What’s Behind Pope Francis’ Changes to the Vatican’s Doctrinal Office?
Shortly after his election, Pope Francis established a Council of Cardinals to assist him in governing the Church and help him draft a new apostolic constitution redefining the tasks and functions of curial offices.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis issued a document on Monday restructuring the powerful Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). He announced the changes ahead of the publication of his long-awaited blueprint for the reform of the entire Roman Curia.
The Pope unveiled the CDF’s new structure in a text issued motu proprio, or “on his own impulse.” This was the 48th motu proprio since his election in 2013, confirming that this is Pope Francis’ preferred mode of instituting change.
Shortly after his election, he established a Council of Cardinals to assist him in governing the Church and help him draft a new apostolic constitution redefining the tasks and functions of curial offices.
The curia currently operates under the 1988 apostolic constitution Pastor bonus (“The Good Shepherd”). The document issued by Pope John Paul II remains in force although much of it has been overtaken by events and the decisions of Pope Francis.
Several departments mentioned in the 1988 text are now defunct or exist in a different form. In practice, Pope Francis has implemented the reform of the Curia personally, before the publication of a comprehensive document and often without even waiting for the meetings of the Council of Cardinals.
Today, the Roman Curia includes the Secretariat for the Economy, the Council for the Economy, the Dicastery for Communication, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life. But Pastor bonus predates these entities and so they are not yet grounded in an apostolic constitution.
It is widely believed that Pope Francis will continue to introduce reforms on a personal basis, only issuing a new constitution, to be called Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), once all the changes have already been made.
Pope Francis had indicated early in his pontificate that he was considering changes to the CDF.
In his first interview, granted to the Jesuit-run magazine La Civiltà Cattolica in 2013, Pope Francis said: “It is amazing to see the denunciations for lack of orthodoxy that come to Rome. I think the cases should be investigated by the local bishops’ conferences, which can get valuable assistance from Rome. These cases, in fact, are much better dealt with locally. The Roman congregations are mediators; they are not middlemen or managers.”
In the same interview, he remarked: “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
“Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
In Evangelii gaudium, the apostolic exhortation that Pope Francis himself considers his pontificate’s program, he underlined that “the Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position ‘contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit.’”
He added: “Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”
From the beginning, he was therefore thinking of reforming the CDF. Yet none of the 39 communiqués issued at the end of the meetings of the Council of Cardinals has ever spoken of a reform of the Congregation.
Moreover, the issue did not come up in the briefings that the directors of the Holy See Press Office (Father Federico Lombardi and then Greg Burke) initially held with the journalists on the Council’s work.
The reform of the CDF, in short, comes without much advanced warning and at the end of a gradual path of changes.
From Four Offices to Two Sections
The Congregation previously consisted of four offices: one was disciplinary, another doctrinal, and a third matrimonial. There was also a fourth section, which, we read in the Pontifical Yearbook of 2021, had “the task of following the question of relations with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X [SSPX], the application of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the life of institutes already submitted to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, and, in a general way, the things pertaining to celebrations according to the ancient liturgy, defined as the ‘extraordinary form of the Roman Rite.”
The fourth section had no reason to exist after the publication of the 2021 motu proprio Traditionis custodes (“Guardians of the Tradition”), which revoked Benedict XVI’s provisions on using the ancient rite and redefined the concessions as biritualism, that is, the use of a double rite. In practice, the Old Rite was no longer considered an “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite, but rather as another rite.
The fourth section was established after Pope Francis closed the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei in 2019. The commission was created within the Congregation precisely to look after relations with the SSPX. The commission’s closure also came via a motu proprio.
The separate marriage office is also now closed, while the Congregation is re-established in two distinct sections, with two different secretaries. Everything suggests that one of the secretaries will be the current under-secretary Father Matteo Visioli, who is due a promotion since Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, who had served as secretary of the CDF since 2017, was named bishop of Reggio Emilia in January.
The other secretary is likely to be the theologian Msgr. Armando Matteo, who is highly esteemed by Pope Francis. The pope had words of great praise for him at the end of his pre-Christmas speech to the Roman Curia. For Matteo, Pope Francis had created the new position of adjunct under-secretary in the CDF.
Doctrine and Discipline
With two sections, the Congregation’s management profile seems to be strengthened, with a more hierarchical structure and sharper division of competencies. But it is also true that the four offices, working in synchrony, displayed true collegiality in their choices and created specialists in specific topics.
Above all, the doctrinal question was never neglected in decisions. There is a risk that the disciplinary element will now prevail over the doctrinal one because it will be a separate section, with decision-making autonomy and therefore not necessarily called upon to share choices in a broad discussion.
This is currently only a risk, however, and we must wait to see how the Congregation operates following the motu proprio.
Public opinion wanted an answer on the disciplinary issue. The reactions to this change were positive. Many commentators have noted that the Pope has, with the reform, strengthened the canonical treatment of clerical sexual abuse by creating the disciplinary section.
As we have seen, the disciplinary office already existed. With the reforms desired first by John Paul II and then by Benedict XVI the CDF became an essential reference point for dealing with abuse. The novelty, therefore, is that the disciplinary body is now a section, not just an office.
Regarding delicta graviora — the most serious crimes, including clerical sex abuse — there was mostly a problem of case management. In 2014, Pope Francis had established a college within the CDF for the examination of ecclesiastical appeals involving delicta graviora. The college’s regulations were further defined in 2018.
The college has 11 members and is chaired by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, the CDF’s adjunct secretary. It was set up precisely to take charge of the appeals. In 2001, John Paul II had established that appeals should instead be discussed during the ordinary session of the Congregation, the so-called Feria IV (because the meetings take place on Wednesdays.)
In 2019, Msgr. John Kennedy, head of the Congregation’s disciplinary section, told the Associated Press that in that year, the Congregation had received a record 1,000 abuse reports from all over the world.
The disciplinary section will now have greater autonomy, presumably in terms of budget. This suggests perhaps that, to tackle the mass of cases, the section will turn to ad hoc commissions, with external and internal members, moving away from the collegial work that had always characterized the Congregation.
With Monday’s motu proprio, the CDF acquires centrality and autonomy. But the result is that it will need help in case management. For this, it is likely to seek help from local Churches or external commissions, practically putting into practice the principle of decentralization that Pope Francis has been talking about since 2013.
Changing the Roman Curia’s Mentality
In a previous incarnation, the CDF was known as “La Suprema,” or primary Vatican department, because it concerned the faith. Until Paul VI, the Congregation was so important that the pope himself was its prefect, and at one stage it was rumored that Pope Francis wanted to return to this custom.
But the blueprint for curial reform is expected to give predominance to what will be the Dicastery for Evangelization, meaning that the CDF will no longer be the first on the list of departments of the Roman Curia.
It also appears that Archbishop Scicluna, who has so far maintained his post as archbishop of Malta, will be named in due course as the CDF’s new prefect, replacing the 77-year-old Cardinal Ladaria. The U.S. Dominican Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, currently the CDF’s assistant secretary, will retire. He is already 78 years old and has exceeded the retirement age by three years.
In the end, the administrative changes at the CDF point to a structural shift that aims to change the mentality of the Curia. Their precise form comes as a surprise, as is typical for Pope Francis. And they might be a prelude to other similar decisions.