Bureaucracy isn’t sexy. Bureaucratic reform only slightly less so.
Yet, over the past week, that’s exactly the topic that’s had the press buzzing. Allen, Magister, Weigel, Palmo, Lawler, Moynihan, even the shleps at The New York Times—they’ve all focused on the same questions: To what extent does the Curia need reforming? Who can best lead the reform? Who is trying to stop the reform?
Reform of the Curia has become the narrative shaping coverage of the conclave. And since those journalists know that of what they write (with the possible exception of The New York Times), we can safely presume that’s the narrative shaping the prayers, thoughts, and discussions of the cardinals themselves.
What a dull narrative, right? So much less enticing than the narratives which shaped the conclaves of 1978 and 2005, narratives that were all about doctrine and liturgy, engagement and evangelization, narratives which could be understood by those not well versed in the inside baseball lingo of curial politics.
Not so. Not so.
Granted, there are more scintillating topics in the universe than transparency in the Vatican Bank and competency in the Vatican Press Office. But transparency in the Vatican Bank and competency in the Vatican Press Office aren’t really what all these discussions are about.
So what are they about?
They’re about the same things the conclaves of 2005 and 1978 were about. They’re about the same things the Second Vatican Council was about.
They’re about the New Evangelization.
That was brought into focus for me late last week, when my very smart friend Chris said the most astute thing I’ve heard yet about the issues shaping the current conclave.
“It’s a continuation of the Second Vatican Council,” he told me. “Or more precisely, Vatican II set the stage for a new understanding of how the Church must interact with the world. The ramifications of that are being played out right before our eyes.”
And so they are.
The New Evangelization was born in the wake of Vatican II. It’s the name the Church has given to her rekindled engagement with the culture, and it reflects her renewed understanding of her nature: that she doesn’t just have a mission, but rather that she is a mission. She exists in order to evangelize. Which means she exists to proclaim Christ, to lead the world to Christ, and to help the world live in Christ.
The debates that dominated the conclaves of 1978 and 2005 focused on the soul of evangelization. They were about what we proclaim, as well as why and how we proclaim it.
The debate of 2013 builds on what came before. Except this time, it’s about the means by which we proclaim Christ. It’s about the body of evangelization.
To dismiss concerns about curial governance, to think that bureaucratic reforms are unimportant or unnecessary, isn’t just to ignore the reality before our eyes, a reality that reveals serious problems in Church governance and management. It’s also to dismiss the importance of those reforms to the New Evangelization. It’s to dismiss the body.
As Catholics, we know that the body and soul go together, that they are an inextricable union. And just as that’s true of our own bodies, it’s also true of Christ’s Body.
You can have brilliant theology and illuminating interpretations of Scripture. You can have clear vision and penetrating insight. You can have a deep, rich understanding of who man is—his longings, passions, and struggles. You can even have the language to pass all that on to the culture. But without an effective and efficient means of communicating that language, what you’ve got matters a whole lot less.
That’s true on the parish and diocesan level, where brilliant and faithful priests, sisters, and catechists are routinely hampered by layers of outdated bureaucracy, rigid clericalism, creaking technology, and superiors—both the heretical kind and the lazy, fearful kind—who stand athwart changes to The Way Things Have Always Been, yelling “Stop.”
What’s true on the local level is equally true at the universal level. Oftentimes, it’s even more true. Look to Rome for most anything—appointments, permissions, answers, clarifications, rulings—and you’ll likely find it mired deep down in the bureaucratic muck of bygone days.
That’s a problem. It’s a problem because it compromises the message the Church proclaims. It’s a problem because it compromises her ability to proclaim that message. And it’s a problem because it compromises the way the world perceives her proclaiming.
It’s true: Efficiency is not the Gospel. And yes, it’s a good thing the Church thinks in centuries not days. There is much to be said for tradition, thoughtful deliberation, and decisions based upon reflection rather than reaction. A Curia that operates like the Obama War Room is a frightening prospect. But that’s not the type of reform all this talk is about.
Rather, it’s about retooling the body, as we’ve already retooled the soul, for the purpose of mission. It’s about ordering everything to engagement for the sake of evangelization. It’s about, to paraphrase John Paul II, becoming who we are. Reform of the Curia doesn’t mean compromising the Church’s identity. It means letting the Church’s true identity shine forth in the world, unencumbered by an aging, overly Italian husk.
That’s what is at stake this momentous week. That’s why the utterly unsexy topic of bureaucratic reform is front and center both in the press and in the cardinals’ prayers. That’s also why those same cardinals so desperately need our prayers.
The Second Vatican Council set in motion a course redirection for the Church. That course redirection was good, important, and necessary. It has born fruit. It has brought renewal. But we’ve been lurching along in a most ungraceful fashion for ever so long now. Which means the fruit, the renewal, comes far too often in fits and starts.
We can do better. God deserves better, and the culture needs better.
Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years.” Her next book, “These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body,” is due out later in 2013 from Emmaus Road Press,