Vatican watchers got their first real look at what might be in store for the Church’s central governing apparatus this weekend, when an article appeared in the new edition of Spain’s leading Catholic Vida Nueva weekly. The piece previewed the contents of the highly anticipated and much-ballyhooed Apostolic Constitution, Praedicate Evangelium, the blueprint for the revamp of the Church’s governing apparatus, with which Francis’s electors tasked him at the outset of his pontificate more than six years ago.
There was chatter all week regarding the reform of the Roman Curia — or rather, regarding the preview — after several news outlets got a sneak peek of the sneak peek, and discussed several particulars. Though based on the draft and confirmed by two draftsmen, things could change. In any case, we still have to wait and see the final version of the thing itself. That said, the commentary surrounding the reform and its anteprima has been interesting to observe.
There are a couple of points on which there is general acknowledgment, the first and most significant — at least, the most talked-about — of which is the elevation of the department now known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Often called simply “Propaganda Fide” — the dicastery’s Latin shorthand designation — the Congregation is to absorb the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and be set somehow beyond the reach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
One of the principal architects of the reform, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai — a member of the C6 Council of Cardinal Advisers that drafted the new Constitution — told Vida Nueva the reason for this decision is to give the new super-dicastery pride of place within the Curial system — and that the reason for giving it pride of place is to establish a permanent missionary élan for the whole Roman Curia. “The main point of the new Apostolic Constitution, Praedicate Evangelium, is that the mission of the Church is evangelization,” said Gracias in an exclusive interview with Vida Nueva, portions of which the Spanish weekly shared ahead of the main preview.
“[Praedicate Evangelium] puts evangelization at the center of the Church, and of everything the Curia does,” Gracias said. “Evangelization will be the first dicastery.” That sounds lofty — it might be a lofty goal — but it does not account for what the Curia is, let alone for how it does its work. The problem, in other words, is twofold: it puts ideas above reality; it seeks to put a square peg in a round hole.
Nutshell: The Roman Curia is a power structure — a bureaucracy: making evangelization its goal will not make the Curia fit for ecclesial purpose; it will bureaucratize the Church’s missionary mandate.
Even if it is possible, Propaganda Fide is already a behemoth: it has direct control over the world’s mission territories — including the nomination of bishops — its own holdings and its own budget. Little is known outside the Congregation itself, about how much its holdings are worth or how it spends its money. With transparency being the issue for the Vatican these days, it beggars credulity to think Pope Francis can invest Propaganda Fide with more power and wider latitude, while letting it keep its books closed. At the very least, it will invite more sustained and closer scrutiny.
Charles Collins had an analysis piece for Crux on Friday, in which he discussed, among other things, the likely expanded powers of the Secretariat of State in the new order. The expansion of State’s power is, Collins argued, the result of a confluence of three developments: the reduced role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will no longer be able to check the Secretariat; the discernible lack of financial oversight measures; and the reduction of the number of dicasteries, which will mean fewer red and purple zucchetti. “The fewer there are walking through the loggias of St. Peter’s,” Collins wrote, “the fewer people who can sidestep the Secretariat of State to get to the pope.”
Commentators across the spectrum of opinion recognize the systemic cultural problems within the Curia.
Writing for RNS, Fr. Thomas Reese SJ said, “The Vatican is still organized as an 18th-century royal court where princes (cardinals) and nobles (bishops) help the king (pope) govern the nation (church).” That is a serious issue. Reese went on to say, “The problem with such a structure is that you can’t fire princes and nobles when they prove incompetent.” He concludes the paragraph saying, “The church needs a competent civil service, not a court.”
Reese is not wrong in his conclusion, but the issue when it comes to firing princes and nobles is one of will, not of means. Civil services, moreover, are staffed and operated by civil servants: not known, those last, for being easy to remove. Princes and nobles are arguably removed with greater ease, if only the head man is willing to act.
“Francis made some initial changes in the Curia when he became pope,” Reese wrote, “merging some of the post-Vatican II offices so that fewer people report directly to him.” That’s true in a by-the-numbers sort of way. On the other hand, Francis made himself personally and immediately responsible for the migrants section in the new Dicastery for Integral Human Development.
He has also been at pains to make it clear that the Curia has no power of its own. “All Dicasteries report directly to the Pope,” Francis told high Curial officials in the 2016 Christmas allocution he used to articulate the principles animating his reform effort.
“The new constitution is set to underline the importance of the Vatican and the Roman Curia being at the service of the Pope and local churches,” wrote Christopher Lamb for The Tablet on Monday. A sign of commitment to that purpose was supposed to be the consultation with the world’s bishops, through the bishops’ conferences, on the draft text. The C6 announced that consultation three months ago, and has reportedly asked bishops’ conferences to submit their consultations by the end of May.
The C6 are therefore in for a marathon session if they would account for all the notes the bishops send. It took the Vatican more than six months to organize the meeting on child protection last February. That meeting took place over four days, and had a three-point agenda.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and coordinator of the C6, told Vida Nueva, “[Praedicate Evangelium] offers to the people of God a new and brave perspective of reform in the spirt of Francis.”
Though it is packaged and presented as a reform of the spirit, the new Curia remains a governing apparatus. In 2016, Pope Francis told Curial officials that a lodestar of the reform would be “the principle that all Dicasteries are juridically equal.” Nevertheless, it turns out at least one dicastery will be more equal than others — as must needs be in any functional governing apparatus — and despite assurances, there is at least some uncertainty regarding which dicastery is to be most equal of all.
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