Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The Roman Curia and the Ecumenical Council

by Joseph Clifford Fenton


Hans Kung is hailed in some circles as "the prime spokesperson for Vatican II". This article, written during the Council, proves that Kung was considered a dissident from the beginning.

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The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, DC, March, 1963

Father Hans Kung is a young priest who seems hopelessly addicted to the practice of giving press conferences. In two of these, reported during the month of December, 1962, he had some harsh things to say about the Roman Curia.

The first report was carried in the New York Times on Thursday, Dec. 6. Among other things this story said:

Father Kung indicated that major reforms were in the making, among them the wider use of the vernacular in the mass, broader powers for bishops and the rapid decline of the Roman Curia, the conservative, Italian-dominated central administrative arm of the Roman Catholic Church....

Father Kung discounted fears that the Curia might regain some of its lost prestige while the Council recesses for nine months. He said the prelates had demonstrated their independence and had tested their powers.

"The Curia will not forget that the Fathers are returning," he added.

The next report is to be found on the front page of Our Sunday Visitor, for Dec. 30. According to this account he told some reporter

that the relation between the bishops and the Vatican administrative staff--the Roman curia--should be made very clear.

"The episcopate is really the collaborator of the pope. The curia is only an executive arm of the pope," he said.

He added that he also hoped to see a new decentralization of the Church emerge from the council. "I often say," he declared, "that the United Nations secretariate in New York is more catholic than the Roman curia of the Catholic Church."

Thus, if we are to believe Father Kung, one of the major "reforms" brought into being, or at least occasioned by the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican was "the rapid decline of the Roman Curia," which the young priest seems to have qualified as "the conservative, Italian-dominated administrative arm of the Roman Catholic Church." It is quite obvious that this "decline" was envisioned and described as a good thing, since Father Kung "discounted fears that the Curia might regain some of its lost prestige." He seemed quite certain that it had lost considerable prestige. And his hopes were based on his assurance that the bishops of the world "had demonstrated their independence and had tested their powers."

Father Kung's statements and insinuations against the Roman Curia are cited here, not because they have any importance in themselves, but precisely because they mirror what has come to be a rather common procedure among many writers, some of them Catholic. It has become fashionable to deride and to attack the Roman Curia. And there is definitely a lack of information about the position of the Curia in the true Church available to our people at the present time. As a result it is all too common to find some of our own fine Catholic faithful impressed by these attacks and insinuations, and thus being deceived about a highly important factor in the life of the Catholic Church.

For this reason it has seemed good to face up to some of these statements made against the Roman Curia. Nowhere are they to be found in a more naive and absolute form than in the reports of the various press conferences given by Father Kung. As a result it will be interesting to see just how much truth and meaning are to be found in the allegations this young priest has made against the Roman Curia.

The Nature of the Roman Curia

The term "Roman Curia" is used to designate the complex of congregations, tribunals, and offices which exist to aid the Pope in his government of the universal Church militant of Jesus Christ. There are eleven of these congregations, three tribunals, and five offices listed in the Code of Canon Law. The Roman Pontiff himself is the prefect of three of the congregations, the Holy Office, the Consistorial Congregation, and the Congregation for the Oriental Church. But all of the other organizations of the Roman Curia are equally under his direction.

Now it must be understood from the very outset that, given the actual divine constitution of the Catholic Church, there will have to be some people actually doing the work now assigned to the Roman Curia. It is not at all necessary that the body of people doing this work should be designated as the Roman Curia. Neither is it required that the men doing the work of assisting the Pope in his care for the universal Church should be organized in exactly the same way that the Roman Curia is organized today. But some sort of organization is required in the actually existing Catholic Church to do the essential duties now devolving on the Roman Curia.

