A proposal for curial reform: break up the Vatican Secretariat of State

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 08, 2013

“Reform of the Roman Curia” was the cry of the day—among journalists, at least—in the days before the conclave that elected Pope Francis. So now with the new Pope settling into his work, commentators are speculating on the sort of changes that the Holy Father might make.

George Weigel has presented a short list of his own suggestions for administrative reforms at the Vatican. He suggests, for example, that the disproportionate power exercised by Italian clerics could be resolved by using “the world language—English” rather than Italian for the everyday work of the Curia. Italian is the appropriate language for the Diocese of Rome, Weigel reasons, but the Roman Curia should represent the universal Church. He also suggests a pruning of the pontifical councils, downgrading several to “research centers in their fields, not mini-cabinet departments.”

While I would endorse Weigel’s proposals, he omits the one reform that I would consider most important: breaking up the Secretariat of State.

American Catholics might be tempted to think of the Vatican Secretariat of State as roughly equivalent to our own State Department, or to the British Foreign Office. It is not. The Secretariat of State is a super-department, with considerable influence over all the other Vatican dicasteries except the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Secretariat of State has two main divisions: one dealing with diplomacy, the other with internal Church affairs. So the routine administration of Vatican affairs is handled by the same office that handles contacts with foreign governments.

The Secretary of State is the most powerful man at the Vatican save the Pope. He outranks the prefects of congregations and presidents of pontifical councils. He sets the agenda for Vatican foreign diplomacy while simultaneously controlling the flow of internal paperwork and managing the Vatican’s public-relations machinery. All the important business of the Vatican flows through his office.

What’s wrong with this system? Two things.

First, the concentration of power in one office discourages teamwork and creativity among the other leaders of the Roman Curia, and restricts the supply of information reaching the Pontiff. The Pope, not his Secretary of State, should make crucial policy decisions. And like any other policy-maker, he could benefit from broad consultation with officials who have direct knowledge of their own fields.

Second, the odd mixture of diplomacy and internal Church affairs creates an unhealthy dynamic. Of all the offices at the Vatican, the Secretariat of State—the office that deals with secular governments, the office staffed by clerics trained in the arts of diplomacy—is the office most likely to be influenced by worldly concerns. To preserve the integrity of the Church’s decision-making progress, the business of diplomacy should be separated from the business of Church administration, and Vatican diplomats should clearly understand that their job is to represent the Church to the world, not vice versa.

So I say, break up the Secretariat of State. Create one department that handles diplomacy, and another that supervises the flow of paperwork. Let all the prefects of congregations work together, meeting regularly to provide the Pope with options and opinions. In that new "cabinet" system, regard the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as the most important official, since safeguarding the deposit of the faith—not handling public perceptions, nor even coordinating the administration of the Vatican's internal affairs—is always the highest priority for the Holy See.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Cory - Apr. 16, 2018 11:08 PM ET USA

    As I have often said when comparing the 3 papacies: whoever gets the problem right will also get the solution. Is the problem relativism (as JPII and BXVI) have said, or is it poverty (material) as PF keeps telling us. Is the problem spiritual or physical?

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 10, 2013 12:35 PM ET USA

    Biscjim is right. There is no reason for the Church to be any more conformed to the world than she is already. I will be interested to see how our new Holy Father will handle the dichotomy between being head of the Church as well as a head of state.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 10, 2013 9:18 AM ET USA

    Excellent, well-reasoned suggestions. I knew the Secretary of State had power, but didn't realize how much or how wide-spread.

  • Posted by: Biscjim - Apr. 09, 2013 11:30 PM ET USA

    Give me a break! Make English the language of the Roman Curia. How is that in any way relevant to anything, not even considering Church history. And besides, English is already far too dominant in the world, and in many cases serves as a vehicle of promoting Anglo Saxon culture, further damaging real diversity.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Apr. 09, 2013 5:59 PM ET USA

    Pope Pius XII was his own Secretary of State. That's how important it was to him. His diplomatic statements were clearly his own. No middle men were able to garble them up. Perhaps Pope Francis should consider this too.