The new Vatican constitution unveiled by Pope Francis on Saturday is, at first sight, a pastoral turning point.
There are many indications of this. There is the title of the document itself: Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), which emphasizes that the reform is geared toward evangelization. The pope becomes the prefect of the new Dicastery for Evangelization, now the first dicastery of the Curia.
The document also highlights the role of local bishops’ conferences, mentioning them 52 times. By contrast, the 1988 document Pastor bonus, the previous Vatican constitution, mentioned them just twice.
Yet this reform goes beyond the theme of evangelization. It is much more than a mere restructuring of the bodies of the Roman Curia. It represents a change of philosophy.
The Curia also becomes, in some ways, a more bureaucratic body. We lose the sense of ancient institutions in the name of better functionality. Bodies such as the Apostolic Camera (Camera Apostolica), which assisted the Camerlengo in managing the Vatican during a papal interregnum, have disappeared completely.
The Secretariat of State
Under the new constitution, the Secretariat of State assumes the role of a Papal Secretariat. This is not new. During the drafting of Pastor bonus, there was a discussion about whether the Secretariat of State should be renamed the “Papal Secretariat” or even “Apostolic Secretariat.”
In the end, the old name was kept because it had a particular historical solemnity. The Vatican secretary of state at the time, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, joked that the seat of his dicastery had carved a “splendid inscription in Latin: Secretaria Status. It would be a shame to have to throw it away.”
Pope Paul VI made the Secretariat of State the central body of the Roman Curia with his 1967 apostolic constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universal. Up to that point, the Secretariat of State had not completely redefined itself since 1870, when the popes’ lost their temporal powers. Thus in the constitution of Paul VI, the Secretariat of State is described as the Secretariat of the Supreme Pontiff, while the 1983 Code of Canon Law also speaks of “the Papal Secretariat.”
Nothing is new in the end. Even in this case, the name “Secretariat of State” is not lost. Its functions, however, become those of a papal secretariat, which will also organize interdicasterial meetings. Of course, the pope’s presence at such meetings is not foreseen in the constitution, but it can be taken for granted. There could, however, be interdepartmental meetings held only by the dicasteries.
The Apostolic Camera
The Apostolic Camera is a branch of the Roman Curia that administers the goods of the Church during the sede vacante period. It is a venerable institution that dates back to the 12th century. It comprises the Camerlengo, the vice-chamberlain, the general auditor, and the college of clerical prelates of the Camera.
But as early as 2020, the title of general auditor and the college disappeared from the Pontifical Yearbook. It was a clear signal of change.
The Apostolic Camera is not mentioned in Praedicate evangelium. According to the new constitution, the Camerlengo — currently the Irish-American Cardinal Kevin Farrell — is assisted by three assistant cardinals. One is the cardinal coordinator of the Council for the Economy and the other two are “identified according to the modalities provided for by the legislation on the vacancy of the Apostolic See and the election of the Roman Pontiff.”
Pope Francis is therefore showing, on the one hand, his intention to put aside all the old colleges (a reform of the Chapter of St. Peter is also underway.) On the other hand, this change is a step towards bureaucratization, because the role of the Camerlengo somehow loses its exceptional nature, given that one of the administrators of the Church will always remain the Vatican “finance minister,” that is the coordinator of the Council for the Economy.
Goodbye, ‘Red Pope’
Founded in 1622, the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, later called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, had substantial autonomy, also from a financial point of view. So much so that its prefect was nicknamed “the Red Pope.”
Under the new constitution, the congregation is merged into the Dicastery for Evangelization, along with the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.
The dicastery will continue to oversee the appointment of bishops in the mission territories. Likewise, it retains its financial autonomy, which was thought to be at risk with the new centralization of investments. Article 92 of the new constitution reads: “The congregation administers its patrimony and other assets intended for the missions through its own special office, without prejudice to the obligation to give due account to the Prefecture for Economic Affairs of the Holy See.”
But the red pope has disappeared. Article 55 of the constitution reads: “The Dicastery for Evangelization is chaired directly by the Roman Pontiff. Each of the two sections is governed in his name and by his authority by two pro-prefects.”
This is a modality that previous popes used to guide the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith up to 1968, believing that questions of faith — the integrity of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals — were central to the governance of the universal Church.
The first section of the Dicastery for Evangelization, which absorbs the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, will be the “section for the fundamental questions of evangelization in the world.” The second section, responsible for the new evangelization and the new particular Churches, is, in fact, the ancient Propaganda Fide.
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith
That Pope Francis considers evangelization to be primary could already be seen from the reform of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, launched in February and now incorporated into Praedicate evangelium.
The division into two sections — disciplinary and doctrinal — makes a clear separation between questions of discipline and those of faith. Before, the basic idea was that even crimes such as child abuse were crimes against the faith.