The reason for this necessity is quite obvious. It is a truth of divine and Catholic faith that

the Roman Church, because Our Lord has thus disposed it, has received the authority (principatum) of ordinary power over all the other [Churches], and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate, with reference to which both the pastors and the faithful of every rite and dignity, considered both individually and corporately, are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and of true obedience, not only with regard to those things that pertain to faith and morals, but also in those things that belong to the discipline and the rule of the Church spread throughout the world.1

From this basic truth, it follows, according to the teaching of the same First Vatican Council, that the Sovereign Pontiff has the right of full and free communication with the pastors and the people of the entire Church.2 And this right is considered as something required for the fulfillment of the obligation which God Himself has imposed upon the man who has succeeded in the office of St. Peter within the true Church of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore the First Vatican Council enunciates this dogma:

And since it is by the divine right of the apostolic primacy that the Roman Pontiff presides over the universal Church, we also teach and declare him to be the supreme judge of the faithful and that in all cases pertaining to ecclesiastical inquiry there can be an appeal to his judgment.3

Thus it is divinely revealed teaching that the Bishop of Rome is the teacher and the spiritual ruler of the millions of people who constitute the membership of the Catholic Church. He is empowered to act as the judge of these individuals in all cases involving ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Without any offense to the jurisdiction of the other bishops who rule over their several dioceses as successors of the apostles, he can accept appeals to his court from any of the pastors or any of the faithful among the subjects of his jurisdiction.

As a result it is imperative that this man should have individuals devoted to the task of aiding him in the carrying out of his divinely imposed obligations towards the universal Church of God, and in the exercise of his jurisdiction over that Church. At this particular moment in history, the group thus gathered together to assist the Vicar of Jesus Christ in his rule over the Church is called the Roman Curia. It is this group which, according to Father Kung, has gone into a "rapid decline," which will not regain its "lost prestige," and which is less catholic or Catholic than the secretariate of the United Nations.

Now it is quite possible that the organization of the Roman Curia could be considerably improved or "reformed" by new arrangements. With the passing of the years cases which might be said to be in some way within the competence of two or more of the agencies of the Curia are bound to arise. With the great improvement in travel facilities throughout the world, it is obvious that procedures which might be considered adequate during the nineteenth century will no longer be acceptable within the Church.

The Curia is always, and will always be, subject to improvement in organization. Undoubtedly, as the years go by, it will be found that new agencies will have to be set up, and that some of the older ones will have to be drastically refashioned. As in any other institutions, individuals will be found unfitted for the tasks to which they have been assigned. In all of these ways the Roman Curia is and will continue to be subject to some sort of "reform."

The Pope and the Curia

But it must be understood that, whatever there is to be done to the Curia will fall within the competence of the Roman Pontiff, and not within that of the ecumenical council. In the last analysis, the council is definitely not superior to the Pope. The Curia includes the bodies of men assembled by the Pope himself to aid him in his task of caring for the universal Church of God on earth. The other bishops of the Catholic world can recommend that some changes be made within the Curia. But they have not the power, and they can never have the power, to make any changes over the objections of the Sovereign Pontiff.

The Sovereign Pontiff himself is responsible for the Curia. In the final analysis, an attack on the Curia is nothing more than a kind of veiled attack on the Pontiff himself. According to the Code of Canon Law, "Under the name of the Apostolic See or of the Holy See come not only the Roman Pontiff but also, unless the nature of the case or the context make it evident otherwise, the Congregations, the Tribunals and the Offices by which the Roman Pontiff is accustomed to carry on the business of the universal Church."4

The men who are in charge of the various congregations, tribunals, and offices of the Roman Curia are individuals who have been appointed by the Sovereign Pontiff, and who hold their positions at his good pleasure. If he disapproves of what they are doing, or of the way in which they are conducting the business of their particular parts of the Curia, the Pope can discharge them at once. He can always overrule any decision by any agency of the Curia. It would be most naive to assume that what is decided within and by the Curia is done other than with the knowledge and with the consent of the Vicar of Christ on earth.

The Conservative Nature of the Curia

What precisely are the objections advanced against the Roman Curia? According to Father Kung, the Curia is "conservative," and "Italian-dominated." He likewise (for some strange reason) imagines it to be less catholic (or less Catholic) than the secretariate of the United Nations. Since there is nothing particularly catholic (or Catholic) about that secretariate, it would appear that Father Kung is quite displeased with the Roman Curia.

