Vatican Reform Plan Takes Shape: Evangelization Prioritized Over Doctrine

The cardinals who led the process of drafting the new papal document on Curial reform have disclosed details, ahead of its pending publication.

(photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ new apostolic constitution for the Roman Curia is stirring up concerns as well as eager anticipation ahead of its expected publication in two months’ time.

The exact details of the document, called Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), are unclear and are expected to remain so while bishops’ conference presidents and Vatican heads review it before its expected release on June 29.

But its content was spotlighted this week, after some media outlets reported on comments made about the document by two key members of the Pope’s council of cardinals in an upcoming April 27 article in the Spanish weekly magazine Vida Nueva. The council has been in charge of drafting the new document.

The Register asked Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, secretary to the council of cardinals, which has been devising the document for the past five years, if he could confirm the contents of the draft, but he declined, stressing it is a “working draft” still subject to a “confidential consultation.”

Media reports indicated the constitution is likely to entail the creation of a “super dicastery” for evangelization. This, in turn, will potentially dwarf the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and relegate it to a lesser status.

The new “super dicastery” will be an amalgam of one of the largest and most ancient dicasteries, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and the new Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, created by Benedict XVI in 2010 under the recommendation of Cardinal Angelo Scola.

The new constitution also reportedly involves merging the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for Culture under a “Dicastery for Charity.” In addition, it reportedly will grant Curial status to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, created in 2014 by Pope Francis to advise him regarding the formulation of clergy sexual-abuse policies. Currently the abuse commission is not formally part of the Roman Curia, and the change would be intended to enhance its authority.

Once the constitution comes into force, all Vatican departments will also be known as “dicasteries” rather than the current “congregations” (ancient, executive bodies) or “pontifical councils” (advisory ones that grew out of the Second Vatican Council).


Evangelization Emphasized

The underlying reason for this change is to indicate that the Roman Curia is at the service of local bishops as well as the Pope. But, at a deeper level, the reforms are reportedly being made for two reasons: to place evangelization at the heart of both the Church’s and Vatican’s mission and to serve as a reminder that acts of charity are a key element of the faith.

Despite a paucity of publicly available detail and the unwillingness of Bishop Semeraro to speak, the coordinator of the council of cardinals, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, and fellow member Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias both spoke freely to Vida Nueva about the new document.

“Pope Francis always underlines that the Church is missionary,” Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga told Vida Neuva in the April 25 article, obtained by the Register. “For this reason, it’s logical that we put in the first place the dicastery for evangelization and not the one for the doctrine of the faith. In this way, the Holy Father marks a significant sign of reform for all the People of God.”

He also said that bishops are not “below” Curial officials, meaning bishops have the same hierarchical power as a prefect of a Vatican dicastery.  

Cardinal Gracias, similarly stressing the Pope’s wish to put “mission” at the center of the new Curia, said it “won’t only be a cosmetic change,” but, rather, “the impetus for a change of mentality that is already underway.”

Supporters are praising the proposed reforms as of practical necessity and vital to making the Church’s mission more effective.

Professor Massimo Borghesi, author of The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey, believes the changes are about “rationalizing and bringing together” administrative bodies to avoid “unnecessary multiplication,” but also to focus on what is “most necessary” to mission, consistent with Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

In that document, the Pope speaks about not being “obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed,” but instead about letting the “basic core” of the faith “shine forth,” Borghesi told the Register.  

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh believes the new constitution is born not just of the Pope’s own thinking, but also of the consequential 2007 meeting of the Latin American Church in Aparecida, when bishops “took stock of the consequences of liquidity and globalization” — liquidity referring to rapidly changing societies and cultures.

In April 24 comments to the Register, Ivereigh insisted that “this is a deeply Catholic reorganization,” one that is responding to these consequences and to a world where Christianity has “been expelled from law and culture.” No longer, he believes, must the Church depend on the state or powerful institutions, but rather on “the encounter with God’s saving mercy in Christ (the kerygma)” — a “direct experience of Christ” that they had in the early Church.

Borghesi similarly sees the reform in line with the Pope’s orientation, which, he says, is “radically Christocentric” and encourages Christians to live as “credible witnesses” in the world.


