Are Pope Francis’ Changes to Canon Law True Decentralization?

Bishop Marco Mellino, secretary of the ‘council of cardinals,’ told Vatican News that there was a substantial difference between ‘approval’ and ‘confirmation’ by the Holy See.

St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. (photo: 2016 Thoom / Shutterstock)

VATICAN CITY — In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis expressed his desire to see a “healthy decentralization” in the Catholic Church. He used the term again in his latest amendments to the canon law of both the Latin and Eastern Churches, issued on Feb. 15. 

The changes were contained in the motu proprio Assegnare Alcune Competenze (Assigning Some Competencies). A motu proprio is a document issued by the Pope “on his own impulse” and not at the request of an office of the Roman Curia. It is through this means that the Pope is seeking to achieve decentralization. (There are currently 49 documents listed in the section of the Vatican website dedicated to Pope Francis’ motu proprios.)

In practice, the Pope has imposed decentralization by centralizing decisions upon himself, without involving the Roman Curia — not even making use of the advice of local bishops, who are the chief recipients of the measures.

Formally, consultation takes place through the “council of cardinals,” established by Pope Francis at the beginning of the pontificate precisely to help him in the governance of the Church and to outline a general reform of the Curia. 

Yet the Pope has made almost all decisions outside the council and not as part of the work of the council itself. The apostolic constitution reforming the Curia has still not been published after years of discussion. But Pope Francis indicated that it had been finalized in an interview last September.

The Pope’s recent changes to canon law are more decisive than the Curia reform. Following recent custom, the title of the latest motu proprio is in Italian, not Latin, and it aims to transfer some powers of the Apostolic See to bishops.

This transfer is signaled by replacing the word “approval” with “confirmation” in specific sections of the Code of Canon Law. Bishops now can approve the publication of catechisms, the creation of a seminary in their territory, and guidelines for priestly formation, which can be adapted to the pastoral needs of each region. These decisions now only need confirmation from the Apostolic See.

Furthermore, the Pope allows priests to be incardinated in a particular Church or religious institute and a “public clerical association” recognized by the Holy See. The exclaustration of religious men and women — the possibility of allowing a religious to live outside his or her institute for serious reasons — has been extended from three to five years.

Bishop Marco Mellino, secretary of the council of cardinals, told Vatican News that there was a substantial difference between “approval” and “confirmation” by the Holy See.

“Approval is the provision by which a higher authority (in this case, the Holy See), having examined the legitimacy and appropriateness of an act of lower authority, allows its execution,” he said. 

“On the other hand, confirmation is the simple ratification of the higher authority, which gives the provision of the lower authority greater authority.” 

“From this, it is clear that approval, compared to confirmation, involves a greater commitment and involvement of the higher authority. Therefore, it is clear that moving from requesting approval to requesting confirmation is not just a terminological change, but a substantial one, which moves precisely in the direction of decentralization.”

In 2017, Pope Francis published the motu proprio Magnum Principium, which established that translations of liturgical texts approved by national episcopal conferences should no longer be subject to revision by the Apostolic See, which would in future only confirm them.

At the time, Cardinal Robert Sarah, then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, drew up a note on the subject, which interpreted the new legislation in a restrictive sense, underlining that this “did not in any way modify the responsibility of the Holy See, nor its competences concerning liturgical translations.”

But recognition and confirmation, Pope Francis replied in a letter, could not be put on the same level, and, indeed, Magnum principium “no longer maintains that translations must conform in all points to the norms of Liturgiam Authenticam [the 2001 document establishing criteria for translations] as it was done in the past.”

The Pope added that episcopal conferences could now judge the goodness and consistency of translations from Latin, albeit in dialogue with the Holy See. Previously, it was the dicastery that judged fidelity to Latin and proposed any necessary corrections.

This interpretative note from Pope Francis must also be applied to the latest motu proprio, although some questions remain open.

Much will depend on how the Vatican decides to apply its faculty of confirmation: whether it will choose simply to confirm decisions or, instead, enter more directly into the questions, offering various observations.

At the same time, bishops’ conferences will lose the guarantee of communion in decisions with the Apostolic See. They are more autonomous in some choices but always subject to confirmation from the Holy See. They are empowered but somehow under guardianship.

By favoring decentralization, Pope Francis wants to overcome the impasses that he experienced as a bishop in Argentina, also overcoming the perception that Rome is too restrictive and does not appreciate the sensitivities of local Churches.

On the other hand, a centralized law guarantees justice, balance and harmoniousness. The risk of losing this harmony is always around the corner. 

This point also arose when Pope Francis changed the procedures for matrimonial nullity. Even then, he had somehow forced the bishops to take up their responsibilities. 

A year after the promulgation of the documents Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Mitis et Misericors Iesus, the Pope gave a speech to the Roman Rota in which he stressed that the streamlined nullity process could not be entrusted to an interdiocesan court because this would distort “the figure of the bishop, father, head and judge of his faithful,” making him “a mere signer of the sentence.”

This decision created difficulties for bishops in areas where interdiocesan courts largely functioned well, as in Italy. It was, therefore, no coincidence that Pope Francis, with yet another motu proprio, established a pontifical commission last November to ensure that the changes were applied in Italy

The commission was established directly in the Roman Rota court, indicating that Pope Francis takes decisions that favor the autonomy of local Churches. But, paradoxically, he does so by centralizing everything in his hands.

This is the modus operandi with which Pope Francis aims to unhinge an existing system to create a new one. The key to understanding this modus operandi is the phrase “good, soft violence” that he used to describe reforms in an address to members of the Vatican’s communication department in 2017.

At the end of this process, the bishops will be more autonomous, but also more alone. Without a harmonizing guide, there is a risk that each particular Church will adapt decisions to its own territory and create new doctrinal guidelines.

Who guarantees, in the end, that there will not be a repeat of the “Dutch Catechism” episode? In 1966, the bishops of the Netherlands authorized the publication of “A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults.” The text was so controversial that Pope Paul VI asked a commission of cardinals to examine its presentation of Catholic teaching. Later, Pope John Paul II called a special assembly of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the issues raised by the episode.

And who guarantees now that the controversial texts produced by the “Synodal Way” in Germany will not be included in the training of priests by local episcopal conferences?

These questions remain open. 

If the Holy See approaches the process of “confirmation” in harsh terms, then nothing will have changed. If it takes a more relaxed approach, there is the risk that there will be radical differences between particular Churches. The Catholic Church might then resemble a federation of bishops’ conferences, with similar powers and substantial differences — no longer unity in diversity, but, rather, variety reconciled by joint administrative management.

How the new rules are applied will show us whether this is the future that awaits the Church.