On June 5th, the Feast of Pentecost, the charter for a substantial reform of the structures of the Roman Curia went into effect. Issued by Pope Francis without fanfare on March 19, 2022 and marking the entry into the tenth year of his pontificate, the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium (Proclaim the Good News) is the product of years of extensive consultation with his Council of Cardinals, episcopal conferences and all offices of the curia.
Francis refers to the mandate received to carry out this reform from the cardinals who elected him. His proposed structural reform builds upon a sustained effort to reform the culture of those working within curial institutions, which he has envisioned as first and foremost a process of inner renewal. One might reread his annual Christmas greetings to the curia as a challenging set of spiritual exercises that invite the domineering and complacent careerists among them to rediscover ministry as service. These Christmas addresses recall that ecclesial structures exist not for themselves, but to serve the realization of the church’s mission to proclaim God’s merciful love.
The dominant note of Praedicate Evangelium is one of co-responsibility and of mutual collaboration in the service of that mission. It marks a step toward a fuller reception of the Second Vatican Council’s insights into the collegial nature of episcopal ministry and the co-responsibility of the baptized faithful for the life and mission of the church. The Council’s Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops expressed the wish that offices of the curia be reorganized to better serve the diverse needs of the churches in a new time. Yet the post-conciliar reforms of popes Paul VI and John Paul II failed to translate these insights effectively into practice. Paul VI carried out initial reforms by making the new Secretariat for Christian Unity a permanent fixture and creating new dicasteries for the laity and for justice and peace— the latter a direct response to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (GS 90). He also moved toward a greater internationalization of its staff, long dominated by Italians.
Where the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops spoke of the curia as functioning “for the good of the churches and in service to the sacred pastors [bishops]” (CD 9), the 1983 Code of Canon Law described the curia as working in the name and with the authority of the pope but neglected to mention its service to the bishops. The statutes introduced by Pope John Paul II in 1988, Pastor Bonus, emphasized the maintenance of “communion” conceived largely in juridical and universalizing terms, and gave rise to a highly centralized and controlling curial culture. French ecclesiologist Hervé Legrand observes that in the last half century the size of Vatican personnel doubled and the number of curial bishops quadrupled. Decrees emanating from the dicasteries were vested with increasing juridical and doctrinal weight, effectively reducing the doctrinal authority of the college of bishops to a “fiction.”
The Franciscan reform, aimed at reversing this dynamic, is recovering centripetal force through a “healthy decentralization” that sees the local churches as distinct centers of mission with diverse needs, and their bishops as sharing in the Pope’s care for the communion of all the churches. It reflects a more collegial style in the exercise of papal authority and places the curia at the service of the bishops in their role as local pastors.
Praedicate Evangelium opens the door to a radical shift in its recognition that within a truly synodal church, the dynamic of co-responsibility extends to all the baptized faithful, the gifts of whom the curia has need. A strong current of canonical and theological thinking has it that any exercise of authority or juridical power in the church is necessarily rooted in the sacrament of priestly ordination. Praedicate Evangelium contends that the staff of the Roman dicasteries act “by virtue of the power received from the Roman Pontiff in whose name it operates.” Given the vicarious nature of this power, Francis has determined that “any member of the faithful can preside” over the various offices, as the baptized are called to be missionary disciples. They are qualified, not by ordination, but by their competency, learning, experience and personal virtue. Competency takes precedence over loyalty or clerical caste. The appointment of religious or lay women and men to staff the Roman dicasteries is no innovation. But Praedicate Evangelium opens the way toward a greater presence of non-ordained staff and to their increasing share of responsibility and leadership.
While the reordering of the dicasteries is now complete on paper, Francis has yet to appoint new leaders to carry forward their redefined roles or to replace those who have exceeded the normal age of retirement or term limits. It is a fair bet that the many delays in the implementation of these reforms signal that he continues to labor in the face of strong headwinds. Francis has placed the reforms of Praedicate Evangelium at the center of his agenda for the extraordinary consistory of the College of Cardinals planned for August 29-30, an indication that they remain an urgent priority. Stay tuned. And may the winds of Pentecost continue to breathe new life into the church.
Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.