Is there anything particularly "conservative" about the Roman Curia? If we are to answer this question we must, of course, try to learn what the opponents of the Curia mean when they designate an agency or an individual as "conservative."

As far as we can see, the Curia (and of course, the blame attached to the Curia is principally centered on the Holy Office) is designated as "conservative" in great measure because it is opposed to teachings which were more or less pleasing to its opponents and which might be considered as "liberal." The Curia was considered as in some way responsible for the issuance of the Humani generis and the Ci riesce. It is likewise blamed for the appearance of the Si diligis and the Magnificate Dominum. Furthermore the recent Monita on the historicity of the Gospels, on the teachings of Father Teilhard, and on psychoanalysis were the works of the Holy Office itself. And of course the Lamentabili was a decree of the Holy Office. In the circles where the Roman Curia is attacked, these are the offenses alleged against it. In this procedure we must seek the inherent conservatism of the Roman Curia.

For the enemies of the Curia it would seem that a non-conservative (and therefore basically acceptable) Roman Curia would have allowed all forms of doctrinal eccentricity to pass without challenge. While not all of these individuals would go so far, it is quite obvious that some of those who dislike the Curia are fundamentally opposed to the condemnation of any doctrinal aberrations, particularly of any misstatements that repeat the contradictions of Catholic teaching first uttered by the Protestant Reformers and by the Modernists. They claim that they do not want a condition of doctrinal anarchy, but they certainly discourage the system which reacts against the tendencies towards doctrinal anarchy.

In the last analysis, the conservative tendency for which the Roman Curia is blamed so severely is a necessary adjunct to the purpose and the function of the Roman Curia itself. As we have seen, the essential function of the Curia is to aid the Sovereign Pontiff in his care for the universal Church of Christ on earth. And the most fundamental obligation connected with the papal office is the duty of preserving the purity and the integrity of the divinely revealed message which the Church received from the apostles as God's supernatural teaching in and through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Thus the most important task and function of the Roman Curia is and always will be the work of preserving the purity and the integrity of Catholic doctrine. If it does not do that work efficiently, then it will have failed in its most important and most basic function.

Essentially, then, according to the somewhat slanted terminology of contemporary journalism, the basic obligation of the Church and thus of the Roman Curia is a work of conservation. It is the business of the Sovereign Pontiff, and therefore of the men who are gathered together to aid him in his work as the Vicar of Christ on earth, to conserve the divinely revealed message of Jesus Christ in His Church in all of its purity and entirety. The Curia will do its work properly only in so far as it remains, in this fundamental sense, "conservative." And, for this reason, a properly functioning Roman Curia will always be opposed by the sensational press and by publicity seekers because, in their lexicon, "conservative" has a bad meaning, while all that is good and desirable in the world is summed up in what is considered to be the opposite of "conservative," the term "liberal."

As far as anyone can see, Father Kung's antagonism to the Roman Curia on the grounds that it is "conservative" is based on the very concrete evidence of the Holy Office's opposition to definite teachings which have been advanced by Catholic writers over the period of the last sixty years. It was a "conservative" Holy Office that issued the decree Lamentabili sane exitu which first condemned the central teachings of the Modernists. It was likewise a "conservative" Holy Office that issued a Monitum against the writings of Father Teilhard and on the subject of the historicity of the Gospels. When the Roman Curia is opposed on these grounds it is obvious that the accusation is made by an individual who has at least some sort of sympathy for the theses which the Holy Office has rejected over the course of the past few years. Loyal, intelligent, and instructed Catholics have no such sympathy.

Nationalism and the Curia

It is quite interesting that the story about Father Kung's attack on the Roman Curia describes this institution, not only as "conservative," but also as "Italian-dominated." In that designation we find the explanation of one of the more dangerous and undesirable features of modern Catholic life in some sections of Europe. It is a kind of racism in reverse that can seriously undermine and harm the Church.

