A Vatican office led by a cardinal or archbishop has no more authority than one led by a layperson because all offices of the Roman Curia act in the name of the pope, said experts presenting Pope Francis' new constitution on the Curia's organization.
"Whoever is in charge of a dicastery or other organism of the Curia does not have authority because of the hierarchical rank with which he is invested, but because of the power he receives from the Roman pontiff and exercises in his name," said Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the canon lawyer who helped draft the document.
The constitution, "Praedicate Evangelium" ("Preach the Gospel"), was published in Italian by the Vatican March 19, and experts involved in its development, including Father Ghirlanda, spoke at a Vatican news conference March 21.
The document, emphasizing that the Curia supports the pope and local bishops in the church's mission of evangelization, said that because every baptized Christian is called to be "a missionary disciple," the reform of the Curia also needed to "provide for the involvement of laymen and women, including in roles of governance and responsibility."
"If the prefect and the secretary of a dicastery are bishops, this must not lead to the misunderstanding that their authority comes from the hierarchical rank they have received, as if they were acting with a power of their own and not with the vicarious power conferred on them by the Roman pontiff," Father Ghirlanda said. "The vicarious power to carry out an office is the same whether received by a bishop, a priest, a consecrated man or woman, or a lay man or woman."
Replacing "Pastor Bonus," St. John Paul II's 1988 constitution, the new document opens the leadership of all but two offices of the Curia to laypeople: the prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, the church's highest court; and the president of the Council for the Economy.
Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, who served as secretary of Pope Francis' international Council of Cardinals from 2013 to 2020, when much of the work on the constitution was being done, told reporters the pope's decision to open most leadership roles in the Curia to laity was one way in which the document attempts to put into fuller practice the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and, specifically, its focus on the dignity and responsibility of the laity.
"For me personally, Marcello Semeraro, this is something beautiful," he said. "To put at the head of a dicastery, and not only on its staff, a member of the lay faithful -- this is an important fact."
Father Ghirlanda told reporters that by opening Curia leadership roles to laypeople, Pope Francis clarified a matter that had been debated by canon lawyers since the Second Vatican Council. The new constitution, he said, "confirms that the power of governance in the church does not come from the sacrament of orders, but from the canonical mission" given to the person.
"Obviously, there are and will be dicasteries where it is more suitable to have laity -- for example the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life because it is a sector where they live and have more experience -- and others where perhaps it is less suitable, but there is no established exclusion, just good sense."
At the same time, Father Ghirlanda said, the constitution "does not abrogate canon law" or the hierarchical structure of the church, which, for example, reserves the celebration of the sacraments, the office of pastor and the judgment of other clerics to priests and bishops.
Bishop Marco Mellino, the current secretary of the Council of Cardinals, told reporters that the idea is not simply to name laypeople to more offices, but to evaluate the needs and responsibilities of the specific dicasteries and find appropriate people to lead them.
The constitution, Cardinal Semeraro said, specifies that the choice will be based on the dicastery's "particular competence, power of governance and function."
"So, it cannot be just anyone," he said. "But I would add, this 'not just anyone' goes also for a cleric, a religious or a layperson. The fact that I'm a bishop does not mean that I can be competent in leading a dicastery."