John O’Malley’s book Trent: What Happened at the Council has many surprises.

His is one of the few (perhaps four) people alive who have read all the dozens of volumes of the proceedings  of the Council of Trent. As Trent’s decisions were framed as laws, it is not easy to understand them without understanding the legislative history – and even popes have misunderstood what Trent really said. For example, it did not intend to settle the question of the wider vs. the narrower canon of the Bible. Trent was, all things considered, irenic. It did not condemn Reformers or their books by name. It also focused on external actions, “If anyone says such and such, let him be anathema, If anyone does such and such…”; not ”If anyone believes…” or “If anyone thinks….”

One reform that Trent took up still has not been fully implemented: a bishop should be resident in his diocese. There are hundreds of bishops in Rome and other cities who carry out administrative duties and are not ordinaries of the diocese. There should be one, and only one bishop, in a diocese, including the diocese of Rome.

Rome’s habit of making bishop and archbishop an honorary title distorts the role of the bishop in the church, which is to oversee a local church. Rome is full of herds of wandering bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, who push papers for a few hours (or watch subordinates think about pushing papers for a few hours) and then occupy seats in coffee shops and restaurants and plot against one another, when they are not up to worse mischief.

There is no theological reason why Vatican bureaucrats have to be bishops, or even priests. The only practical reason is to indulge the snobbery of other bishops, who look down upon mere priests and laity. When Christoph Schönborn, then a Dominican priest and theologian, was given the task of writing the new catechism, he had to write to all the bishops of the world for their opinions. John Paul consecrated Schönborn an auxiliary bishop of Vienna, because bishops would not deign to answer the letter of a mere priest.

My proposal for the reform of the papal curia: send almost all bishops and priests out to work in dioceses. Staff the Vatican with deacons, lay men, and lay women (and lay men and probably lay women could be cardinals, if that were deemed necessary). Also, make Italian, English, and Spanish the three working languages of the Vatican, and specify that to begin working there one must be competent in two of the three and learn the third within five years.  Also, discourage people from making a career of working at the Vatican by rotating them home periodically.

Perhaps after another ecumenical council and in another 500 years, with massive pressure, some of these reforms could be enacted. But I know the power of entrenched bureaucracy.

Leave a Comment