It is a matter of fact that most of the Cardinals and prelates who head and who make up the various congregations, tribunals, and offices that go to make up the Roman Curia are Italian. It is likewise a matter of fact that these are the men who have been chosen for these positions by the Roman Pontiff, for whom they and the men under their charge work. The complaint that there is an Italian domination of the Roman Curia is, in the final analysis, a complaint against the Holy Father himself.

Quite obviously over the years to come there will probably be more non-Italians appointed to the Curia than work in it today. Yet the choice of men who are called to help the Pope in his work of caring for and governing the universal Church of Jesus Christ depends on the Sovereign Pontiff himself, and on no one else. There is nothing that the bishops of the Church, apart from the Pope, can do to change the nationality of the personnel of the Roman Curia. And there is nothing but harm that can come to the Church from complaints about the nationality of most of the men who now compose the Roman Curia. It is seriously to be hoped that no priest of the Catholic Church will allow himself to be used to harm the charity within the Church by protesting publicly against the nationality of the men whom the Pope has chosen to aid him in his apostolic work of directing the Church of God.

The Curia and Father Kung

Father Kung speaks as if a "rapid decline of the Roman Curia" were in the making as a result of what happened during the course of the first thirty-eight meetings of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. Of course no such decline, rapid or otherwise, took place at all. There is no congregation, tribunal, or office which has lost any portion of its powers or its competence as a result of what transpired during the meetings of the council. And there has been, as far as anyone can see, no notice of any development which in any way promises to harm the power and the influence of any of the agencies of the Roman Curia. The person who believes otherwise as a result of some imprudent statement by a newspaper is being badly deceived.

Those who treasure the love of the brotherhood within the true Church of Jesus Christ will be amazed and displeased at the New York Time's statement that "Father Kung discounted fears that the Curia might regain some of its lost prestige while the council recesses for nine months." The agencies which the Holy Father has set up to aid him in his work of caring for the Church and governing it have lost no prestige whatsoever as a result of the council and what transpired in it. Loyal, intelligent, and well instructed Catholics would be pained to think that the Curia had lost any prestige, and would certainly not express any fears of the type which Father Kung is supposed to have talked about.

Most disappointing of all the statements attributed to Father Kung was the one contained in Our Sunday Visitor, the one in which he is represented as stating that "I often say that the United Nations secretariate in New York is more catholic than the Roman Curia of the Catholic Church." The reporter who wrote up the interview spelled the first word "Catholic" in this sentence with a small initial letter. Yet as a spoken statement it is difficult to see how it could appear to be anything other than a facetious and insulting remark, calculated to make the listener imagine that, in the mind of the man being interviewed, the secretariate of the United Nations was more Catholic than the Roman Curia. The secretariate of the United Nations obviously contains a majority of non-Catholics. The institution itself, despite its manifest advantages, has no basic religious character whatsoever. It is most obvious that the secretariate of this institution is not more in accord with the spirit of Christ's Church than the corps of men whom the Vicar of Christ has gathered around himself to aid him in the carrying out of his obligations to the universal Church of God on earth. The statement attributed to young Father Kung is very definitely newsworthy. Yet it cannot be other than very harmful to the loyalty towards the Church which every good priest should try to foster in all the other members of the Mystical Body of Christ on earth.

The Curia and Knowledge of the Catholic World

The January 7 edition of the NCWC News Service Bulletin prints another kind of attack on the Roman Curia. This one is attributed to a Catholic paper in Amsterdam, De Volkskrant. According to this paper: "More than ever it has been shown publicly [as a result of a discussion caused by an objectionable speech by a priest in Holland] that power in the Church has fallen into the hands of a group that does not know what is really going on inside the Church. A majority of the council was no longer prepared to be guided by small, not very up-to-date groups."

A statement of that type is inexcusable. The editors of the Dutch paper are writing against the Curia, and specifically against the Holy Office. They would have to be naive indeed if they really believed that the Holy Office could adequately or accurately be described as "a group that does not really know what is going on inside the Church." And they would have to be even more naive were they really to believe that the Holy Office is a group into whose hands power within the Catholic Church has in some mysterious way fallen.

