Pope Francis’ Embrace of Lay Governance Stirs Alarm

Influential voices in the Church have interpreted Pope Francis’ reformed apostolic constitution to support lay governance at the highest levels of the Church, and some prelates and canonists warn that the teachings of the Second Vatican Council could be upended.

Pope Francis waves during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square on May 25.
Pope Francis waves during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square on May 25. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA / EWTN)

WASHINGTON — When Pope Francis promulgated his long-awaited reform of the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, in March of this year, a number of U.S. canonists were stunned by a passage in the apostolic constitution that appeared to dismiss the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation of the relationship between Church governance and holy orders. 

Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church, proclaims that “episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing … exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” Many canonists have long understood this to mean that the law requires offices of Church governance to be led by bishops. 

However, the new apostolic constitution states that “any member of the faithful” could lead a dicastery if the pope granted them that authority. This assertion is modified by additional language noting that qualifications for high Church office also depend “on the power of governance and the specific competence and function of the Dicastery or Office in question.” 

Some speculated that the recent reforms’ allowance for lay Catholics to serve as prefects of dicasteries could soon give non-clergy the power to reverse the decisions of a local bishop, upending the principle of sacramental hierarchy. Others feared that such a change would challenge conciliar teachings that promoted the decentralization of Church authority with unpredictable consequences.

Any separation of Church governance from holy orders “would amount to a fairly radical break from the vision put forth by the Second Vatican Council,” said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, adjunct professor of canon law at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. He also noted a lack of clarity regarding the precise impact of the reform and Pope Francis’ own intentions. 

Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar for canonical services at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register that Pope Francis had already “made it clear that he would not appoint a layperson to be a prefect” of the Dicastery for Bishops or the Dicastery for the Clergy. 

“But keep in mind,” added Father Fox, that “according to the principle” at work in this new treatment of lay governance, “there is nothing to prevent it.”


‘Vicarious Authority’ of the Pope 

During the March press conference introducing Praedicate Evangelium, Jesuit canonist Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, its primary architect, offered his interpretation of the language in question. The pope, as the bishop of Rome, had the power to delegate his canonical mission to laypeople, as well as bishops, explained the priest.  

“If the prefect and secretary of a dicastery are bishops, this must not lead to the misunderstanding that their authority comes from the hierarchical rank they have received, as if they were acting with an authority of their own and not with the vicarious power granted them by the Roman pontiff,” said the now-Cardinal Ghirlanda, who received his red biretta at the Aug. 27 consistory in Rome.

“The vicarious authority to carry out an office is the same,” the cardinal said, “if received by a bishop, a presbyter, a consecrated man or woman, or a layman or woman.” 

Some Catholic experts interpreted his comments as a return to a more centralized model of Church governance common during the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era, with the pope holding juridical power and the bishops’ authority confined to sacred matters. 

Soon after, Bishop Marco Mellino, the secretary of the council of cardinals that helped to draft Praedicate Evangelium, appeared to echo Father Ghirlanda’s guidance in a May 9 report for top Curial officials (republished on Aug. 9 in L’Osservatore Romano), that called for relevant sections of the Code of Canon Law to be understood in a new light.

At present, Canon 129 §1 §2 of the code states that “[t]hose who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.”

The Code of Canon Law goes on to specify that lay members of the faithful can “cooperate” in the ordained’s exercise of power, while making no mention of their ability to exercise it independently." 


Different Perspective Offered

But while experts link this section of the Code of Canon Law to the Council Fathers’ teaching on Church governance and holy orders, Bishop Mellino offered a different perspective. 

“[T]he power of governance is not given with sacred orders, but rather through the canonical provision of an office,” he stated in his report, and thus a member of the lay faithful could be qualified to hold a top office in the Roman Curia if delegated by the pope.

Months after the rollout of the apostolic constitution, such guidance failed to dispel the confusion and concerns stirred by its promulgation. 

