ROME — Nine years in the making, the fruit of at least 40 meetings of the pope’s special Council of Cardinals from around the world, intended to represent the local church of every continent, not to mention countless hours of consultations, a sweeping new constitution for the Roman Curia, meaning the central governing bureaucracy in the Vatican, finally saw the light of day on March 19.
“Praedicate Evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel”) is described as an effort to provide a mission-oriented framework on everything about the Roman Curia in the Vatican. It replaces “Pastor Bonus” (“Good Shepherd”), which St. Pope John Paul II promulgated on June 28, 1988, and takes effect on June 5, the feast of the Pentecost.
For all the buildup and anticipation surrounding the document, its release was surprisingly anticlimactic.
The 23,000-word text was released Saturday by the Vatican Press Office with no accompanying commentary, normally customary for such a major text, and only in Italian, with a press conference to present it not scheduled until the following Monday — all of which suggests that, despite months of labor, the endgame wasn’t really considered until, well, the very end.
Herewith, five main takeaways from the pope’s overhaul.
1. Power to the laity
In terms of news value, the big headline from the new apostolic constitution was Pope Francis opening the door for a layperson, thus including a laywoman, to head any department of the Roman Curia. The key line comes in chapter two, section five, in which the constitution states that “any baptized person can preside over a dicastery or organism, depending on their competence, power of governance, and function.”
In effect, “Praedicate Evangelium” settles a long-running debate about the Roman Curia. Since the heads of many Vatican departments exercise what is known as “vicarious authority” in the name of the pope, meaning the ability to make decisions in the pope’s name, some canon lawyers and theologians have argued that the person wielding that authority must be in holy orders. That’s ordinarily how vicarious authority is transmitted, and the question heretofore has never been officially settled.
Now, Pope Francis appears to have settled it.
2. Mum on money
One point “Praedicate Evangelium” does not address, however, is the matter of a just wage for lay Vatican employees. Salaries in the Vatican are notoriously low, and, although jobs are generally secure, working conditions can be a bit dismal.
If the Vatican is to attract the sort of high-level, internationally qualified laity who would be required to head major departments, will they be willing to put their money where their mouth is, especially in an era of declining income and annual financial crises?
One not-so-encouraging development in that regard was a recent decision to expand the period of parental leave for new fathers in the Vatican — from a surreal one day, to an almost equally paltry three.
3. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
Nine years ago, at the dawn of the Pope Francis reform, it was widely believed that one cornerstone would be clipping the wings of the Secretariat of State. The view was that the Vatican’s most important department had become too big, too powerful, and too controlling.
Pope Francis took one critical step in that direction early on by creating a new Secretariat for the Economy, effectively taking away the power of the purse.
That “reform” didn’t last long, however, and now, in “Praedicate Evangelium,” it is specified that the Secretariat of State, “since it’s the papal Secretariat, aids the Roman Pontiff in a close way in the exercise of his supreme mission.”
In other words, we started by wanting to trim down the Secretariat of State as the Vatican’s 800-pound gorilla. In the end, it’s become more akin to the 1,600-pound gorilla of the place.
4. A new home for anti-abuse efforts
Another important move contained in “Praedicate Evangelium” is making the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, created by Pope Francis in 2014 to be the “tip of the spear” in terms of the Vatican’s efforts to respond to the clerical sexual abuse scandals, a part of the newly minted Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In effect, the move gives the commission a home inside the Vatican. Up to this point, it’s been essentially an entity unto itself, reporting only to the pope.
For fans of the decision, it upgrades the status of the Pontifical Commission by making it part of one of the Vatican’s most important departments.
“Linking the commission more closely with the work of the new Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith represents a significant move forward in upgrading the place and mandate of the commission, which can only lead to a stronger culture of safeguarding throughout the Curia and the entire Church,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the commission since its inception.
Critics, however, see it as swapping the commission’s independence and critical edge for submission to the corporate Vatican line.
“When I was on the commission, we got a lot of resistance to our work from the (doctrinal congregation) … they basically felt that we were interfering. And that, I believe, is the norm in the Vatican — they really do not like anyone who are seen as outsiders coming in,” renowned abuse survivor Marie Collins told The Irish Catholic.
On Twitter, Collins was blunter: “The Commission has now officially lost even a semblance of independence,” she wrote.
5. Term limits
The new constitution also establishes that for clerics and religious serving in the Roman Curia, they’ve got five years, a mandate that can be renewed for a second five-year term. After that, however, they’re supposed to return to their dioceses or religious orders.
“As a rule, after five years, clerical Officials and members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life who have served in curial institutions and offices return to pastoral care in their diocese/parish, or in the Institutes or Societies to which they belong,” it says.
“Should the Superiors of the Roman Curia deem it opportune, the service may be extended for another period of five years.”
To some extent, this merely codifies existing practice, although heretofore it was never explicitly stated that clergy working in the Vatican have to leave after a maximum of 10 years.
To those who find the move positive, it’s seen as a blow to careerism and an important statement about the importance of the local church. To detractors, usually somebody is just starting to figure the Vatican out after five years, and so this isn’t so much about fresh blood as needlessly getting rid of anyone with real experience and perspective — which, among other things, likely strengthens the internal control by the Secretariat of State even further.
As ever, we’ll see how things play out in practice. At this stage, what can be said with confidence is that after Pope Francis, the Roman Curia will never be the same.