What is most apparent in that statement is the hyper-emotionalism which has spoiled a great deal of the writing on the subject of the Curia among those who like to be called liberal Catholics. If the editor of that little paper in Holland would take the time to think, he would realize at once that the distinguished Cardinals who make up the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office are far better briefed on what is taking place within the Church than any provincial writer in the Catholic world. He would know very well that the work being done by the Holy Office is work required by the very nature of the Catholic Church itself. And he would realize that the men who actually make up the membership of the Holy Office, the Cardinals themselves, have this position only because they have been appointed to it and continued in it by the Sovereign Pontiff.

It is quite manifest that such attacks against the Holy Office and against the Roman Curia as a whole will continue in the secular press. The non-Catholic newspapers are always interested in the spectacle of a malcontent priest or Catholic layman talking against an institution so close to the person and to the work of the Sovereign Pontiff as is the Roman Curia. But, in the days to come, as we prepare for the second, and what may well be the last, portion of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, it would be most refreshing if Catholic papers would stop giving publicity to those who want to attract attention to themselves and to gain reputations for themselves by setting themselves up as critics--and quite incompetent critics--of the men whom the Vicar of Christ has chosen to aid him in his task of teaching and directing the universal Church of God in this world.

The Curia and the Episcopate

Father Kung, in his effort to make it appear that the episcopate of the Church is in some way opposed to the Roman Curia, made this highly interesting observation: "The episcopate is really the collaborator of the pope," he said. "The Curia is only an executive arm of the pope."

This is a point on which every Catholic, and particularly every priest, should be very well instructed. In a sense the episcopate, meaning the residential bishops of the Catholic Church, is the collaborator of the Sovereign Pontiff. It is a matter of Catholic doctrine and completely certain that the residential bishops of the Catholic Church, united with and subject to the Sovereign Pontiff, can and do teach the Church infallibly and authoritatively, even when the bishops remain in their various dioceses scattered throughout the world. The residential bishops in union with and subject to the Vicar of Christ constitute an organ of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church. And the individual residential bishop, in union with and subject to the Roman Pontiff, is an authoritative but non-infallible teacher within his own diocese.

God has so constituted His Church on earth, according to the dispensation of the New Testament, that the residential bishop, as one of the successors of the apostles, is an essential part of the structure of that Church. It is definitely not within the competence of the Roman Pontiff or of the ecumenical council to abolish the residential episcopate and its powers within the true Church of Jesus Christ on earth. The Pope may reserve certain powers to himself, and thus, to a certain limited extent, lessen the authority and the competence of the residential bishop within the Catholic Church. But he definitely cannot touch the residential episcopate as an institution within the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.

But, by the same token, the responsibility and the authority of the residential bishop within the Church are sharply circumscribed by the divine constitution of the Church itself. The individual residential bishop has authority over his own people and within the limits of his own diocese. He has this power from Our Lord, and the power comes to him through the Sovereign Pontiff. When he acts with the Sovereign Pontiff, to teach authoritatively or to legislate for the universal Church of Christ on earth, he is using an authority which is participation or sharing of the power given by Our Lord to the Bishop of Rome. It is perfectly true that he is a person who is qualified, in the very constitution of the Catholic Church, to receive that delegation. It is connatural for the residential bishop, in union with the Roman Pontiff, to teach authoritatively and to legislate for the entire Church of Christ on earth in an ecumenical council. Yet the power he uses is definitely a participated power, and cannot, according to the divine constitution of the Catholic Church, be anything else.

After all, it was to one man alone that Our Lord gave responsibility for, and consequently authority over, the entire or universal social unit which is the society of His disciples, the supernatural family of God on earth. It was to St. Peter alone that Our Lord said: "Feed my lambs . . . Feed my sheep."5 Any power or responsibility for or over the universal Church of God on earth which is exercised by a person other than Peter or his successor, the Roman Pontiff, must be derived from the responsibility and the power given to Peter himself. It must be a delegated responsibility and power. The residential bishop as an individual, and the sum total of all the individuals who are fathers of an ecumenical council have no other power over the universal Church militant of Jesus Christ.

