Cleaning up the engine room

If the conclave of 2005 was about continuity—extending the legacy of John Paul II by electing his closest theological advisor as his successor—the conclave of 2013 was about governance.

The College of Cardinals came to Rome convinced that the incapacities of the Roman Curia over the previous eight years had become a serious obstacle to the Church’s evangelical mission; their experience in the General Congregations prior to the conclave hardened that view. So the cardinals elected a proven reformer whose age on assuming the papacy meant that he wouldn’t have to play a long game, but could move swiftly to repair what needs repairing in what Blessed John Henry Newman allegedly referred to as the “engine room” of the Barque of Peter.

What needs repairing, down there below decks?

It’s not only a question of structure and personnel, in my view, but of institutional culture. The cast of mind in the Roman Curia must be changed, so that the entire Curia thinks of itself as its many good people now do: as servants of the new evangelization, not as the 21st-century version of a papal court.  That means that those curialists who think of themselves as courtiers must either be converted to a different self-understanding or replaced.

Thus a first, specific suggestion for curial personnel reform: strict term limits, by which men and women of proven ability from all over the world would come to Rome to serve the universal Church for a maximum of 10 years before returning to their local churches. Service in the Roman Curia would cease being a way to punch one’s ticket for higher ecclesiastical office; it would be a sacrifice.

Then there is language. It’s sometimes assumed that the majority of curialists will always be Italian, which means that Italian-language competence is essential to effective curial service. But why must the majority of curial workers be Italians? The U.N. draws its personnel in New York, Geneva, Vienna and other locales from all over the world; English is the working language; why should the Roman Curia be different? Because it’s in Rome?

Well, no, not really. The Vicariate of Rome runs the Diocese of Rome for the pope, and of course, its personnel should be of local origin. But the Roman Curia exists to support the bishop of Rome in his mission as universal pastor of the Church and its personnel should reflect that global mission—as should its working language.  It will take some time to change this, to be sure. But the first head of a curial department who insists on conducting the department’s business in the world language—English—will be doing the entire Church a big favor by modeling a different, more universalist approach to running the engine room.

As for structure, the first order of business is getting the proliferation of “pontifical councils” under control, merging some, eliminating others, and reducing many of these entities to the in-house think-tanks they were originally intended to be, rather than the document-producing bureaucratic machines they’ve become. There will be exceptions: the Pontifical Council for the Laity would still run World Youth Days and be the Roman contact-point for renewal movements and new Catholic communities; Cor Unum would continue to oversee the Vatican’s international development work. But departments like the pontifical councils for the Family, for Justice and Peace, and for Culture would become research centers in their fields, not mini-cabinet departments—and in that new configuration, there is no reason why (with appropriate changes in Church law) they couldn’t be run by lay people.

And then there is integrity. When members of the Roman Curia do not live the lives expected of deeply converted and mature Christian disciples, they must be replaced: not as a matter of retribution in the wake of financial or sexual misbehavior but as a matter of safeguarding the mission. The Church’s ability to preach the Gospel is severely compromised when churchmen lead dishonest lives. Integrity is one key to mission-effectiveness in the evangelical Catholicism of the 21st century.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.