn’t mean that they approve of B16 either, rather like most “company men” they keep their opinion to themselves until they are in a safe position to make known their views by their actions. Like company men they are aware of the particulars that affect them directly like declining church attendance, overall discontent (they blog and read the comment section) and most importantly (to them) decreased revenue.
    As far as Burke, he was a pastoral disaster, disliked and heavy handed except to a small minority, many (not all) of whom are the nastiest characters you could meet.

  4. As each day passes I scale back my expectations. I hope the new Pope might, just might, be open to the way bishops are chosen. This papal appointment business just isn’t working out.

    We see the Synods turning into clones speaking to clones. Why bother? The Pope could just as well have a conversation with himself and save a lot of people time (and money).

    My understanding is that both Burke and Ouellet were disasters with their priests and had to be moved upstairs. Any thought of an American would be out of the question with Africa and Central and South America (Does anyone have a clue as to why some people seem to be going gah-gah over Dolan?).

    An outside hope: Kasper, Danneels & Schonborn ending up being the king-makers.

    1. @Barry Moorhead – comment #5:

      My understanding is that both Burke and Ouellet were disasters with their priests and had to be moved upstairs.

      I’ve heard some things about Ouellet’s presbyterate, but I think that may say more about his priests than it does him.

      I claim only a couple of moderately inside sources on Burke, but what I do hear is that his “kick-upstairs” was mainly to do with his efforts to insist on enforcement of canon 915.

      Progressives deeply dislike the guy, obviously, including some here. But I think that Burke’s career trajectory is a classic case of “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.” In Rome, at the Signatura and (especially) Congregation of Bishops, with a red hat, he’s been in a position to be considerably more influential than he ever was in St. Louis – the results have ended up (I would argue, at any rate) being more “upstairs” than “kicked.” More than a few of the recent appointments have some of his fingerprints on their selection.

    2. @Barry Moorhead – comment #5:
      (Does anyone have a clue as to why some people seem to be going gah-gah over Dolan?).
      Largely talk by North American arch conservatives who probably sealed his and Burke’s fate.

      1. @Dunstan Harding – comment #18:

        (Does anyone have a clue as to why some people seem to be going gah-gah over Dolan?)

        Probably because he’s the best known American cardinal and has an outsized personality. Sometimes it really is that simple.

        But I can’t think he ever had a serious chance in the first place, and not just because he’s American.

  5. Barry, don’t despair. The process is fraught with politics but somewhere in there the Holy Spirit whispers. God somehow is in charge. How else can one explain the sudden departure of B16 and his half finished “reform of the reform”, outreach to SSPX in shambles and turning the clock back on VII? Maybe things not going according to God’s plan and time for a change?
    I think Kasper is too old and German therefore not in the running and Danneels has been implicated in the sex abuse scandal, if only peripherally.
    In any event I am going to make a guess, and a wild guess at that. I guess that Schonborn will be elected and he will take the name John XXXIV or JPIII. It’s a long shot but who would have bet 2 weeks ago that B16 would abdicate? Nobody who blogs regularly on this site could have guessed it.

    1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #6:

      Dale, are you familiar with the prophecies of Malachy? I’m not, but I’ve seen references lately to something that has to do with a “Francis” or “Joseph.”

      And who always gets sent in to clean up a mess?

      Need I say more?

      1. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #7:
        Hello Padre, I do not know much about those prophecies except that the last pope is possibly the anti-Christ and that B16 is next to the last….. however, I don’t think Malachy predicted the abdication of B16 whereas he did with the other abdications?
        Anyhow, you’ve lost me on your comment, could you elaborate more?

      2. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #9:

        Perhaps a disciple of “il Poverello” who moves from see to shining see?

        After the stuff coming from NCR the past couple of hours, I am not in the mood for any more “cutesy” speculation.

        Let’s just pray, shall we?