Two of Francis’ top advisers, Cardinals Marc Ouellet, the prefect for the Dicastery for Bishops, and Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, have published papers that called for caution. Cardinal Ouellet, for his part, offered no definitive judgment on the matter at hand. But he openly disputed guidance suggesting that the delegation of canonical mission by the pope was “sufficient to establish the power of jurisdiction of every authority exercised in the dicasteries.” 

To adopt this position, he concluded, would inculcate “a juridical mentality … which places the emphasis only on the delegation of power, without taking into account the charismatic dimension of the Church.” That path, he warned, “would go directly against the opening to authentic decentralization.”


Cardinals’ Critiques

The Aug. 27 consistory in Rome offered a chance for Francis to clarify such matters, while receiving counsel from cardinals across the globe. However, the consistory’s schedule restricted that discussion to smaller language groups, disappointing many participants. 

Still, the cardinals were invited to forward their prepared remarks directly to the Pope, and a few also provided their comments, without attribution, to Catholic News Agency, the wire service of the Register’s parent company, EWTN. 

One intervention by a cardinal concluded that the new guidance reduced the “bishop’s potestas (power) … to sacred matters,” but would likely not stop there, according to CNA.

Another prelate addressed Bishop Mellino’s report, which suggested that lay “cooperation” in governance should now be understood as “actual participation” and thus a “possible norm.” 

In the cardinal’s view, this new interpretation of canon law was no small matter, given that the dicasteries serve as “the last resort for normative questions” disputed in local dioceses. 

“What happens if a dicastery goes against a bishop’s decision on an issue that pertains to holy orders and a layperson leads this dicastery?” the cardinal asked. “How and where is the hierarchical principle of the Church in such cases in play?”


Shift in Framework

At the same time, canonists on both sides of the debate acknowledge that popes and prelates have long wrestled with such questions, especially as governance in the Catholic Church shifted from a post-medieval framework that had featured abbesses with territorial powers to the 20th century and the Second Vatican Council’s recognition of the legitimate autonomy of the bishops in union with the vicar of Christ. 

“Prior to Vatican II, there was a long discussion about the sources of power in the Church,” said Father Fox. “One source related to the sacraments, and therefore ordination, and the other looked at the Church as a human institution — an authoritative, sovereign institution with jurisdiction.”

But once the Council Fathers promulgated Lumen Gentium, which “emphasizes that there is only one source of power from Christ through the sacraments,” that “two-sources’ theory, to all appearances, was set aside,” he said.

Indeed, the Council traced the bond between governance and holy orders back to Christ himself. 

 “[T]he apostles were enriched by Christ with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, (154) and they passed on this spiritual gift to their helpers by the imposition of hands, (155),” taught Lumen Gentium. The Council also confirmed that sacramental hierarchy provided the foundation for Church governance. 

Given the magisterial weight of Lumen Gentium, and Pope Francis’ frequent endorsements of conciliar teachings, canonists are not sure what to make of Cardinal  Ghirlanda and Bishop Mellino’s insistence that relevant sections of the Code of Canon Law must be understood in a new light.

As Father Fox sees it, the pre-conciliar debate on the sources of power in the Church has been resuscitated — and that alarms him.

Influential voices now contend “there are two distinct sources of power in the Church,” said the Dominican, who once served as staff official of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and bureau chief of the personnel office of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See at the Roman Curia.

“And this allows for a reorganization [of Church governance] on a dramatic scale, because they are saying there is a power in the Church that is not sacramental or rooted in ordination.” 

In an interview with the Register earlier this summer, Father Fox noted the particular influence of Cardinal Ghirlanda in reshaping the principles of governance not only in the Roman Curia, but in the leadership of Opus Dei.

Pope Francis decreed on July 22 that the leader of Opus Dei, known as the prelate, would no longer be a bishop, as the past two leaders had been, and oversight of the Church’s only personal prelature was shifted from the Dicastery for Bishops to the Dicastery for the Clergy. 

Francis said the modification would ground Opus Dei’s leadership “more on the charism than on hierarchical authority,” but canonists questioned the need for this change, given the extensive consultations conducted by Pope St. John Paul II in the lead-up to the establishment of the personal prelature in 1982.


