VATICAN CITY - 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 Evangeliumprovides 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 admirative 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.