New statutes for the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, announced by the Vatican on Tuesday, have a number of additions compared to its initial regulations released 2016 and offer a glimpse into how this pontificate’s priorities are evolving. 

Signed by Pope Francis on April 10, the revamped statutes of the “super-dicastery” include new emphases on synodality, young people, women, and pastoral care for those in “irregular” unions. 

They come into force on May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. 

The Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which Pope Francis founded by motu proprio in August 2016, aims to help inspire and promote the laity’s vocation and mission in the Church, assist in the pastoral care and support of families, and to provide assistance and coordination to initiatives protecting life from conception until natural death. 

American Cardinal Kevin Farrell is the dicastery prefect whose staff include a Secretary who may be a layperson (he is currently Brazilian Father Alexandre Awi Mello) and two undersecretaries who are always laypeople: currently Gabriella Gambino (Life) and Linda Ghisoni (Laity).

In keeping with the Pope’s wish to give the local Church greater say, Francis makes clear in a reconfigured Article 1 that he wishes the Dicastery to “maintain relations” with local bishops’ conferences and other ecclesial bodies “in accordance with the principles of collegiality, synodality and subsidiarity.” 

All are to promote “exchange between them” and offer “collaboration to promote values and initiatives related to the aforementioned matters,” the statute reads. But it’s not clear how much influence the Dicastery will have over local churches in view of greater powers being given to episcopal conferences, most notably over doctrine. 

Possibly with an eye on the upcoming synod on youth in October, another addition not in the original 2016 statutes is an emphasis on young people. Article 8 expresses “the particular concern of the Church for the young, promoting their agency in the midst of the challenges of today’s world.” The statutes say the Dicastery, which is “at the service” of bishops’ conferences, international youth movements and associations, will play an “important” role in preparing World Youth Days — something that used to be the domain of the now defunct Pontifical Council for the Laity.

 

Complementarity

Article 9 says the Dicastery will work to “deepen the reflection on the relationship between men and women in their respective specificity, reciprocity, complementarity and equal dignity.” As well as “valuing the feminine ‘genius,’” the Dicastery vows to contribute to an “ecclesial reflection on the identity and mission of women in the Church and in society, promoting their participation.” 

This emphasis on greater female participation is part of wider push to give greater prominence to the role of women in the Church, a motive also thought to be behind a Vatican commission looking into the possibility of women deacons which is expected to conclude later this year. 

Other additions, deriving from the Synods on the Family and the Pope’s subsequent exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, include “guidelines for training programs for engaged couples preparing for marriage, and for young married couples.” Article 11 § 2 also “expresses the pastoral care of the Church also in relation to so-called ‘irregular’ situations,” drawing on the contentious Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.

Article 11 § 3 retains a pledge to create “guidelines” to help form young people, but with the additional factor of “intergenerational dialogue.”

The statutes reinforce the Dicastery’s collaboration with the John Paul II Institute, now called the “Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences,” in order to “promote a common direction in marriage, family and life studies.”

Article 13, related to life, also remains largely unchanged: the Dicastery “supports and coordinates initiatives in favor of responsible procreation, as well as for the protection of human life from conception to its natural end, bearing in mind the needs of the person in the various stages of evolution” (it used the words “stages of development” instead of “evolution” in the previous statutes). 

The Dicastery also pledges to continue to promote and encourage those that “help women and families to welcome and cherish the gift of life, especially in the case of difficult pregnancies, and to prevent abortion. It also supports programs and initiatives aimed at helping women who have had abortions.” 

Since its swift creation in 2016, the Dicastery has faced organizational challenges, and it continues to be a work in progress. Like the previous statutes, these have been approved ad experimentum (experimentally), signifying that more elements still need to be ironed out.