Challenge to Council Fathers

Father Pietrzyk was more circumspect about the theological and juridical arguments in play, but he, too, was concerned about the challenge they posed to the teaching of the Council Fathers, blurring distinctions between the priesthood of the ordained and the priesthood of ordinary believers.

“The Council made clear that the laity do not themselves exercise governance nor share in it the way priests do, but may cooperate with the bishops in this undertaking,” he told the Register. This allows “them to assume certain ecclesiastical functions (munera) from the bishop, but for a spiritual end.” 

With Lumen Gentium in mind, prelates like Cardinal Ouellet have questioned whether papal delegation of authority can be the basis for lay governance in the Roman Curia. 

What’s not clear, however, is whether Praedicate Evangelium itself calls for this renewed emphasis on papal authority or if well-placed prelates in the Curia have adopted this interpretation and run with it. And so some canonists are reserving judgment until they see the concrete application of the Curial reform.  

“I believe that there are some dicasteries that may be legitimately led by laypersons,” said Father Pietrzyk. “Just as a bishop or pastor has a pastoral council to help him, which is largely made up of the lay faithful, the pope may certainly have a circle of advisers made up of the lay faithful.” 

While lay Catholics could not fill Curial positions that involve the “exercise of governance or the exercise of the power of orders,” such as the Dicastery for Bishops, he said, they might be able to lead departments that “perform apostolic works that do not involve the exercise of governance,” such as the Dicastery for Communication.

Absent more definitive guidance from the Holy See, an important indication of Francis’ own thinking will be the speed with which he appoints a lay Catholic as a Curial leader and which dicastery he selects for that groundbreaking assignment.

There are also expectations that some U.S. bishops will request Rome’s approval to appoint lay Catholics to chancery posts that have been reserved for priests. 

The Pillar newsletter recently noted unconfirmed reports that Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., had already “asked the Holy See to allow him to appoint a layman as moderator of the curia, a role overseeing the administration of the archdiocese which canon law says should ordinarily be a vicar general and must always be a priest.”

The Register asked the Archdiocese of Washington to confirm this report, but did not receive a comment by press time. Father Fox told the Register the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest diocese in the nation, had no such plans.


Senior Chancery Appointments

But Susan Mulheron, chancellor for canonical affairs at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told the Register that many dioceses have already appointed lay Catholics to senior chancery positions.  

“Canon law says that every diocese must have one vicar general, who must be a priest, and ‘where it is expedient,’ a bishop may appoint a moderator of the curia who also must be a priest,” said Mulheron. “But since the phrase ‘where it is expedient’ makes it an optional appointment, some bishops have elected not to have a moderator of the curia and have given those duties to a layperson in a role with the title ‘COO’ or ‘chancellor.’ I have never heard of any objections to that.”

In St. Paul, the archdiocese has a lay Catholic serving as the chief operating officer who also performs the duties of the moderator of the curia.

“If the bishop wants to entrust certain responsibilities to a layperson, he will do it and come up with creative solutions that will fit the needs of his diocese,” she said. “I don’t think anything the Holy See would do would change anything here.”

That said, there is wide agreement that Francis’ Curial reform has infused new life into an old debate on the sources of ecclesial power. And such questions have only become more relevant — and urgent — as powerful German lay leaders and their episcopal allies complete their Synodal Path and call for a permanent “synodal assembly”  that would hold authority over local German ordinaries.

No doubt, that unfolding crisis contributed to the unease that some cardinals expressed at the Aug. 27 consistory at the Vatican and will continue to stir fears that the October 2023 Synod on Synodality may provide a forum for such plans and give them more legitimacy.

“Today, the power of priests is only over sacred things,” observed one cardinal in a personal statement forwarded to the Pope for the consistory. But “how big is the step to a stage where even sacred questions can be entrusted to laypeople?" 

Catholic News Agency’s Rome bureau contributed to this report.