Although Joseph Ratzinger was a Curial cardinal heading the doctrinal congregation, current iteration of the fear-generating and myth-making operation once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, and a trusted advisor to Pope John Paul II, he was never entirely the professional curialist. 

He had a life before the Curia and he had a life after it.

Many of the men who function in the various sectors of the Curia -- and it is a complex management structure with often overlapping jurisdictions -- see it as a stepping stone for future appointments. 

Although the Vatican regularly bemoans what it calls the culture of careerism that can drive and nurture unholy ambitions among clerics, and it does this both obliquely and directly in the pages of the official Vatican newspaper no less, L'Osservatore Romano, it is hard to detect its complete erasure from the structure.

Many years ago while in Rome for research purposes I met with the former Chancellor of Spiritual Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto who had been seconded to a Vatican department for a few years and who quite unapologetically offered the opinion that Italians know how to be clerics. The Vatican is their world and they are the professionals. The rest of us are on visitor's notice.

If the Italians are engineered by some form of ecclesiastical DNA to Vatican governance, it would seem to go against the natural law to resist their dominance; and if nothing else, the Catholic Church takes natural law seriously. But the reality, as opposed to the fantasy, about Italians and the Curia needs to be underscored in these days leading up to the pre-conclave enclosure.

Many of the Italians working in the Curia -- and many of the cardinal electors either dicasterial or residential -- are not only competent, they are committed churchmen. Given the locus of their activity they are not inclined to be progressive, venturesome, theologically innovative or visionary. They are conservers of the tradition, architects of continuity, and by temperament and formation disposed to the apparatchik as opposed to the prophet model of service.

Fair game, really. That is what they do at head office. It requires, as the theolgians say, a different charism.

In other words, being an Italian or not being an Italian, serving in the Curia or not serving in the Curia, should not in the end be a major determinant in the election.  What genuinely matters is competence, openness to ideas that deserve more than cursory dismissal, pastoral sensitivity, and more than a dollop of imagination. Being prayerful goes with the job. Ethnicity and nationality are immaterial.


Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB