VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has merged the responsibilities of four Vatican councils under two presidents, in what could be the first of a series of changes to the Roman Curia.
The Vatican announced March 11 that the Pontifical Council for Culture, headed by French Cardinal Paul Poupard, is assuming leadership of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Since mid-February, the council has been without a head after Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald was reassigned as apostolic nuncio to Egypt and the Arab League.
In another move, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has been given authority over the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. He takes over from Japanese Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, who has now retired.
The council mergers may not be permanent, as the Vatican announcement of the changes said they had been “for the time being.” It also said the move to place the councils for interreligious dialogue and culture under one president was “in order to favor a more intense dialogue between people of culture and members of various religions.”
Cardinals Martino and Poupard were both surprised at the news. Speaking with the Register March 14, Cardinal Martino said it was not something he had requested and said that he was somewhat daunted by the extra burden of responsibility.
The cardinal noted that the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees is a large body comprising nine administrative sections. As well as coordinating programs for migrants and refugees, it is also in charge of coordinating pastoral programs for circus workers, fishermen, Gypsies, pilgrims and tourists. “I’m wondering how I can cope,” he said, but added that he accepted the new role out of obedience to the Pope.
Speaking to Vatican Radio March 11, Cardinal Poupard said he was also surprised at the appointment because, at 75, he has reached the normal retiring age of Vatican heads. But, he said, he “obeyed and thanked the Holy Father for his benevolence and trust.”
He said Benedict sees an “intrinsic link between the intercultural and interreligious dimensions,” citing the Pope’s speech to Muslims in Cologne last year when he spoke of the “vital necessity” of interreligious and intercultural dialogue.
The combining of these two fields is consistent with Benedict’s writings when he was a cardinal.
“Faith itself is cultural,” he wrote in his 2004 book Truth and Tolerance. “It does not exist in a naked state, as sheer religion. Simply by telling man who he is and how he should go about being human, faith is creating culture and is culture.”
Analysts say the March 11 announcement is also consistent with other statements made by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In 1990, he called for an “examination of conscience” in the reform of Church institutions so that the “authentic face of the Church shows through once again.” That examination, he said, “is to be extended to the Curia.”
But Cardinal Martino denied the move concerning his council was made to reduce bureaucratic bloat in the Vatican. “In this modern era, people are on the move everywhere, even tourists,” he said. “This is a big affair.”
The underlying reason, the cardinal said, was that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is dedicated “for the protection of human rights” and that refugees and migrants “have human rights that need to be defended.”
Those working in the field of social justice in the Church said the changes might make the councils more effective.
“This could be a useful move, reducing the chances of each council working independently of each other,” said Dominican Sister Helen Alford, dean of social sciences at Rome’s Pontifical Angelicum University. “With all the social problems migrants and refugees face at this time, it could well be beneficial to place it within the council for justice and peace, though it might also mean a reduction of resources allocated to dealing with those issues.”
Father Justo Lacunza-Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, said the changes denote a changing role for the pontifical councils, all of which were created after the Second Vatican Council.
“Councils perhaps run the risk of being ivory towers with lots of photocopies being sent out and not much interaction,” he said. “I think it’s a new beginning for them that will lead to a further development and could help address the challenges which the Church has to face today.”
Concerning interreligious dialogue, Father Lacunza-Balda said the priority has to be “constant interaction” with religious leaders in all fields, “whether they be economic, political or cultural.”
In particular, he said, the Vatican must set the ground rules for local churches, giving them clear guidelines on how to deal with people of other religions.
Stressed Father Lacunza-Balda, “No pontifical council must be detached from reality.”
writes from Rome.