All the Pontiff’s Men

How do you get a job on a Vatican council?

Pope Benedict XVI speaks at a meeting of Roman Catholic Church leaders.

Pope Benedict XVI speaks at a meeting of Roman Catholic Church leaders

Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images.

Pope Benedict XVI sent the first papal tweet Wednesday, telling followers “I bless all of you from my heart.” The pope’s tweets will be overseen by a group called the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. How do you wind up on the Pontifical Council for Social Communications?

Get to know someone on the inside. Hiring at the Vatican is informal, without job postings or résumé drop-boxes. In most cases, someone inside the Vatican or a well-connected bishop recommends a colleague, either a member of the clergy or a lay person, he met in school or while working on church business. Specialized training and relevant experience don’t seem to be as important as general competence, because the councils rely heavily on expert consultants to guide them. (The current head of the Council for Social Communications, Claudio Maria Celli, doesn’t have a degree in communications, and he never worked in mass media.) It’s not clear whether the Vatican’s secretary of state or even the pope himself makes the final decision on personnel matters, but it’s possible. For all its influence, the Roman Curia—the administrative structure of the Catholic Church—has fewer than 3,000 employees. To put that into perspective, 12,000 people work at the Wal-Mart headquarters, and turnover is almost certainly higher in Bentonville, Ark. than in Rome.

Most Vatican councils have permanent staff members drawn from the lay population, so you don’t have to join the clergy to work at the Vatican. Some lay people studying at the pontifical universities in Rome have been hired at the Vatican after working as volunteers. Most of the council members who serve as cardinals or bishops come to Italy only for annual or semiannual meetings, giving the lay staff plenty of authority in day-to-day affairs. If you’re certain you want to spend your career serving at the pleasure of the pontiff, though, consider attending the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, a college that serves as the West Point of the Roman Catholic Church. Scores of high-ranking church officials, including five popes, are graduates.

The Roman Catholic Church may seem like an old boys’ club, but it used to be even more exclusive. The second most powerful man in the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages was the cardinal-nephew, a member of the pope’s family chosen for his loyalty to the pontiff, and the word “nepotism” is likely derived from the papal habit of appointing his nephew to high positions. (Papal nepotism extended beyond hiring decisions. Some scholars estimate that the Holy See once spent as much as 5 percent of its annual budget on payments to the pope’s relatives.) Pope Innocent XII sharply curbed the practice of nepotism in the late 18th century, but national-origin discrimination remained an issue. Until the late 1960s, 95 percent of Vatican council secretaries were Italian. The number has since dropped to below 25 percent.

Just as in the U.S. Congress, some committees carry more prestige than others. Those looking to rise quickly through the Vatican bureaucracy should look for a post on one of the congregations, which are generally older and more important than the councils and commissions. The most powerful congregation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, began in 1542 as the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The head of the congregation is the pope’s right-hand man, and membership in the group is seen as a stepping-stone to the papacy, as it was for the current pope. Councils are less likely to feed into higher positions, so don’t expect to move from the Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People directly into the pontiff’s inner circle.

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Explainer thanks Thomas J. Green of the Catholic University of America and Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.