      3. Sorry you’re not in the mood, you might want to take it up with NCR and their “cutesy” speculations.

  6. Gibson has a good article that should warn us about expectations for the next Pope

    Analysis: Conservatives vent disappointment over Benedict’s papacy

    Partisans tend to graft their own agendas and aspirations onto their favored candidates, whether presidents or popes. Disappointment was inevitable because the hopes of Benedict’s fans had blinded them to the parts of his writings (on charity and justice, for example) or his personality traits (such as his loyalty to friends, no matter how incompetent) that didn’t fit with their plans.

    He had a German’s intellectual bearing but little of his countrymen’s renowned knack for organization. “I am not an administrator,” he warned his fellow cardinals during the 2005 conclave as he saw the momentum swinging in his direction.

    Speaking of politicians, Hilary has announced her plans for the future: paid speaking. Pretty predictable but not exactly what her admirers or detractors were likely thinking about.

    Situations are much better predictors of behavior than personality

  7. Jack, I agree, I didn’t state what expectations I had for the next pope rather I only made a guess as to who I expected could be the next pope. Anything goes, including Schonborn as John XXXIV… as I said earlier who would have guessed that B16 would abdicate?
    Also, as you stated, situations are better predictors of behaviour and I made that point above. Just because B16 appointed many cardinals it by no means guarantees that a conservative will emerge. A prince of the church is a company man, goes along with the boss who appointed him until the boss is gone and it is only in that situation that you discover his true personality! In any event, it is going to be an exciting and tantalizing several weeks for those who care, you and me and all bloggers at this site

  8. A couple comments on the original post:

    1. In response to a question about women’s ordination, Bishop Gmür answers: “No, it is not unthinkable.” I knew he had something of a reputation as a liberal, but I didn’t realize he was…that far out there. There’s no way that won’t get noticed in Rome. But he picked a good time to delay the reckoning.

    2. He adds: “A feeling of lack of transparency dominates. There should be clearer areas of authority. Also, the curia should take to itself only what is truly necessary and leave the greatest possible scope of action to us bishops and the local church.

    The need for greater transparency across the board seems to be one of the few things that most of us across the spectrum today can agree upon. That applies, of course, to the functioning of the conferences and the local chanceries, too, which too often aren’t much better.

    But a struggle over Roman centralization, which has occasioned two threads here at PTB now, seems to be, if I may say so, a fight over a distraction. While hunger for power certainly isn’t unknown in the Vatican (or elsewhere the Church), demands from the Left for major structural/ecclesiastical reform seem to be trying to elide the actual conflicts that occasion these scrums.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but these conflicts really have been reducible to this: For several decades, local bishops, and thus their conferences, have been mostly quite liberal. Yet since the latter part of Paul VI’s pontificate, Rome has been more conservative, and increasingly so. Thus, decentralization works, or would have worked, to progressives’ advantage.

    The ICEL translation battle is a case in point. Rome ceased to trust the Anglophone conferences to be sufficiently orthodox to ride herd on ICEL. Once the Rite of Ordination and the Missal turned up in 1996-98 packed with inclusive language (among other things), I really think the game was up. In short, these really are battles over theology more than ecclesiology.

    1. @Richard Malcolm – comment #15:
      Others of us see them as battles over neither theology nor ecclesiology, but ideology. And the situation over the past twenty years has often focused on silencing discussion rather than engaging it. JP2 conceded theology and ecclesiology by placing the discussion off the table. It was a concession that he and his side had nothing substantive to offer on women’s ordination.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #16:

        Others of us see them as battles over neither theology nor ecclesiology, but ideology.

        Six of one, a half dozen of the other, I think.

        And the situation over the past twenty years has often focused on silencing discussion rather than engaging it.

        I myself am all for discussing – and explaining. I often disagree with George Weigel, but I tend to agree with his observation in Witness to Hope that John Paul II missed an opportunity to fully explain the reasons for opposing women’s ordination on the occasion of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

        But I think there’s a perception that when one side of this discussion urges “discussion” or “dialogue,” it means discussion whose end must be eventually victory for its point of view. That if this victory is not obtained, it could not have been a “real” discussion. The result ends up being a dialogue of the deaf.