Cardinal Müller

But reports of the constitution are drawing concern.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the CDF, told the Register April 23 that it would be a “scandal” to make the CDF — the “suprema” dicastery until Paul VI’s reforms of the 1960s — less important.

The proposal, he said, appears to show “no ecclesiological understanding,” as it fails to see that the “Curia Romana must serve the Pope as he who has the highest responsibility of unity of the faith and upholding the truth of the faith.”

The Roman Curia, he said, “doesn’t have to serve local bishops,” who have “their own curia, their own presbyterium [college of priests in active ministry].”

The function of the papal magisterium, or teaching authority, “cannot be given to bishops,” he stressed. “They have their own magisterium, but in unity with other bishops and with the Pope.”

The German cardinal reiterated that the Pope “cannot distribute specific roles, applicable to him, to other bishops.” Such a proposed approach is “totally wrong,” he said, a consequence of “thinking in worldly categories” that erroneously sees the Vatican as simply an “administrative apparatus.”

“They say: ‘We have power, and we must distribute power,’ but it’s not power; it’s spiritual authority,” he said, adding that their proposal is “like a Protestant model,” based on how one would “organize an enterprise, state or international organization” rather than the Church.

A Dominican theologian, speaking on condition of anonymity, shared the cardinal’s concern, saying the draft constitution “overlooks” the important fact that Vatican officials have had “special jurisdiction and power” precisely because they have shared “in the Pope’s own universal jurisdiction — which is above every other bishop.”

For the correct ecclesiology, Cardinal Müller recommends the council of cardinals read the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, specifically No. 23. That articles states that the Roman Pontiff “is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” and that, although individual bishops represent each his own church, “all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity.”


Downgrading Doctrine?

Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, a former executive director of the U.S. bishops’ committee on doctrine, expressed misgivings over the document’s ambiguity, as reported so far.

If evangelization is being emphasized over doctrine in order to give evangelization priority, Father Weinandy said he would have “no problem” with that, as it would be in keeping with Christ’s command and the Church’s tradition.

But if, within such a stress on evangelization, it meant Church doctrine would not be emphasized at the same time, then that would not be a “true evangelization,” as the Church’s doctrines “are at the heart of evangelization.”

“Without doctrine there is no evangelization!” he said.

Another “part of the problem,” Father Weinandy believes, is that Pope Francis “consistently uses the term ‘doctrine’ in a derogatory manner.”

Doctrines are seen as “lifeless, sterile and wearisome dead letters,” Father Weinandy lamented, when, in fact, “what could be more life-giving and more exciting” than the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Eucharist.

“Setting evangelization against doctrine makes no sense,” agreed George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., “in that evangelization requires evangelizers who are committed to the full symphony of Catholic truth.” 

But Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, believes the solution lies in encounter, from which doctrine and ethics must flow. Without it, “doctrine becomes merely an idea or even an ideology,” he said, recalling Benedict XVI’s comment in the introduction to his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) that Christian faith begins not with an idea or ethical proposition but with an encounter. “That’s what the Curial organization recognizes,” Ivereigh said.


More Concerns

Both Ivereigh and Borghesi also reject accusations that the new structures are a means of introducing doctrinal innovation.

But Cardinal Müller disagrees and believes without the Pope exercising his “highest responsibility” of “unity and truth of the faith,” it would lead to a “disorganized plurality of bishops.”

Father Weinandy was similarly pessimistic, saying although he would “love to see” diocesan bishops leading the Church’s New Evangelization, he is concerned that the present state of the Church means that any emphasis of evangelization over doctrine could result in bishops proclaiming “their own” erroneous doctrines, which would “undercut” authentic evangelization and “cause chaos within the Church.”

The Church’s doctrine “is not a matter of local options,” warned Weigel, adding that “wherever that has been tried, as in Germany, the results have been pastorally catastrophic.” 

He also wondered about the seriousness of the current consultation with bishops, as it takes place in the space of just six weeks.

Cardinal Müller was also disappointed that no cardinals were consulted, apart from those heading Curial dicasteries, which limited the perspectives that were communicated to the drafters of the document.

These gaps in consultation were especially concerning to him, as he believes none of the council of cardinals is expert enough in ecclesiology.

“They want reform,” he said, but from what he knows so far, it seems to him to be “actually a deformation of Catholic ecclesiology.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.