The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has finally issued its first document for the universal church in the Pope Francis Era. It was released on Tuesday—exactly three years, three months, and one day after the current pope’s election (March 13, 2013).

But the CDF prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, told reporters that it is actually the final result of a thirteen-year process (during which time two other men held his post).

The new document is a “letter” to the world’s Catholic bishops called, Iuvenescit Ecclesia, “the Church rejuvenates.” It tries to offer a theological explanation of the “relationship between the hierarchical and charismatic gifts in the life and the mission of the Church.”

Cindy Wooden, the Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service, sums up the document’s main point:

“Local bishops have an obligation to welcome new movements and communities and guide them, while the groups have an obligation to obey the local bishop and avoid the appearance of setting up a parallel church.”

Wooden offers in a couple of succinct paragraphs what it took the CDF fifteen pages and 118 footnotes (that’s 12,000 words!) to say:

“The hierarchical gifts—teaching, sanctifying and governing—are those conferred with ordination. The charismatic gifts refer to those given by the Holy Spirit to groups or individuals to help them live the faith more intensely and to share the faith with others through missionary activity and acts of charity.

“The new document insists that both the hierarchical and charismatic gifts are given by God in order to build up the church. They always must be in harmony and complement one another.”

I’m not sure where a “letter” from the doctrinal office ranks in the hierarchy of authoritative Vatican texts. But the two men who signed it—Cardinal Müller and his deputy, Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ—said Pope Francis “ordered its publication” during an audience last March.

One wonders why he did so. Much of the text reads like the “desk-bound” or laboratory theology that the pope finds unhelpful.

But the really disappointing and troubling thing about Iuvenescit Ecclesia is that it contains a long list of eight criteria for recognizing whether a person or group possesses certain “charismatic gifts,” but not a single word about how the Church community discerns the so-called “hierarchical gifts.” That is, how do we select those upon whom the Holy Spirit has bestowed the gifts required for leading the faith community (as deacons, presbyters, and bishops)?

The new document mostly rehashes an impoverished, minimalist, and “institutionalist” thinking and says the laying on of hands imparts all the grace and gifts that are necessary for these crucial offices. There is no mention—not even among all those footnotes—of St. Thomas of Aquinas’s sound and sage observation that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it (gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit)."

This presupposes that there are “natural” gifts to perfect. If a man cannot speak, grace will not give him the ability to be a good preacher. And if he does not have at least some natural ability to lead and make decisions, grace will not make him good bishop.

The Church is very weak at discerning who among the People of God has the charisms required for ecclesial leadership. Unfortunately, this new document offers nothing to help correct this disappointing deficiency.


Cardinal William Levada, who served as the CDF prefect from 2005-2012, is no longer eligible to take part in a conclave. 

The California native turned eighty on Wednesday, one of two cardinals who hit the milestone this week. The other, Anthony Okogie of Nigeria, was to celebrate his eightieth birthday the next day.

That means there are now 112 cardinal-electors. The number will drop to 107 by the end of this calendar year if Pope Francis does not call a consistory before that.

The other five men in the red-hatted college who will lose their vote in the coming months are Antonio Rouco Varela of Spain (14 August); Jaime Ortega of Cuba (18 October); Nicolás López Rodríguez of Dominican Republic (31 October); Ennio Antonelli of Italy (18 November); and Théodore-Adrien Sarr of Senegal (28 November).

Current legislation stipulates that papal electors must be under the age of eighty at the start of a conclave and their number shall not exceed 120. Pope Paul VI established these “rules” but they are totally arbitrary. Many say he did so to nullify the votes of some 25 conservative, elderly cardinals and help ensure the election of a successor who would continue implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

There were 115 electors at the last two conclaves in 2005 and 2013. And 111 cardinals cast votes in 1978 when they gathered twice in the short span of only several weeks to elect the short-lived John Paul I and the long-reigning John Paul II.

But there were only 82 members in the entire College of Cardinals—including those beyond eighty years of age—at the conclave of 1963. And all but two of them were on hand to elect Paul VI that year.

And the 1958 conclave that elected John XXIII? There were only 51 electors; two other cardinals were imprisoned in countries behind the iron curtain and were unable to attend the election.

The limits on the age and number of cardinals who can participate in a conclave are completely arbitrary. Some have argued that the pope should further drop the mandatory age to seventy-five, the time when all bishops are requested to submit their resignations, or at least limit participation to only those cardinals who still head a diocese or Vatican office.

But if Pope Francis were to do that he would cause a huge backlash. There are a lot of cardinals (and others) who are still greatly dismayed by the age limit that Paul VI imposed. Some have called it an instance of ageism or discrimination against the elderly.

Rather than placing further limits, the current pope could actually increase the number of cardinals. As I have argued before it is likely the only way that the cardinals he has created will form a majority in the conclave that will eventually elect his successor. My suggestion has been to boost the number of cardinal-electors to 150.

There is a very good chance that Francis will create his next group of cardinals at a consistory in November at the end of the Year of Mercy. Whether he decides at that moment or in a subsequent consistory to expand the number of those eligible to vote in a conclave, it is something he or a future pope will have to do. 


Pope Francis presided at two different Jubilee of Mercy celebrations last week that were specially dedicated to sick people and those who live with physical and mental disabilities.

Both of them were remarkable for a number of things the pope said.

The first was an audience in the Paul VI Hall last Saturday during which Francis put aside his prepared text and did one of his famous question-and-answer sessions.

The thrust of the conversation was how to respond without fear to those who are different and not discriminate against those with disabilities or exclude them from the Christian community.

“Think of a priest who does not welcome everyone. What advice would the pope give him?” Francis asked rhetorically before giving this unequivocal answer: “Close the doors of the church! Either everyone or no one!”

The next day he presided at Mass in St. Peter’s Square where some of the altar servers had Down Syndrome and people with disabilities did the first two readings.

“In an age when care for one's body has become an obsession and a big business, anything imperfect has to be hidden away, since it threatens the happiness and serenity of the privileged few and endangers the dominant model,” the pope said during his homily.

“In some cases, we are even told that it is better to eliminate them as soon as possible, because they become an unacceptable economic burden in time of crisis,” he added.

Pope Francis said we all suffer limitations. Like the woman in the Gospel who was “known to be a sinner,” he said, often that suffering is not physical.

“One of today’s most frequent pathologies is also spiritual. It is a suffering of the heart; it causes sadness for lack of love. It is the pathology of sadness,” he said.

“When we experience disappointment or betrayal in important relationships, we come to realize how vulnerable and defenseless we are. The temptation to become self-absorbed grows stronger, and we risk losing life’s greatest opportunity: to love in spite of everything!”

The pope then made these moving and challenging observations: 

“The way we experience illness and disability is an index of the love we are ready to offer. The way we face suffering and limitation is the measure of our freedom to give meaning to life’s experiences, even when they strike us as meaningless and unmerited.”

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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