Lesson 12: Preparing for the Pope’s Visit– Curiae and Bishops

Council of BishopsLast week, I wrote of the tension between the Pope being regarded as the first among equals and a supreme monarch. This week, I want to delve deeper into the conflict between the Roman Curiae and the College of Bishops. In order to understand what is going on with Francis, you have to understand this ongoing struggle.

Most people are not aware we are talking about two distinct bodies. The Curiae is the group of officials handling the day to day affairs of the Vatican. The College of Bishops is the body of bishops from all over the world who meet together at times to address special issues that arise. The Pope usually does not attend these gatherings. However, because there is overlap between the two groups, members of the Curiae who are bishops can voice his positions.

A little history helps a lot. In the early days the Bishop of Rome was elected by the clergy around the city. It was not until 1059 that the election was given to the cardinals. Remember that cardinals are bishops elevated by the Pope. In some respect, the present pope has the power to influence greatly who his successor will be. Incidentally, any baptized man is eligible for election to pope.

The Roman Curiae were simply the secretaries needed for the Bishop of Rome to function. As his power grew, so did the numbers and authority of the Curiae. Eventually, it became a large bureaucracy that became necessary to handle the greatly increased workload of a monarch.

As usually happens with a bloated bureaucracy, people think it controls the Pope rather than vice versa. They contend it is the perfect example of how power corrupts. And the Curiae has often been involved in scandals, such as the corruption associated with the Vatican Bank. Indeed, some believe that Benedict resigned, because he was frustrated with his inability to reform the Curiae.

Tensions developed between the Curiae and the College of Bishops for a number of reasons. For instance, even though the Pope presented himself as first among equals, he could pretty much do as he wanted because it was difficult to gather the bishops. Often, ecumenical councils were held with only a few in attendance. Indeed, Popes sometimes called them at times and places that assured only those favoring his positions would be there.

This tension was exacerbated when almost all the popes and most of the cardinals were Italians from 1378 to 1978. In other words, they were products of the Curiae who perpetuated its power. Their loyalty was with them rather than the bishops.

There were constant efforts to counter the rise of the Curiae. For almost two centuries, from the 1200s to the 1400s, the Conciliar Movement tried to give ultimate authority to gatherings of the bishops rather than the Pope. In many ways, the Reformation continues this movement.

When Pope Pius IX called and then manhandled the First Vatican in 1870, many believed there was no longer a need ever to call the College of Bishops together again. However, John XIII gathered them in the 1950s, at least partially to balance the power between the Curiae and the bishops. Again, after Vatican II, the bishops returned to their sees throughout the world and the Curiae set to work undoing the reforms.

Now, Francis’ election has reaffirmed the position of the bishops. He immediately began reforming the Curiae, demoting some conservatives and demanding accountability from the Vatican Bank.

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