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Analysis: New Vatican constitution to centralize power in state secretariat

“The [new constitution’s] preamble says a lot about collegiality and subsidiarity,” one long-serving curial official told CNA, “but this is just the total centralization of power in the office of the Secretary of State.”

(Image: Lin Yu Xin | Unsplash.com)

By Ed Condon

Vatican City, Jul 2, 2019 / 03:15 pm (CNA).- Last week, Bishop Marcello Semeraro, secretary of the pope’s C6 Council of Cardinal Advisors announced that the group hoped to present Francis with a final draft of a new Vatican constitution in September.

Praedicate Evangelium, as the new governing document for the Roman curia is to be called, completes the reforming work already begun of combining various smaller Vatican departments into a more streamlined structure.

Focus on the forthcoming changes has largely fixed on the perception that a reformed and enlarged Dicastery for Evangelization will be “ranked above” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the change said to imply a shift in priorities for the universal Church.

In fact, a recent draft of Praedicate Evangelium obtained by CNA proposes a far more significant change in the governing structure of the Church, one which represents a consolidation of power in Rome unprecedented in the modern era.

With a single exception, all of the Vatican departments – currently styled as Secretariats, Congregations, or Pontifical Councils, depending on their size and scope – are renamed “dicasteries.” While the reformed Dicastery for the Evangelization is listed first, there is no legal order of precedence or priority attached to it or its work, and all dicasteries are, in the words of the draft text, “juridically equal among themselves.”

The single exception to this new uniform designation is the Secretariat of State, which retains its traditional name and is unquestionably the “first” Vatican department under the new constitution.

The most dramatic reform proposed in the current draft of Praedicate Evangelium is the effective ending of any curial department’s ability to exercise papal governing authority on a stably delegated basis.

The draft text lays down that a curial department “cannot issue laws or general decrees having the force of law, nor can it deviate from the prescriptions of the universal law” except on a case-by-case basis “approved specifically by the Supreme Pontiff.” It further provides that any “important, rare, and extraordinary affairs” cannot be treated by the prefect of the dicastery unless and until he has cleared the matter with the pope and received his approval.

Legally, this means that the pope must personally approve every authoritative decision to emerge from a curial department – an historic recentralization of Roman power into the person of the pope.

Closely related to the end of curial departments’ ability to exercise the power of governance is another historic proposed reform: that lay people can serve as the head of any dicastery.

Canon law defines ordination as a necessary qualification for the exercise of the power of governance. Lay people – according to the Code of Canon Law – can “cooperate” in the exercise, but not exercise it in their own right. Removing the stable exercise of delegated governing authority from all dicasteries is a legal necessity, either as cause or effect, for allowing lay prefects to lead a given department.

Many canonists and curial officials who have seen the draft privately warn it could prove a recipe for administrative gridlock.

“Imagine if the American president said that every binding decision taken by an executive department had to cross his desk and receive his personal approval – it is impossible, there is not time, nothing will get done,” one serving curial archbishop told CNA.

Deciding which matters arrive on the papal desk to receive the pope’s time, attention, and approval – and which do not – would, under the new constitution, effectively determine which areas of Church governance Rome chooses to control. Here again, the singular status of the Secretariat of State is underlined.

Unlike a “dicastery,” which can be headed by a lay person, Praedicate Evangelium provides that the Secretariat of State must be led by a cardinal, currently Cardinal Pietro Parolin. This department is placed in charge of coordinating the work of the dicasteries and, through meetings with the heads of those departments, “making decisions that will be proposed to the Supreme Pontiff.”

The Secretariat of State’s section for general affairs is also given charge of drafting governing legal documents, including apostolic constitutions, letters of decree, and apostolic letters, and of processing those acts which have been presented for personal papal approval.

“The [new constitution’s] preamble says a lot about collegiality and subsidiarity,” one long-serving curial official told CNA, “but this is just the total centralization of power in the office of the Secretary of State.”