It is true, then, that the episcopate collaborates with the Sovereign Pontiff, but in a very definite sense. The bishops of the Catholic world can collaborate as a unit when they are called together for a council by the Roman Pontiff. They remain subject to the real and episcopal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, who exercises true and episcopal jurisdiction over the entire council and over each of its members. Yet, having received this delegation from the Holy Father, all of the other members of the ecumenical council truly teach and govern for the universal Church militant.

On the other hand, the Curia is the administrative staff of the Vicar of Christ, who, by reason of his position in the actually existing Church of God, really needs an administrative staff. The acts which the various departments of the Roman Curia perform are acts which are rightly attributed to the Holy See. They are acts which are performed at the bidding and thus with the knowledge and the permission of the Pope himself. The directives issued by the various departments of the Roman Curia are binding upon all the subjects of the Catholic Church. The doctrinal decisions and decrees of the Curia, and in particular of the Holy Office, must be received and accepted with full and genuine religious assent by every loyal Catholic, despite the fact that such decisions are not guaranteed by the Church's charism of doctrinal infallibility.


Quite clearly the episcopate of the Catholic Church has a dignity not conceded to the Roman Curia. The residential episcopate of the Church, united with and under the direction of the Roman Pontiff, constitutes the apostolic collegium within the Church militant of the living God. The Curia, on the other hand, is the body of men who are selected by the Holy Father to aid him in the carrying out of his responsibility to care for, that is to teach and to direct, the entire Mystical Body of Christ on earth. The episcopate is in solemn session in an ecumenical council only once over a course of very many years. The Roman Curia is in continuous action. And the decisions of the individual departments of the Roman Curia, backed up or initiated by the Pope himself, are necessarily normative for the entire Church. It is poor theology to say that the Roman Curia is "only an executive arm" of the Pope.

As a matter of fact only harm can come to the Catholic Church from the type of irresponsible and facetious criticism of the Roman Curia with which we have been dealing. Such criticism tends to lead gullible people to disregard, or even to oppose, the directives which come to us from the Holy Office and from the other departments of the Curia. It tends to bring confusion and opposition in the Church of God, wherein God Himself wills that there should be order and love. It tends to turn Catholic against Catholic, at least in part on the grounds of a negative nationalism, and to influence some members of the Church to dislike others by reason of the fact that they are members of one race or citizens of one country.

It is to be hoped that the spirit of irenicism, which we pray may flourish within the ecumenical council, and which will bring us to look with even great affection on the members of non-Catholic religious societies, may be extended in such a way as to bring us to look with more favor even on the favorite whipping-boy of the anti-Catholic press, the Roman Curia. If this hope is realized, then the council will have been, in great measure, a success.

But if it is disloyal to attack and facetiously to criticize the Curia, it is plainly erroneous to say or to infer that the Curia has declined or has been hurt as a result of the council or anything that has happened in it. The Roman Pontiff remains the ruler of the universal Church of God. By reason of the very magnitude of his task, it is necessary that there should be persons chosen by him to assist him in his work. The organizations containing these persons are the various departments of the Roman Curia.

At this moment they can do all of the things which they were able to do before and during the meetings of the council. The Pope may reorganize these departments. He may, as time goes on, replace some of the men who are in charge of the various congregations, tribunals, and offices which compose the Roman Curia. But the Roman Curia remains now with the authority it has always possessed, and with the responsibility for aiding the successor of St. Peter in his care for the universal Church of Christ on earth, Father Kung and his imitators to the contrary.

Joseph Clifford Fenton
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.


l The First Vatican Council, the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius, cap. 3, Dens., 1827.
2 Cf. Ibid., Dens., 1829.
3 Ibid., Denz., 1830.
4 Canon 7.
5 Cf. John. 21:16 f.

For information on Hans Kung's activities promoting the United Religions Initiative see Vatican Opposition to the United Religions Initiative.

© The American Ecclesiastical Review

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