This de facto separation puts the doctrine of faith on a secondary level, according to Pope Francis’ idea of an “outgoing Church.” But it also puts disciplinary questions first. It’s as if, first of all, it is necessary to clarify everything that obscures the exercise of evangelization.
The inclusion of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should also be read in this way.
The Dicastery for the Service of Charity
The Office of Papal Charities has always been considered part of the “Papal Family” (Familia Pontificalis), rather than a department of the Roman Curia. This is why the Papal Almoner, who runs the office, joins the procession that accompanies state visits to the Vatican and sits next to the pope during the exchange of speeches. The almoner was thus an expression of charity that emanated directly from the pope and had no universal dimension.
The universal characteristic was instead embodied by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which was later merged into the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development. Now, however, the Papal Almoner becomes the head of a “Dicastery for the Service of Charity,” becoming part of the Curia and leaving the Papal Family.
A bond with centuries of history is cut. The peculiarity of a charity emanating directly by the pope is lost, replaced by another body of the Roman Curia.
The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development retains its title under the apostolic constitution, but the old competencies of Cor Unum are not listed among its prerogatives.
The pope’s finances
The Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) is increasingly defined as a sort of central bank of the Holy See. The inclusion of an investment committee (in article 227) should be noted, which ought to serve to avoid mistakes such as that of the investment in the luxury building in London, now the subject of a high-profile trial.
APSA will coordinate all investments in practice and the Institute for the Works of Religion (the IOR, often called “the Vatican bank”) becomes its operational arm. An investment committee was already present within the IOR. It remains to be seen whether this will continue to operate or if APSA will manage all investment expertise.
The laity’s role
There is no longer a distinction between congregations and pontifical councils because all the Vatican’s main departments are now defined as dicasteries. But “dicastery” is a vague word, referring to any office. Therefore, a carefully calibrated element of the 1988 constitution of John Paul II is lost: the collegial relationship between heads of dicasteries and the pope. This is a topic that John Paul II himself addressed when cardinals from all over the world gathered in a consistory to discuss reforms in 1985.
That the heads of the congregations were cardinals and leaders of the pontifical councils at least archbishops reflected the idea that all departmental leaders should have a form of episcopal collegiality with the pope. Moreover, since the congregations were decision-making bodies, it was necessary that their leaders were “princes of the Church,” that is, cardinals, who were on a decision-making level just below that of the pope.
All this changes with the new constitution, with the result that the figure of the pope becomes even more central. Everything now refers to the pope, without a shadow of a doubt. This is not to say that the pope did not have sovereign prerogatives before. But the form of collegiality was respected and set a limit. Now, the only limit to collegiality is the pope himself.
The same applies to the decision that no one in top positions, and no cleric, may serve in the Curia for more than two five-year terms.
This presents two practical problems. If a lay person is called to lead a department, will they accept a position knowing that the role will only last for five years or, at most, 10? What can they accomplish in that time?
A priest must now view his work in the Curia as a “mission.” If his term is limited to 10 years but the laity around him remain for an unlimited time, will they not be able to steer certain decisions in a way that he can’t?
The traditional Mass
The new constitution contains a curiosity: in article 93, in the section dedicated to the new Dicastery for Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, we read: “The Dicastery deals with the regulation and discipline of the Sacred Liturgy as regards the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite.”
Pope Francis had already made it clear, with Traditionis custodes and then with the “responsa” on the motu proprio, that he no longer considered the Old Mass as the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite. And yet the term is enshrined in the new constitution.
The end of careerism?
For Pope Francis, the provisions in the new constitution serve to undermine careerism, unlinking the chains of power formed when people remain in dicasteries for a long time. But there could be some unintended consequences.
With Praedicate evangelium, everything becomes very bureaucratic. The reform changes little at the structural level, and many changes have already been made, but the philosophy underlying the Curia is altered.
The Curia is an organism at the service of the Church which, however, focuses on the role of the pope. As a result, some historical positions are lost that served to define the philosophy of the Curia. Decisions will, in future, be more bureaucratic, and ultimately the role of the pope is emphasized.
After 40 meetings of the Council of Cardinals over nine years, we are faced with a reform that may yet require further finetuning. For example, the constitution opens the way to more lay leadership of dicasteries. But according to canon 129 of the Code of Canon Law, it is those in sacred orders who “are qualified … for the power of governance.” So will canon law be amended?
At a Vatican press conference on Monday, canon law expert Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J., addressed the question of canon 129. He said that the constitution makes the decision that it is not ordination but the canonical mission that counts.
Finally, regarding personnel, there will not be an actual reduction: the heads of departments will be fewer, but the number of employees will remain the same.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!