When the Council of Cardinals met with Pope Francis at the beginning of the month to discuss reform of the Roman Curia and the governance of the Church, one of the topics that came up was the role of the Secretariat of State.
Since the initial reforms of Paul VI in Regimi Ecclesiae Universae, the Secretariat has enjoyed prominence in the Curia, and a dual role: it not only exercised the ministry appropriate to the office, that of foreign relations with states, but also in fact as the lead congregation in the curia, coordinating (theoretically at least) the work of the other dicasteries, and managing the relationship of the bishop of Rome to his brother bishops around the world.
For example, when a new officer in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is needed, they get vetted not only by that Council, but also by the Secretariat of State. Or consider the elaborate and secretive process for the nomination of bishops, managed by each nation’s apostolic nuncio – a diplomatic post.
As I suggested in my wish list, these responsibilities should probably be separated from the foreign relations dicastery. In canon law there is a title for the ecclesiastical officer responsible for managing the bishop’s staff, which is “moderator of the curia”. This person is is often a priest or auxiliary bishop, and is frequently also the vicar general. There is some concern about creating a kind of “vice-pope”, though this is a term sometimes used of the Secretary of State already, unofficially of course.
What the bishop of Rome needs is an archdeacon. This ancient ecclesiastical office has fallen into disuse in the Latin Church, and fallen into confused use in other churches (such as the Anglican Communion).
The archdeacon is normally the senior cleric of a diocese after a bishop. Originally, the archdeacon was in fact a deacon, not a presbyter, the reason being that deacons are called to serve as assistants to the bishop with responsibility for administration and governance, representation of the bishop to the rural clergy (ie, the pastors) and to other bishops, managing the financial and human resources of the diocese for the sake of the mission, etc. This kind of vicarious authority was not originally granted to the presbyterate, whose primary functions were advisory, sacramental, and pastoral.
The offices of vicar general and moderator of the curia derive from the office of archdeacon. You can still find this usage in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, where a “Grand” Archdeacon fulfills part of this function.
In the Anglican Communion, the title archdeacon has been attached to the vicars forane, responsible for a subdivision of the diocesan territory. In the Catholic Church these are generally called deans, in English, and is originally a diaconal role, but not that of the archdeacon. The Anglicans have also kept the late medieval practice of having ordained presbyters fill this role, but this should be avoided (do we have deacons serving as archpriests?)
The offices of vicar forane and episcopal vicar (deans and heads of dicasteries/diocesan offices, respectively) derive from the other early diaconal roles. Perhaps revivifying these ancient offices, restoring the diaconate to its full calling, will help in the reform of the curia.
If Pope Francis were to make use of this ancient and venerable office for contemporary needs, one could see it as something of a Chief of Staff for the Roman Curia, rather than as a kind of vice-pope. (Though, realistically, it would be better having an official ‘vice pope’ than having a personal secretary, master of ceremonies, or Secretary of State assume the role in the vacuum!) The role of the Archdeacon and his office would be to manage the internal organization of the curia, increase coordination and communication among the various dicasteries, and leave the diplomatic foreign relations work to the Secretariat of State.
Maybe the Archdeacon’s office could work to coordinate areas of joint concern, so we never have another Anglicanorum Coetibus or Dominus Iesus faux pas, wherein we find ecumenical or interreligious issues being announced without involvement of the offices responsible for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.
They could also have a central office for ecclesiastical human resources in the curia, working to ensure that the most qualified candidates in the world – lay, religious, or clerical – get into the offices here, rather than some cardinal’s nephew (figuratively speaking, of course). He could work on keeping the curia on mission, and at service to the universal church – especially as the relationship to the Synod of Bishops and the episcopal conferences is expected to change.
But most of all it would seem as something new – not getting confused with the ideas that have arisen around the moderator of the curia title – which in itself should be fine, but because it is often attached to the vicar general or vicar for clergy, could be confused with other offices already in place (such as the two vicars general, one each for the Vatican and the Diocese of Rome; or the prefect of the congregation for clergy which is the Roman curial equivalent of a diocesan vicar for clergy).
Plus, it would be encouragement to dioceses around the world to start looking further back into our tradition for ideas of how to meet the ministry and governance needs of the Church today. If the successor of Peter the Rock can restore the office of Archdeacon, so can the diocese of Little Rock, or anywhere else. This would not only free up a presbyter to get out into the parishes where they are most in need, but restore to the diaconate a stronger sense of its original mission – to extend the ministry of the bishop in matters of governance, administration, and service-leadership.