Today’s entry in the media’s never-ending quest for “shock” Vatican stories declares that the Pope is going to “rip up and rewrite” the Vatican constitution.


Here are 12 things you need to know . . .


1) What’s the story and where can I read it?

The story was based on an interview with Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who is the coordinator of the Council of Cardinals.

The story was written by Tom Kington, and it has appeared in several newspapers.

You can read the Telegraph version of it here.


2) What is the Council of Cardinals?

It’s a group of cardinals that Pope Francis named, shortly after his election, to help advise him on the governance of the Church.

The eight cardinals currently members of it are:

  • Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras
  • Giuseppe Bertello, governor of Vatican City
  • Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa of Santiago, Chile
  • Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India
  • Sean O'Malley of Boston
  • Reinhard Marx of Munich
  • Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, Congo
  • George Pell of Sydney

A few days ago, Pope Francis wrote a document giving the group a more formal, canonical status. They are currently having their first group meeting in Rome with the Pope.


3) What did the article say about the Pope “ripping up” the Vatican constitution?

According to the story:

The cardinals, who were appointed in April by Pope Francis and will confer with him for the first time at the Vatican on Oct. 1-3, were briefed to revise the constitution, known as Pastor Bonus, drawn up in 1988 by Pope John Paul, in a bid to give a great voice to bishops around the world.

But Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the group’s leader, said as the meeting loomed they were planning to go much further that just changing “this and that.”

"No, that constitution is over," he said in a TV interview. "Now it is something different. We need to write something different,” he added.


4) What is Pastor Bonus?

Pastor Bonus (Latin, “The Good Shepherd”) is an apostolic constitution released by John Paul II in 1988.

It governs the structure of the Roman curia—that is, the group of dicasteries (departments) in Rome that assist the pope in governing the Church.

You can read it online here.

(It's also not the Church's constitution. The Church doesn't have a constitution. Perhaps they were confused by the phrase "apostolic constitution" on the document. It's one apostolic constitution of many.)


5) How shocking is it that they would be looking at replacing Pastor Bonus?

Let me put it this way: It’s about as shocking as having the sun come up in the morning.

In fact, it is entirely to be expected.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, Pastor Bonus is not a 200-year old document that is almost never altered.

It only goes back to 1988, when Pastor Bonus itself replaced the previous governing document, Regimini Ecclesiæ universæ, which was released by Paul VI in 1967.

Furthermore, Pastor Bonus has been amended since it was originally released.

You may remember changes that Benedict XVI introduced in January of this year!


6) Why would we expect Pastor Bonus to be replaced?

Because there has been a great sense that the Roman curia needs a thorough overhaul.

That was one of the key things on the cardinals’ minds at the most recent conclave—and the one before that.

When Benedict XVI was first elected, many Vatican-watchers were expecting (even chomping at the bit) for him to do a thorough overhaul of the curia.

For one reason or another, he didn’t. He only made slight changes, much to the disappointment of many.

Thus, the cardinals were even more emphatic about the need for curial reform (particularly after the VatiLeaks scandal) at the conclave that elected Francis.

He thereafter publicly committed himself to a reform of how things are done in Rome.

Any thoroughgoing reform of the Vatican is going to put the question of replacing Pastor Bonus on the table.


7) So we shouldn’t be alarmed about this?

In principle, no. People wanted Benedict to do this. People (including me) have been expecting Francis to do this since he was elected.

Describing the event with the overblown, dramatic language “rip up and replace the Vatican constitution” is just the press trying to feed the Francis-the-iconoclast narrative they’ve been developing.

Of course, we’ll have to wait and see what ends up replacing Pastor Bonus.

I expect the media to paint whatever the new document is as an unprecedented earthquake in matters Vatican.

It could, in fact, be that. But there’s quite a bit of room for improvement in the curia.


8) What should we expect the new document to do?

It will re-arrange the Vatican’s organization chart, basically.

Some dicasteries are likely to be split, some merged, some created, and some abolished.

(Did you know that the Pontifical Council for the Laity has a “Church and Sports” sub-department? Is that what they should be spending their time on over there?)

Also, some functions are likely to be transferred from one dicastery to another.

This kind of rearrangement to get better efficiency is nothing new.

You know the saying: All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.

It’s just a periodic process that the Church needs to do.

And it will only be the first step.


9) Why will replacing Pastor Bonus only be the first step?

Because, as you can see by reading it, Pastor Bonus is a “top-level” document.

In other words, it deals with the functions of the dicasteries in general terms only. It doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of their day-to-day operations.

For that, each dicastery has its own, internal rules, and those are where the real action is.

They, also, will need to be revisited and revised as part of a thoroughgoing reform.


10) Are there any specific changes we should expect as part of the reform?

One that is mentioned by Gerard O’Connell in the Telegraph piece linked above: A shifting of some duties to local bishops’ conferences.

One of the complaints made by cardinals at the time of the conclave was the sluggishness and unresponsiveness of the curia.

A likely solution to that is to allow bishop conferences to handle more things on their own.

That’s a trend that has already been happening, and it dates back to Benedict’s reign.

Observers have noted that, in the last few years, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been having local bishops’ conferences deal more with the disciplining of errant theologians.

Instead of simply doing the investigations themselves, the CDF has been referring complaints about theologians back to the theologians’ local bishops for investigation.

That’s what happened with Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, for example.

We’ve thus been seeing a trend emerging where Rome puts more of the burden on bishops’ conferences and transitions to playing more of a supportive role that allows it to put its focus on matters of a more global nature, that individual conferences aren’t equipped to deal with.

We’re likely to see that trend continue.


11) Should we be concerned about that?

It depends. For one thing, we’ll have to wait and see what—specifically—gets transferred to the conferences.

Here in the U.S., and in the English-speaking world, we had a very bad experience with ICEL, the international body that was responsible for preparing draft translations of liturgical texts into English.

ICEL went rogue, and even many bishops complained about it, feeling powerless to deal with what ICEL produced.

Ultimately, Rome had to put ICEL on a leash and take matters into its own hands in a dramatic way, and that produced a vastly better translation of the liturgy.

It can be natural for us to think of Rome as a kind of protection against that kind of thing—and it is; it does and will have a watchdog function.

But it’s not good to make a problem case the paradigm for how to handle everything.


12) Why shouldn’t Rome be the court of first resort on everything?

That would only overload the system in Rome—something many feel is already the case (hence: criticisms about the sluggishness and unresponsiveness of the curia).

Furthermore, it sets up an inherent imbalance in the structure of the Church.

Local bishops ought to be able to take care of local affairs. It’s their job.

Not letting and not expecting someone to do what they ought to be doing as part of their job only breeds a culture of irresponsibility, ineptitude, and resentment.

If bishops can’t or won’t do their jobs—if the bishops can’t or won’t “bish”—then they should be replaced.

The question thus comes down to the quality of the bishops that are appointed.

We’re fortunate that the episcopate is in better shape than it was in a few decades ago.

The bishops appointed by Pope Benedict, in particular, have been notably better.

We need to pray for Pope Francis as he appoints new ones.


Bonus Item:

13) Do you get tired of having to write these corrections of how the press is hyping everything connected with Pope Francis out of proportion?

Yes. Lately, I haven’t even been able to fully unpack one story before the next one breaks. (I haven't even posted the piece about the idea of a woman cardinal, yet.)

On the other hand, I’m glad to provide what perspective I can to help folks see past the media distortion. 



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