Pope Francis greets people as he arrives to eat lunch with the poor in the Paul VI hall after celebrating Mass marking the first World Day of the Poor at the Vatican (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The long-expected new constitution mapping out the future shape of the Vatican bureaucracy could be published as soon as the end of June, but its most notable features have been made public in an extensive report in a Spanish Catholic weekly out this Saturday.

According to the report in Vida Nueva seen in advance by Commonweal, the key shift in Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”) is to put evangelization not only at the heart of the church’s mission, but also at the heart of the Vatican itself. All the official church’s other activities will flow from—and be subordinate to—evangelization.

A new “super-dicastery” for evangelization will take precedence over all other congregations, relegating the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The CDF has traditionally been known as “La Suprema” because almost everything that the Vatican put out had to be ratified by it, and because of the assumption that Rome’s essential role was the clarification of doctrine. This is why the CDF appears first on the list of Vatican congregations in the existing apostolic constitution, Pastor bonus, published by Saint John Paul II in 1988. In Praedicate evangelium, this place is reserved for the evangelization dicastery.

“Pope Francis always underlines that the church is missionary. So it makes sense for us to have put the Dicastery for Evangelization in first place, and not Doctrine of the Faith,” explains Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, who presides over the kitchen cabinet of cardinal advisers, or “C9,” which has overseen the new constitution.

Rather than an instrument used by the pope to oversee and control bishops, the curia’s role is to assist both them and the successor of Saint Peter.

The new dicastery significantly merges two existing bodies: the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, traditionally concerned with new mission territories, and the Council for the New Evangelization, created by Benedict XVI in 2010 to deal with the specific challenges of re-evangelizing de-Christianized Western cultures. The apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (2013), Pope Francis’s response to a synod on the new evangelization, abolished that distinction in practice. Taking its cues from the 2007 Latin-American bishops’ pastoral document drawn up at Aparecida, Brazil, the exhortation presented the church as essentially missionary everywhere. The forces of secularization and globalization have led to a new crisis in the transmission of the faith throughout the whole world.

The new evangelization dicastery embeds an understanding that all territories are now “mission areas,” and that the church is per se missionary. Unable to rely on the support of law and culture, the church’s credibility in a context of pluralism relies primarily on its capacity to offer an encounter with the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

As Cardinal Oswald Gracias tells Vida Nueva: “The key point in the new apostolic constitution is that the mission of the church is evangelization. It [the constitution] puts it [evangelization] in the center of the church and of everything that the curia does.” In other words, Praedicate evangelium follows Evangelii gaudium in seeing the church’s primary task as offering the kerygma, or the Good News of Jesus Christ’s saving love. This “kerygmatic” proclamation must be backed by mercy visible in concrete action, which explains why the constitution envisages turning the office of the almoner into a new dicastery for the Charity of the Pope. “After evangelization must come charity,” Cardinal Rodríguez says.

The other gear shift embedded in the new constitution is ecclesiological. As promised by the C9, Praedicate evangelium overturns the idea of the Roman curia as little more than a bureaucracy passing on orders from the head office. It takes seriously the Second Vatican Council’s idea of the universal church being governed by the College of Bishops, with and under the pope. Praedicate evangelium places the departments of the curia at the service of the entire college of bishops, not just the pope, and makes clear that the pastor of a local church is on the same hierarchical level as the prefect of a Vatican body. “As successors of the apostles, the bishops are not in an ecclesiological position below those who work in the Roman curia,” Cardinal Rodríguez points out.

This reform reflects the broad thrust of the new constitution, which seeks to instill an attitude of service in the Vatican. Rather than an instrument used by the pope to oversee and control bishops, the curia’s role is to assist both them and the successor of Saint Peter.

Another change envisaged in the new constitution will affect the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, created by Pope Francis at the end of 2014 at the urging of C9 member Cardinal Sean O’Malley. The idea is to give the commission legal standing within the curia, so that the Vatican departments will be accountable to it, but at the same time preserve the independence on which its credibility depends, according to Cardinal Gracias, the archbishop of Bombay. “We to have to look for a balance between credibility and effectiveness,” he told Vida Nueva, without giving further details of how this hybrid will work in practice.

As expected, the new constitution will abolish the traditional distinction between bodies with executive powers (congregations) and those that are purely advisory (pontifical councils), so that all will be known in the future by their generic name of dicasteries. In principle all dicasteries could be headed either by a lay man or lay woman, although Pope Francis has made clear on other occasions that clerics must continue to head dicasteries that have legal oversight over other clerics, such as the current congregations for clergy and for bishops. Only the Dicastery for Communication currently has a lay man as its prefect.

The constitution also envisages the further merging of existing bodies to reduce the number of dicasteries. It specifically mentions the fusion of the Congregations for Catholic Education and for Culture. Such mergers will reduce overlapping functions and the numbers employed in the curia, although Francis has made clear that employees will serve out their contracts or keep working until their retirements.

The “downgrading” of the CDF in the new constitution reflects the new role that has developed for the congregation over the past six years.

There will also be changes to the way the church deals with its finances. The Secretariat for the Economy—whose prefect until July 2017 was former C9 member Cardinal George Pell, currently serving a six-year term for sexual abuse in an Australian prison—is likely to be downgraded. Gracias says that the C9, currently reduced (following the departures of Pell and two others) to C6, will be revisiting financial reform after the constitution is promulgated. It will also review the roles of women and lay people.

The new constitution embeds the many existing changes under Francis, and helps explain those changes within an overall narrative. The “downgrading” of the CDF in the new constitution reflects the new role that has developed for the congregation over the past six years: no longer a policeman ensuring “orthodoxy,” under its new prefect, Cardinal Ladaria, its doctrine section has instead offered theological reflection on the pope’s teaching and a resource for commissions such as the one exploring women deacons.

The finalized draft of the constitution has been sent to Vatican dicasteries and bishops’ conferences with requests for feedback and suggestions to be sent in by the end of May. Because the draft is itself the fruit of extensive consultation, Gracias does not envisage major changes. During June, the suggestions will be reviewed and incorporated and the final version approved at the C6 meeting that will take place between June 25 and June 27. If all goes smoothly, Praedicate evangelium could be promulgated on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29.

The endless delays, it turns out, were intentional. “The pope wanted a long process in which ideas could take off without leaving people behind,” Gracias said. That process is unlikely to stop with the publication of the constitution. Rodríguez speculates that Francis could call a synod of bishops to consider the implications of the constitution for local churches, allowing Praedicate evangelium to become a reference point, “inspiring boldness at a time of a crisis in credibility.”

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

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Published in the May 17, 2019 issue: View Contents
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