Tradition has it that Julius Caesar was stabbed on the steps of the original Curia, the Senate-House. They say now that it was in the theatre of Pompey. But the modern curia seems to have more than enough stabbings to make up for the change of venue. It's nothing new; things have been building up for some time.
An Italian friend of mine, (not himself anything to do with the Curia) has a close friend who, some fifteen or more years ago, was made a fairly high member of one of the curial offices. He discovered another curial cleric with his hand in the till. Scandalized, he told the thief that he was going to report the man to the authorities. The thief was not fazed much, but said in return 'that's okay; it's easy to find something better'. The report was made, and a month or two later the thief was consecrated an archbishop and a nuncio to a large country. And no, I'm not referring to the Nuncio to the US. This happened several years ago, under Pope John Paul.
It was my belief that Pope Benedict would sort this out; indeed, it was well known that the Curia was getting out of hand under JPII, and I thought that the election of a curial cardinal would be precisely because he would understand how the system worked and, crucially, would know where all the bodies were buried. And as we are now discovering, in some cases there were literal bodies. But, as we have discovered, Pope Benedict has concentrated on other things. Not that I'm complaining; this Pontificate has been one of the most profound and fruitful in hundred of years, imho.
But there remains the problem of the Curia. Messori has said, and he probably has a point, that the real problem is sheer mediocrity. There is also the fact that some curial clerics are on a deliberate career path; the Curia is a way to become a Monsignor before you're thirty-five and an Archbishop before you're forty-five. Some of these priests have no intention of doing any actual pastoral work. Though the quick ascension to the purple or scarlet from the ranks tends to work only if you're Italian; for non-Italian curial officials there tends to be a glass ceiling, I have been told, and higher non-Italian clergy tend to be parachuted in from outside, rather than working their way up.
And here we have a real rub. I have known a few priests in the Curia, good men without question, good pastoral priests, and men who were there, on the whole, reluctantly. One commented to me about how he would sit in his office and type a few letters. He had to be there, but there was nearly nothing to do. Being a good priest, he found one or two pastoral outlets in Rome, but most of his colleagues didn't bother. Another priest friend commented to me about the sheer loneliness of the curial life. There is no sense of community in the big convitti and case de clero where most of these priests live. They get up in the morning, celebrate Mass, eat breakfast, head off to work, come home, eat supper and spend the evening in front of the television. There are none of the joys of priestly ministry, of seeing the faith on the face of a child as he or she receives first Communion, of the happiness when a young protégé first discerns the call to serving the Lord in the priesthood or religious life. There are no warm embraces of families, no profound moments of helping people to die well, no joy at repentant sinners returning to grace...
I think that there are many good priests in the Curia who truly see their work as a self-sacrificing vocation within a vocation. They pray, they celebrate Mass, they hear confessions sometimes, and they see their work as a hidden one in the service of the Gospel. That is how it should be, if this is a suitable job for priests. But perhaps now is the time we should ask ourselves that question.
If this is to continue to be a job for priests, I would suggest:
• That nobody should be appointed to the Curia unless he had served several years in pastoral work.
• That unless he was going to be promoted, he should serve no more than five years, and then should return to his diocese or congregation.
• That unless he was going to be promoted to the next rank, he should serve no more than ten years.
• Ditto, twenty.
• That the (in my opinion, scandalous) legal fiction of creating these office-johnnies bishops stop as soon as it can be managed. Only the Cardinals bishops should be bishops, with real pastoral responsibilities in the suburbicarian sees.
• That the office of Protonotary Apostolic should be the highest title given to curial clergy.
• If they must continue to be made cardinals, it should not involve consecration as a bishop, and should be an honorary red hat, with no right to participate in conclave, and with the scarlet relinquished upon retirement.
But really, would it not be better if the work were conducted by some societies of lay Apostolic life such as Das Werk or even Opus Dei?