‘Praedicate Evangelium’ Poses Problems, Some Church Analysts Warn

Critics of Pope Francis’ new curial reform document say some of the reforms threaten to revolutionize the Church’s understanding of the hierarchical power of governance.

Pope Francis addresses the members of the Roman Curia Dec. 23 at the Vatican.
Pope Francis addresses the members of the Roman Curia Dec. 23 at the Vatican. (photo: Vatican Media / Spaziani / picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ recently announced reform of the Roman Curia introduces some sweeping changes aimed at aiding the Church’s mission of evangelization, but critics have warned that some key reforms show a poor understanding of theology, canon law and ecclesiology that threaten to undermine the Church’s authority. 

On March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph and the ninth anniversary of Pope Francis’ inauguration as pope, the Vatican published Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), his apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia. 

Nine years in the making, the document forms a major part of the mandate the College of Cardinals gave Francis at his election to reform the Church and replaces Pastor Bonus (The Good Shepherd), Pope St. John Paul II’s legislation on curial reform promulgated in 1988 and later modified by Benedict XVI and Francis. 

Much of the pressure to reform the Roman Curia derived from recent financial and bureaucratic scandals, in particular the 2012 “Vatileaks” scandal in which confidential Vatican documents exposing internal corruption, jealousies and infighting, and struggles to implement greater financial transparency were leaked to the press. 

Among the innovations of Praedicate Evangelium, so far only published in Italian and which comes into force on June 5, the Solemnity of Pentecost, is that the main Vatican departments, currently known as congregations and pontifical councils, will become “dicasteries.” With the exceptions of the Dicastery for Bishops and the Dicastery for the Clergy, these dicasteries may be headed by an appropriately suited baptized lay Catholic. 

Another significant change, already proposed in a 2019 draft of the document, is a greater emphasis on evangelization. The prestigious Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which dates back to 1622, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, created by Benedict XVI in 2010, will become the Dicastery for Evangelization, presided over directly by the pope.

That new super-dicastery will also be ranked higher than the Dicastery (formerly Congregation) for the Doctrine of the Faith in the new curial structure, but below the Secretariat of State which remains the supreme Vatican department, a status given it by Pope St. Paul VI.

The Pope states in Praedicate Evangelium that the aim of the document is to “better harmonize the present exercise of the Curia’s service with the path of evangelization that the Church, especially in this season, is experiencing.”

Other changes in Praedicate Evangelium include raising the Office of Papal Charities, currently headed by Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, to the level of a dicastery; merging the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Congregation for Catholic Education into the Dicastery for Culture and Education; and transferring the responsibility for Opus Dei, the Church’s only personal prelature, from the Congregation for Bishops to the Congregation for the Clergy.

Pope Francis has also incorporated the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors into the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; given the Secretariat of State the description “papal secretariat”; and transferred the Curia’s personnel office to the Secretariat for the Economy. 

The Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which manages the Holy See’s property and assets, will only be able to make financial transactions through the Institute for the Works of Religion, colloquially known as the Vatican bank.

A further change is that clergy and religious will only be allowed to serve a maximum of two five-year terms, after which they must return to their dioceses or communities of origin. 



But these sweeping changes, and Praedicate Evangelium as a whole, have drawn criticism.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), said he believed there was “no need to replace Pastor Bonus with a completely different document,” as most of the financial and personal scandals that precipitated reform of the Curia related more to “secular organs of Vatican State than the Congregations of the Curia, which relate to the Pope’s service to the universal Church.” 

Regarding changing the departmental names to dicasteries able to be headed by laity, the German cardinal told the Register that, as far as he was concerned, this was tantamount to transforming the Curia “from an ecclesial entity of the Holy Roman Church into a worldly administrative apparatus.”

Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, adjunct professor of canon law at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in Washington, D.C., also had reservations about lay-led dicasteries, calling the view of Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, who helped devise the change, “idiosyncratic and certainly not universally shared.”

Father Ghirlanda told reporters March 21 that the authority of whoever is in charge of a dicastery comes not from their rank but the vicarious “power he receives from the Roman Pontiff.” The power of governance in the Church, Father Ghirlanda added, comes “not from the sacrament of orders, but from the canonical mission” and the “fundamental equality among all the baptized, even if in differentiation and complementarity, is the foundation of synodality.”

Father Pietrzyk said the Church has “long understood” that ordination does “not necessarily entail the right to exercise governance,” but that it must be carried out in cooperation with the bishop in his exercise of governance. Never, he said, can laity “exercise it themselves, not even vicariously from the Supreme Pontiff.” So although the laity may be tasked with leading, he stressed that dicasteries “may only be headed by those with episcopal authority.” 