        I think my basic point remains. Notwithstanding that there *are* principled arguments to be made for greater autonomy of local bishops and churches, it seems to me that decentralization is favored chiefly because it seems to work toward progressive theological/ideological ends. Not withstanding that reality, many such were not displeased to see papal power deployed to impose a radically new Roman Rite and the effective abrogation of the old. This is why, while I can understand the frustration Fr. Ruff had with the whole ICEL process, and concede that there’s a discussion about Church structure and process that’s worth having, what gets elided too often (and I think often was elided during the ICEL process), are the actual theological implications of the translations being offered.

      2. @Richard Malcolm – comment #20:
        “I myself am all for discussing – and explaining.”

        And listening, too. Don’t forget that.

        I think your post illustrates the principles you’ve laid down. As for me, I’m satisfied with starting a discussion just for the sake of cultivating a relationship, of imitating the Lord Jesus.

        At some point, we all have to grow up, you and I and Rome included, and have responsible discussions over issues and cultivate the trust that is obviously lacking.

        What’s of most interest to me today is how to begin that. I can accomplish it in real life, because I have real life relationships with the people I serve in my parish. They accept me as a person, and as a believer and disciple and a Catholic. Others online seem satisfied to view people with whom they disagree as caricatures. So I offer a simple challenge: how do you and I move beyond that?

      3. @Richard Malcolm – comment #20:
        Mr. Malcolm – you state: “what gets elided too often (and I think often was elided during the ICEL process), are the actual theological implications of the translations being offered”

        Allow me to expand on that comment:
        – first, liturgical rite – is liturgy made for us or are we made for the liturgy. Okay, trite way of saying that there is a tension between liturgy that speaks and expresses what people believe without it being a doctrinal or theological expression. Many liturgists would say that it should not be that.
        – translation experts per multiple PTB posts demonstrate that the *best* translation method is one that captures the *meaning* and is *poetic.*
        Rather than using scholastic language (transubstantion, for example) or sounds like a catechism or some *imaginary* more sacral tone.
        -the process ignored a council; it subverted a process that respected input, transparency,and enculturation. Those are the theological implications. Go to and read the just posted article by Komonchakon the resignation – he raises themes that are significant in terms of over-centralization
        – finally, translation implications also impact ecclesiology and sacramental theology.

        Am reading O’Malley’s book on Trent – his research indicates that Trent was both a pastoral reform and doctrinal council (vs. usual picture). The issue under the issues revolved around papal authority vs. bishops/council. Trent actually defined the role of bishop – highest goal – *care of souls* – this challenged/reformed papal power – selling benefices; making cardinals so he could collect benefices; taxing bishops; directing that bishop must live and work in his diocese and priests must live and work in their parishes.This reform was targeting papal centralization and control of finances that made caring for souls all but impossible.
        The tension between papal authority and bishops has gone on for centuries (so, it isn’t just progressive).

    2. @Richard Malcolm – comment #15:
      Mr. Malcolm – guess I am not following your #2 point.

      B16 in his resignation speech and then in his talk to local diocesan clergy admitted that the papacy is too big for one person – it needs to be decentralized; bishops/conferences have to have more authority and responsibility.

      Following the work of Komonchak and O”Malley, what the church has seen since the mid 19th century is over-centralization. Vatican II tried to ressource *collegiality* but the minority sabotagued that before the council had even ended coupled with Paul VI’s own vacillations. Yet, now B16 appears to realize that collegiality may be the only answer (even more so if you buy current reports about curial dysfuntion; inner fights & power struggles, etc. which B16 appears to admit that he can not control, change, or impact).