“Nothing can be done without the pope’s approval, and nothing gets to the pope except through [Cardinal Parolin] – it’s the creation of a vice-regency.”

Praedicate Evangelium’s blueprint for the new curia places considerable emphasis on regular meetings among the heads of dicasteries and the need for “collegiality, transparency and concerted action.”

One archbishop, currently serving in a senior curial role said that while these were “noble principles,” the result could be “inefficiency by design.”

“It is an essentially Soviet model. Lots of meetings, lots of discussion, but in the end the Secretary [of State] decides what will happen.”

Asked about the difficulty in securing papal approval for every authoritative decision, the archbishop told CNA “that is the design.”

“The pope cannot decide everything, that is why we have a curia to begin with. This pope above all hates meetings and this was understood [by the drafting committee]. It creates a filter, what it is decided he should approve he can approve, what is not, he will simply not receive.”

Curial officials familiar with the drafting process told CNA that the apparent centralization of administrative power in the Secretariat of State was deliberately counterbalanced with new, expanded recognition of national bishops’ conferences.

In the section describing the reformed Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Praedicate Evangelium refers to the “primary responsibility” of bishops and bishops’ conferences for the particular Churches and makes specific reference to the “genuine doctrinal authority” enjoyed by them.

On measures related to “protecting the faith,” the reformed CDF is to work in close cooperation with local bishops’ conferences, “above all [on] the issue of authorization for teaching in the Church, where the Dicastery will apply the principle of subsidiarity.”

One senior official told CNA that “This idea of episcopal conferences having genuine doctrinal authority is very dangerous. We have seen so much confusion just on Communion for the divorced and remarried, now we say what? The Germans can decide what they like with a vote and that is genuine teaching authority?”

One archbishop given sight of the draft told CNA that the plan amounted to “a blueprint for federalism.”

“If you want to see one authentic teaching in Germany and another in Poland, this is how you achieve it.”

The document is still in the process of revision. Pope Francis met with the C6 in June to discuss the comments and suggestions received on the draft text, after it was circulated among the presidents of national bishops’ conferences, dicasteries of the Roman Curia, Synods of the Eastern Churches, conferences of major superiors, and select pontifical universities.

Bishop Semeraro called it “an intense process of listening,” though the feedback has been stinging in some quarters.

Several curial staffers from different departments told CNA that their congregations had returned “pages of suggested revisions,” and expressed deep concerns about the document’s proposed centralization of curial operations and the doctrinal latitude it appeared to give episcopal conferences.

One curial bishop told CNA that “Everyone is talking about the effects for the CDF, and I suppose those are the most dramatic, but this touches everything – the Church’s teaching underpins all parts of ecclesiastical life, liturgy, clerical discipline, how we evangelize. Now, we have a new system designed to create exactly the sort of problems the curia exists to resolve.”

“Everything touching power and money goes to State. Everything else is thrown to the wind.”

It remains to be seen how closely the final version of Praedicate Evangelium will resemble the current draft, and significant changes could well be implemented in the coming months. In the meantime, many are concerned that if Rome becomes unable to speak clearly, it is the Church’s essential mission to preach the Gospel that would suffer.


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7 Comments

  1. The new draft proposal, Praedicate Evangelium, calls to mind the reverse situation of 13th-century Pope Gregory IX. As for the two somewhat similar solutions, the misfit cries out to heaven, if there is a heaven…Today, where is the equivalent to the God-sent life ring of the non-territorial Mendicant Orders?

    This from Christopher Dawson (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture): “An international body of this kind [Dominicans and Franciscans], detached from local territorial obligations and private interests, had always been a great need of the reformed Papacy, and therefore the creation of the Mendicant Orders together with the foundation of the universities marks the culmination of the movement towards international and superpolitical unity which was the ideal of medieval Christendom.”

