VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Diversity, communion and evangelization are at the heart of Pope Francis’ new apostolic constitution, “Praedicate Evangelium” or “Preach the Gospel,” enshrining the pope’s central principles in a long-sought reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia.
The long-awaited document was published with relatively little warning at noon on Saturday (March 19) on the Feast of St. Joseph and the ninth anniversary of Francis’ election as pope. While the constitution was created with numerous contributions from bishops conferences, members of the Curia and cardinals, the document strongly reflects Francis’ vision for the future of the Vatican and the Catholic Church.
The new constitution, which some cardinals had requested ahead of the conclave that elected Francis, will replace Pope John Paul II’s 1988 constitution “Pastor Bonus” and will be enacted May 5.
The number of departments and offices that make up the Curia has been reduced from 24 to 16 and will be uniformly called “dicasteries,” hinting at the broadest change brought on by the constitution.
Currently, Vatican offices may only be headed by cardinals and other clerics, but “that is no longer the case,” said Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, who heads the department charged with dispensing sainthoods and who played a key role in the discussions behind the new constitution.
“The term dicastery,” Semeraro told reporters at a news conference on Monday, implies that “all the baptized,” including religious and laypeople, can head this department. “Dicastery is a lay term,” the cardinal said. “Congregation is a cardinal term.”
This innovation implies that legally, a lay woman could become the Vatican secretary of state, the Vatican equivalent of prime minister, though other speakers at the news conference lowered expectations about lay involvement at the Vatican.
“There are dicasteries where it’s more convenient that there be a lay head,” said the Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, professor of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, “others maybe less.” The constitution is to be interpreted as “an opening,” he said, where dicasteries can be headed by any individual who has the appropriate qualifications.
Semeraro added that while there have been numerous calls to diversify the membership of the Council of Cardinals, a group of prelates who advise the pope, the new constitution ignores them, noting that the council “is not part of the Roman Curia.”
The creation of a “super dicastery for evangelization” is among the more attention-getting novelties of the document. Born from the merger between the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of New Evangelization, the new dicastery will be headed directly by the pope.
The new Dicastery for Evangelization becomes the most important in the Curia, trumping the department that currently answers that description, the Secretariat of State. While all dicasteries are to be considered equal, the prevalence given to the Dicastery for Evangelization “expresses the missionary perspective that guided the general vision for curial reform,” said Monsignor Marco Mellino, secretary to the Council of Cardinals.
Francis’ constitution is rooted in a spirit of mission and conversion, Mellino added, without which “the reform would be merely a reorganization of the ecclesial and functional structures.”
The document is filled with appeals to personal and spiritual reform, from prayers to Masses and retreats, emphasizing Francis’ familiar wish that curial members serve the pope and the bishops and not see the Curia as a power in its own right. The document supports this push by limiting officials’ assignments to five years to quell “automatic careerism,” Ghirlanda said. The document also encourages clergy to return to their dioceses or congregation once their terms are up.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, created by Francis in 2014 to address the clerical sex abuse scandals in the church, will officially be a part of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The commission will be charged with enacting laws and regulations to prevent abuse, while the CDF leadership will decide on abuse cases.
“This integration into the Roman Curia shows a special attention to this topic and points to how much the church is acting to prevent that such serious crimes be committed” by clergy members and Catholic faithful, Ghirlanda said.
The papal almoner, Konrad Krajewski, will likely head the new Dicastery for Charity, which will put an emphasis on helping the poor, the vulnerable and the outcasts in Francis’ name.
Reflecting Francis’ principle of “graduality,” many of the most significant changes found in the new constitution have been put in place over time and are only being made official with its publication. Some reforms, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of the Secretariat of State and of the Economy, however, have been made at a quickening pace as the publication of the document approached. Laypeople, for instance, already head some Vatican departments.
The new document is a “tassel” in the ongoing reform, Mellino said, while at the same time cementing past progress. The document, for instance, includes many references to Francis’ idea of synodality, where listening and dialogue are key to the “Ignatian” spirit of the document’s reform, based on the ideas of Ignatius, a co-founder of the Jesuit order that Francis belongs to.
Eastern Rite Catholics and bishops conferences are given special attention in the new constitution in the spirit of a “healthy decentralization,” as Francis puts it.
On the other hand, Francis, in what may come as bad news for bishops in the United States attempting to apply restrictions to the Eucharist for politicians who support abortion rights, withheld some powers for Rome alone: Bishops conferences can only make doctrinal pronouncements on specific matters and with the express consent by the Vatican.
“What is decided by an episcopal conference cannot contradict the universal magisterium,” Ghirlanda said, while adding that the constitution aims at promoting a spirit of communion among bishops.
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