      Leads to some questions:
      – is he now *ressourcing* Celestine? Is this really the ultimate reform of the reform? Is this considered *continuity* or *rupture*?
      – is this resignation an implementation of VII documents that distinguished between office and person; that declericalized ministries/office including papacy? Is this not a backhanded method of conceding that VII’s collegiality was the correct direction all along?
      – and I purposely choose O’Malley’s language here (not liberal, progressive, conservative) rather majority/minority. VII and later years clearly indicated a majority that wanted collegiality and expected it. A small minority linked to the curia quelled this via devices such as 1983 canon law; synods; etc. So, reject your caricature of Rome vs. ICEL/ICET – rather, it was a minority vs. conferences that VII had given authority and responsibility. But papal centralization trumped this. Inclusive language – may have been one piece of the puzzle but there were others and did this justify *over-centalization*; liturgy wars; and papal politics?
      Thus, agree with O’Malley that the minority/majority tension of Vatican II has never dissipated and the minority have failed.

  9. In comment #8, Jack Rakosky provides a link to a Religion News Service article by David Gibson that is well worth reading. As is an assessment of B16’s pontificate by Joseph Bottum in the Weekly Standard, which Gibson’s article links to. Here is the link to the Bottum piece:

    Perhaps the Curia needs a new position, the equivalent of a Chief Operating Officer, to ride herd on the curia, while the Holy Father is busy being the public face of the universal church.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #21:

      My understanding is that Bertone as head of the diplomatic service of the Vatican is supposed to see that things get coordinated even though he does not supervise the work of the congregations.

      When B16 became Pope, John Allen said that many expected that he would reform the Curia, that membership would be based on knowledge and expertise whereas traditionally it was often thought good to have people without expertise calling the shots.

      That did not happen; rather B16 appointed people whom he knew well, especially who had worked for him at CDF to many positions. The most infamous was Bertone who did not have a diplomatic background. Traditionally there had been a balance between CDF (internal) and State (the diplomatic service).

      There have been suggestions all along that people from within the Curia have been sabotaging the B16 papacy. That B16 should have been warned about his blunders on Islam and the Holocaust SPXX debacle. Bertone has also tried to micro-manage the Italian episcopacy which was another traditional balance against State along with the CDF.

      If B16 tried to reform the Curia by putting as many people loyal to himself in charge he surely seems to have made a mess of it.

  10. Can the Curia be reformed?

    Jason Berry’s latest on Rode, the former head of the Congregation for Religious (who launched the nuns’ visitation):

    A former Legion priest, speaking on background, said he met with Rodé after Maciel’s death and the cardinal told him of a VHS he had seen when Maciel was superior general of Maciel and his young daughter.

    Asked about this, Rodé gave a somber nod, saying it was “late 2004, or early 2005.” The Legionary who showed it wanted him to have the information before the order’s election for superior general, the position Maciel held for decades. Rodé says he persuaded the 84-year-old Maciel, by then under investigation, to step down. Maciel was re-elected and then retired.

    What did Rodé do about the videotape showing Maciel’s daughter?
    “I told Msgr. Scicluna all about the problem,” the cardinal said.

    Scicluna reported directly to Ratzinger.

    As the prefect over religious orders, why did Rodé not punish Maciel? “It was not for me to pronounce the penalty,” he said. “But he was, in the end, corrected” — by Benedict’s 2006 Vatican order sending Maciel to a “life of prayer and penitence.”

    Did the cardinal confront Maciel about his child? “It was not my obligation.”

    Why not? “I was not his confessor.” Rodé paused. “It was my obligation as prefect for religious to get him to step down, and I did.”

    This is one among many things that suggests the Curia is very, very corrupt.

    Rode denies he accepted large sums of money from Maciel, as his predecessor did.

    It is third world government of the worst kind: bribes, cronyism, intrigues etc.

    Maybe modernity in the form of legal suits, the media, and the international banking system will eventually bring about reform from outside.

  11. “Maybe modernity in the form of legal suits, the media, and the international banking system will eventually bring about reform from outside.”

    That would be the very worst way to bring it about. Much better if a new broom comes in and cleans out the Augean stables of his own volition.

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