    The opposite problem statement today is what to do in the collapse of Christendom (not its rise) and loss of spirit in the West as a whole, especially including the universities? Not how to surf the wave of rising Christendom, but without being sucked undere how to evangelize the wreckage, how to leaven the rabbit-hole of mosaic globalism, how also to still anchor and govern at least the Barque of Peter, e.g., with a functional Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    So, deconstruction of the curia and centralization in the hands of Cardinal Parolin and the Secretariat of State (yes, as of old, “superpolitical!”), all with an exclusively-singular priority on Evangelization?

    Where inevitable “gridlock” is feared, perhaps such an institutional architecture is actually intended…Then, the risked incoherence of divergent and synodal national bishops conferences will be met with, what—silence, and the unity of the nostalgically institutional/charismatic Church (both) will go quietly in the night.

    Instead of the Mendicant Orders augmenting the diocesan structure, and directly accountable to the Papacy, we have somewhat the opposite—a territorial (109 acres but also global) structure, on paper accountable to the Papacy, disinterested (?), and necessarily only selectively attentive to a field of still-undefined local synods. From the long view of history, there can be no formal schism if there is no formal “unity” (a Classical concept no longer of great relevance).

    Or, perhaps the Secretariat’s Cardinal Parolin of the “new paradigm” Church has overplayed his hand and maneuvered himself out of consideration as the favored papabile for the next conclave.

    Or perhaps what we have is a fitting proposal daring in its simplicity, but one dancing at the edge of fideism–not exactly a “new paradigm” under the sun.

    But, in time, perhaps the Holy Spirit is at work in ways we cannot see. In that case: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

  2. This move finishes the evil work begun under Pope Paul VI, who “reorganized” the Roman Curia, and DEMOTED the Sacred Congregation for the Faith, which stood for centuries above all others, and PROMOTED in its place The Vatican Secretary of State.

    Now “Cardinal” Parolin and Pope Francis finish the evil work begun 50 years ago, and choose “The World” and suffocate “The Faith.”

    That signifies what matters to these decadent men – their personal Amazonian Cosmovision: their place in The World.

  3. Someone may have a good time writing the history of the patriarchate of Rome subsequent to Vatican II, once they get to Pope Francis…

  4. Dissolution of the CDF was from the start a primary objective of Pope Francis. We’re familiar with that gradual dissolution, the painful reinstatement by the Pontiff of notorious homosexual clerics [Fr Inzoli among the notoriously eminent] over objections of the CDF, the imperious dismissals of effective staff, the humiliation and ‘retirement’ of Cardinal Gerhard Mueller. The Congregation has 16th century origins as The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition as it was renamed 1588 by Sixtus V the offshoot of the Roman Inquisition 1542 Paul III. It was initiated to preserve the true doctrines of the Catholic faith amidst Reformist heresy, and has served as the bulwark of orthodoxy until 2013. Within the Curia it held supremacy now a vacuous shell no longer a barrier to advancement of the New Paradigm. The Archbishop cited in this article correctly describes a federal deformation of the Roman Curia with power centered in the Secretary of State insuring abolition of orthodoxy in favor of diversity, a platitude for heterodoxy. The subject of Curia deformation was covered earlier the CDF long a corpse among other dead bodies except for Proganda Fides. Evangelization now exhorted with gusto by Pope Francis to the German Bishops Conference. “Go out into the byways call in the marginalized to fill the empty pews!” Called in by what and by whom? If the CDF is a corpse Propoganda Fides is now a Zombie. A veritable church within the Church appears in the making regardless of preferences. What we do know with absolute certitude is that the faith exclaimed by Thomas in the Risen Christ remains alive and well in that Apostolic Tradition.

    • I would be a lot more at peace about this situation if the Cardinal who is Secretary of State were Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val or someone like him.

  5. So this Archbishop Peña Parra, the one that Vigano’ is now trying to expose, is now number 2 at the Secretariat of State? Have I got that right?

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