The Roman Curia is the bureaucracy that has grown up around the Pope. In theory, it exists solely at the whim of the Pope and could be dissolved at any time. In practice, the Curia is one of the three major forces in the global Catholic Church--the other two being the Pope and the episcopacy. Unlike the first two, which have clear roots in Catholic theology, the Curia's power lies in its practical control over legal process.

The Curia has traditionally been a reactionary force in Catholicism and in Italy. It became especially powerful in the period between 1850 and 1950 as Catholicism officially became more and more focused on the personal authority of the Pope, which was exercised primarily by the officers of the Curia.

In 1958, Pope John XXIII began moving to liberalize and reform the Catholic church. As part of this effort, he called the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of all the Catholic bishops in the world. The bishops were theoretically superior to the Curia, and by bringing them together in Rome John was able to make an end-run around the Curia to enact the reforms he wished to see. The Curia's resistance to Vatican II reforms, even those explicity supported by the Pope, made it clear that they represented an independent power bloc. The bishops attempt to limit Curial power, but many of the most radical reforms that the bishops had intended to put in place were curtailed by the Curia itself and by the compromising nature of Pope Paul VI, who served from 1963 to 1978. Still, the Curia today is no longer the province only of Italians, and the bishops have been able to assert themsevles much more effectively than they did in the early part of the 20th century.

The Curia is always able to gather increasing power as a Pope gets older, since he must rely increasingly on his assistants to carry out his duties and exercise his authority. Currently, with John Paul II debilitated by Parkinson's disease, the Curia has a great deal of power and has used it, as usual, to push against the liberalizations of the past century. Their ability to make these reactionary moves permanent depends mostly on the lifespan of the current pope and the attitudes of the next.

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