Vatican’s Major New Family Office Slowly Taking Shape

A lot of thought is going into the creation of a ‘super-dicastery’ for laity, family and life, the Vatican spokesman said on June 8.

Pope Francis embraces the Walker family, who traveled 11,000 miles from Argentina to see the Holy Father in Philadelphia during his apostolic journey to the United States last September.
Pope Francis embraces the Walker family, who traveled 11,000 miles from Argentina to see the Holy Father in Philadelphia during his apostolic journey to the United States last September. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

A new “super-dicastery” for Laity, the Family and Life has yet to be defined either as a congregation or pontifical council because its foreseen role does not yet fall easily into the established categories of a traditional dicastery.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters on June 8 that the lack of a decision on the precise nature of the new dicastery was “intentional.”

Dicastery is the general word used by the Holy See for Curial departments.

There is a significant difference between pontifical councils and congregations: The former essentially serve think tanks and consultation bodies, while the latter have executive and administrative power, are always headed by a cardinal and exert greater influence in the decision-making and implementation process.

Since his reform of the Roman Curia began in 2013, Pope Francis has been known to be considering the creation of a congregation for the laity in view of his wish to involve laypeople more in the life of the Church, in accordance with the vision of the Second Vatican Council.

On June 4, the Vatican announced that the Holy Father had “approved ad experimentum” (for a trial period) the statute for the creation of a new dicastery for the laity, family and life, but it was careful not to describe the new body as a congregation (although some confusion arose when an English translation of the announcement referred to it as a “pontifical council”).

The Vatican statement said the existing Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family would, as of Sept. 1, cease their functions and merge into the new body. The Pontifical Academy for Life would become part of the new dicastery but continue to operate as a separate entity.

“There isn’t any confusion,” Father Lombardi said. “It has been said on more than one occasion that it is a dicastery … but it is not endowed with the quality of a congregation or the quality of a council.” Asked why it was not possible yet to define the new body more precisely, Father Lombardi said he could “only hypothesize.”

He proposed that, in the past, pontifical councils have counseled but not provided new norms, unlike congregations.

“Whether this new dicastery, which deals with issues on the laity and family, could have powers that are, let’s say, either counseling or governing, I don’t know. I can say that the Council for the Laity had roles that were not just giving inspiration for the laity or hosting a conference.”

Father Lombardi added that he could imagine the new dicastery having powers that don’t easily “fall into the previous categories of a congregation or council,” and so, for now, “they haven’t wanted to define them precisely.” He was at pains to point out that he had not been told this “authoritatively” and that the Vatican purposely described it as a dicastery for the time being.


The New Dicastery

The new statute has nevertheless revealed other new details about the new dicastery: It will be presided over by a prefect, assisted by a secretary, who may be a layperson, and three lay under-secretaries (separate ones for laity, family and life). It will also comprise a number of officials, both clerical and lay, chosen as far as possible from different regions of the world, in accordance with the current legislation of the Roman Curia.

According to the Vatican’s June 4 statement, the section for the lay faithful “will inspire and encourage the promotion of the vocation and mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world, as individuals, married or unmarried, or as members of associations, movements and communities.”

It will also promote research and “contribute to the doctrinal examination of themes and issues regarding the lay faithful,” encourage the “active and responsible presence of the laity” in the Church and “evaluate” initiatives coming from bishops’ conferences regarding the institution of “new ministries and ecclesiastical offices.”

It will further help in creating groups of faithful and lay movements of an international character and approve or acknowledge statutes without impinging on the jurisdiction of the secretary of state.

The section for the family will focus on many of the issues raised at the recent synods on the family: It will “promote family pastoral ministry, protect its dignity and well-being based on the sacrament of marriage,” in the “light of papal teaching.” It will also promote the family’s “rights and responsibility in the Church and in civil society” so that, as an institution, it can function better.


Other Duties

The family section’s other duties will include monitoring all Catholic institutes that aim to serve the good of the family and have a “direct link” with the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. It will also offer guidelines for marriage-preparation courses — a key theme raised at the synods — and pay “special attention to the poor and the marginalized.”

Another duty will be to “encourage openness of families to adoption and fostering of children and care for the elderly, with a presence also in civil institutions in support of these practices.”

According to the Vatican statement, the section for life will continue the work of the Pontifical Academy for Life in supporting and coordinating activities to “encourage responsible procreation and the protection of human life from conception to natural end,” adding that it will do so “bearing in mind the needs of the person in the different phases of development.”

The new statute also says it will “promote and encourage organizations and associations helping women and families to welcome and protect the gift of life, especially in the case of difficult pregnancies, and to prevent recourse to abortion.”

Furthermore, it is expected to support programs and initiatives intended to help women who have terminated a pregnancy, as well as “study and promote formation on the main issues of biomedicine and of the law regarding human life and the ideologies developing in relation to human life and gender identity.”

It will do this, the statute stresses, “on the basis of Catholic moral doctrine and the teaching of the Church.”


Council of Nine Cardinals

Meanwhile, proposals for a second “super-dicastery” have been delivered to the Pope, this time dealing with “Charity, Justice and Peace,” the Vatican announced June 8.

The Pope will now examine and consult further about the new dicastery, which, as with the new department for laity, family and life, has yet to be defined as a congregation or pontifical council.

Father Lombardi, who announced the news at the end of the 15th meeting of the “council of cardinals,” held June 6-8, also reiterated the new body will incorporate the current roles of Justice and Peace, Cor Unum, Health Care Workers, Migrants and Itinerant Peoples.

Regarding other aspects of the meeting, the Vatican spokesman explained that the “majority of consultations” at the meeting were again devoted to Curial reform, and special attention was paid to the Congregation for Bishops, the Secretariat of State, the Congregations for Catholic Education, the Oriental Churches and the Clergy and the Pontifical Councils for Culture, for Promoting Christian Unity and for Interreligious Dialogue.

He also said the results of earlier discussions about the future of the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Causes of Saints, Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life “have been entrusted to the Pope for further examination and consultations, as he may consider appropriate.”

During the June 6-8 meeting, Cardinals George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, coordinator of the Council for the Economy, which oversees the Secretariat, and Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications, updated the council on the reforms in their respective offices. 

Father Lombardi reiterated that Cardinal Pell would be staying on as prefect despite turning 75 that day. He also said Msgr. Viganò told the Pope and cardinals that Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Center would be integrated later this year.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, as head of the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors, updated the council about the Pope’s recent document, “Like a Loving Mother,” issued motu proprio (of his own accord), which introduces more stringent rules for negligent bishops and religious superiors.

Father Lombardi said the criteria for reflections during the C9 meetings have included “simplification, harmonization” of the tasks of different Curial bodies “and possible forms of decentralization in relation to bishops’ conferences.” 

The next C9 meetings will take place Sept. 12-14 and Dec. 12-14. Father Lombardi said the work of Curial reform is now “more downhill than uphill” and that the Council will probably continue after the reform process is over.


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.