To insist they can do so on the basis of a papal mandate would “undermine much of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council,” Father Pietrzyk said, as it destroys the link between episcopal consecration and the sacred offices of the bishop, to teach, sanctify and govern, and makes the pope “the source of all authority.” 

Despite this, he believes the document does not go as far as Father Ghirlanda seems to think it does, and that in redrafting the statutes of the various dicasteries, those areas that need a bishop to govern as prefect will have to be clarified. 

Father Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and priest of the Archdiocese of New York, echoed Father Pietrzyk’s concerns, saying he believed replacing the Curia’s “congregations” with “dicasteries” was a “mistake.” 

He explained to the Register that congregations are called such because of their episcopal and collegial nature, made up of cardinals and bishops who meet (congregate) to advise the pope. Pastor Bonus, he stressed, was clear in stating that members of a congregation must be cardinals and bishops, and this “expresses well” the teaching of Vatican II, which taught in Christus Dominus (its decree on the pastoral office of bishops) that “all the bishops in hierarchical communion partake of the solicitude for the universal Church.” 

Under the new reforms enabling laity to head congregations, he believes that “an important expression of the common concern of bishops for the Universal Church, so well manifested in the episcopal character and leadership of the Roman congregations, is lost.” 

Recalling that Canon 129 stipulates that governance is limited to “those in sacred orders” as the Church is a “divine institution,” he said Praedicate Evangelium discards this restriction. 

“The change is a revolution in the Church’s understanding of the power of governance,” he said. 


Lay Leadership

Msgr. Charles Pope, dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, said the word hierarchy “most literally means, ‘Rule by Priests’ — hierus (priest) + archon (rule),” and added that Christ “summoned apostles (bishops) and set them in authority over the Church” who in turn “appointed priests and deacons to assist them in their task.” He said that although laity could effectively serve over dicasteries clearly associated with the temporal order, “it seems much more troubling if it is proposed that they hold authoritative positions in dicasteries associated with Church governance, liturgy and doctrine.” 

Such an “inverted pyramid” or what the Pope calls in the document a “synodal” model of governance has been central to the German Church’s Synodal Way, which is significantly lay-led. It was also proposed in the working document of the 2019 Amazon Synod, a synod heavily influenced by the German Church, but the model failed to be incorporated in any meaningful way into the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the meeting, Querida Amazonia (The Beloved Amazon). 

Noting “a disastrous state of disunity, heresy and approaching schism” in the Catholic Church in Germany, Msgr. Pope said if the German synod “is a ‘model’ for all to imitate, we’re heading for the same thing.” Authority, he said, “is necessary to hold the line against trendy, ephemeral things,” and even though authoritative approval of bishops and the Pope may be slower, “it has likely saved us from many rash and foolish attempts to bend with the times.”

Regarding the ranking of his former dicastery under both the Secretariat of State and the Dicastery for Evangelization, Cardinal Müller said it was “hard to see the central theological idea in the order and sequence of the ‘dicasteries.’” He stressed that the Curia must instead be built up as the Successor of Peter’s service to the universal Church, founded on the “unity of the Church in the truth of the revealed faith.” 

Cardinal Müller, who believes it was a “serious mistake” of Paul VI to place the Secretariat of State above the CDF, said “at some point, the proper order must be re-established.”


Change for Opus Dei 

In comments on other innovations, Father Murray said placing Opus Dei under the new Dicastery for the Clergy was “surprising and disconcerting,” as having them answerable to the Dicastery for Bishops was “canonically, historically, and theoretically sound.” The prelate of Opus Dei, Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, said in a March 19 statement that although the change affects its communication with the Holy See, it “in no way modifies the essential nature” of the personal prelature. 

Father Murray also regretted that Praedicate Evangelium drops Latin as the official language of the Church, and said he considered the maximum of two five-year terms for religious and clergy in the Roman Curia to be “completely unworkable.”

“No dicastery, and certainly not the Holy See diplomatic corps, can function with such a restriction,” he said. Noting that the rule does not apply to lay people serving in the Roman Curia,  he wondered why there is a “double standard.” 

Father Pietrzyk said he was concerned about the “seemingly rushed release” of the document, and that changes to the text, such as a typo in which the document mistakenly referred to the now-defunct term “extraordinary form of the Roman rite,” are made arbitrarily and without formal legal processes. This is a “worrying tendency coming from the Holy See to favor the subjective preferences of those in authority over objective legal norms,” he said. The Vatican said the document had been examined by both the CDF and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

But he welcomed the strengthening of financial oversight in the document, adding that it was important this duty be removed from the Secretary of State and made truly independent. As well as bureaucratic reforms, he would also like to see introduced a “code of ethical conduct in financial matters that should attempt to counter the more corrupt influences of the local culture.”