Arnulfo di Cambio's statue of
Saint Peter in the Vatican Basilica
dressed in papal vestments
The current situation is tragically reminiscent of the Church’s fateful mistake after the Fifth Lateran Council which was held in Rome from 1512-1517. This Council, admittedly convoked with reluctance by Julius II—not one of the most holy men to sit on the Throne of Peter—and concluded under his successor, the no better Leo X Medici, passed a substantial corpus of much needed reform legislation. Given that it concluded in March of 1517 and Luther issued his opening challenge on the last day of October that same year, it probably was too late to have prevented Luther’s Reformation, but had Lateran V been taken seriously and implemented, the doctrines of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, the Anabaptists, Zwingli and others may well not have found Europe a tinder-box and spread like wildfire. In fact, the reforms of the Council were never implemented. Curial prelates and residential bishops alike saw that the mandated reforms undermined their power, their influence, and their wealth. The price of reform was more than those with an invested interest in the institutional structures of the church were willing to pay. Bishops, abbots, monks and priests, individuals, religious orders, cathedral chapters, and theological faculties, were granted exemptions, dispensations, and leaves permitting them to escape the onerous burdens of reform mandated by the Council. All for fees and favors, of course. As the inn-keeper Thernadier was inclined to sing:
"Doesn't cost me to be nice
But nothing gets you nothing
Everything has got a little price!"
And so after much fanfare, the Council did not fulfill its dream. There was a Reform, of course—a whole series of reforms— but reforms and reformers that fractured the unity of the Church in an attempt to restore its purity. Sometimes today when I am lunching at Da Roberto in the Borgo Pio and I see a Cardinal hosting an Argentine bishop or a Curial Monsignor dining with some wealthy Americans and I note the envelope being passed from supplicant to curial benefactor, I can only think of Luther’s lament: “Everything is for sale in Rome” and reflect that the greatest failure of the Second Vatican Council was its inability to Reform the Curia Romana. The Curia had never wanted a Council in the first place. John XXIII sprung it on them without warning. They protested that an infallible pope had no need of a Council; he could govern by decree. John knew better, of course, but it did not stop the Curial party from an attempt to seize the Council by drawing up a series of rather pallid and vague decrees that were mostly rhetoric and very little substance. Their thought was the bishops will come, vote approving our schema, and go home. The bishops did anything but. By the end of the first session—what the curial party had thought would be the only session —the bishops had persuaded the pope to restructure the entire Council and its processes to give the bishops full and active participation in both drawing up the decrees to be voted on and then actually voting. The Council marked a tremendous about face for the Church on any number of issues from ecumenism and dialogue with non-Christian religions to a total revision of the Mass and Sacramental Rites of the Church to articulating an active role for the laity and shared responsibility of the bishops with the Pope in the governance of the Church. The Curia was alarmed. They shared responsibility with the Pope for governing the Church. Who were these bishops to usurp their place? They were in panic. The bishops, or at least a select number of them, would be returning to Rome on a regular basis for “synods” to advise the pope. But that was their job as the Curia. They need not have worried. Bishops go home, curial officials whether mighty Cardinals or merely pezzi-grossi monsignors stay. Like cockroaches they stay. They took over preparing the agenda for the synods. They drafted the interpretation of the Conciliar decrees. They had 24/7 access to the pope 365 days a years. It took time, but the Curia Romana emerged stronger than ever. The Bishops gradually lost the power and authority given to them under the Conciliar Decree, Christus Dominus (which I sincerely doubt many bishops even bother to read anymore). These days the bishops parade to Rome for their ad liminas to be scolded by a series of Monsignors brandishing letters from disgruntled faithful who accuse the bishops of tolerating dissent or being themselves dissenters. When a synod is convoked, its agenda is prepared in advance by the Curia, speeches are vetted, and a dish of good Roman carbonara is enjoyed by all with a glass of crisp Trebbiano. I don’t begrudge the pasta and wine, but the need is far more urgent to set a vision which will bring the Church together in mission, the mission of Christ. Without vision the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18)