It is an invariable trope in Vatican coverage that the central administrative arm of the church -- the Roman Curia -- is badly in need of reform.

Although it is uncommon, but periodic for sure, for prelates and journalists to be on the same page -- I don't include among the latter the cohort of fervent publicists who prefer pious piffle to hard work and who flood the landscape during any major papal event -- there is a shared conviction that the Curia needs purging or renewal.

This has never been more the case than now in the wake of a resigned pope.

Pope John XXIII warred with his Curia and rarely was less than victorious -- at least on the key issues of his pontificate. Although a papal diplomat by training, and a church historian with a deep knowledge of his church, his contacts with the Curia prior to his election were not extensive.

Paul VI was a Curia man par excellence having served in many important capacities during the long tenure of Pius XII. When the Council Fathers sought Curia reform at the Second Vatican Council -- they were close to unanimous in their cry for reform -- Paul reserved reform to himself. Given that he was a product of the very body he was committed to reform the prospects for success were dim. The Council expectation for reform was not met; Paul failed to deliver.

John Paul I barely had time to get acquainted with his haberdasher before God claimed him.

John Paul II was the man from another country -- both literally and metaphorically -- had little familiarity with the Roman governance mechanism, saw his Petrine ministry in global terms and preferred Alitalia to the Byzantine world of the dicasteries.

Benedict XVI, although all his formative scholarly and sacerdotal experience was outside the Roman perimeter, when once called to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, la Suprema, the first in order and priority of all the Vatican departments, acquired enormous influence in and with the Curia.

Over the last half-century then the two popes with the greatest Curial experience were the ones least successful in reigning it in.

If then as the cardinal electors gather, ruminate, discuss papal potentials or papabili, and consider ways to reform the Curia, ways that continue to elude them, they might want to scan the recent historical record and determine the capacity for reform from within by one of their own.


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