Many of us who are interested in reform of the Church’s central governing body have been misled: we were told that the new constitution for the Roman Curia would contain few surprises. We knew it was called Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), and that its unifying idea, taken from Evangelii gaudium, was making the Church suitable for the evangelization of today’s (secular) world rather than for its self-preservation in a vanished Christendom. We knew that Vatican bodies would no longer be divided into sheep and goats—lofty “congregations” with juridical clout and lowly “councils” producing unread reports—but would be level-pegged as “dicasteries,” from the Greek dikastērion, meaning law-court. We knew other things too: that women and lay people would rank high in some of the dicasteries, that the dicasteries would merge existing departments, and that the whole operation would be slimmed down. So what would be truly new in the ecclesial governance of the Eternal City? After all, the structural makeover has been in process on an experimental basis since 2015, visible to the naked eye. Praedicate, we assumed, would merely render de jure what was already de facto.
This turned out not to be true, but you wouldn’t have guessed this from the way the Vatican released Praedicate, dampening the drumrolls. The first new constitution of the Roman curia in more than thirty years landed in inboxes on a Saturday, without the usual notice, devoid of commentary, and only in Italian. The press conference two days later also seemed designed to keep corks in bottles: three Italian clerics read from a twenty-three-page commentary, which included a painstaking account of the way Praedicate had been drafted and redrafted over a period of nine years, in forty meetings of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors, then sent to cardinals and curia heads and on to every bishop’s conference, until it was finally ready in June 2020—only to be further niggled over by the soon-to-be-renamed Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the Council for Legislative Texts. One thing was clear: the fifth apostolic constitution on the Roman curia in the Church’s history—after those of Sixtus V in 1588, Pius X in 1908, Paul VI in 1967, and John Paul II in 1988—is the fruit of an exhausting level of consultation, according to the ancient principle that “what affects all should be discussed by all.” Praedicate is built to last well into the next generation.
So what was new? The main news headline was that any baptized person can now head any dicastery, “depending on their competence, power of governance, and function,” as the fifth of the Principles and Criteria puts it. As this was reported (“Pope to allow…”), it was not, in fact, news: the Dicastery for Communication has been headed by a layman, Paolo Ruffini, for years, and a half-dozen women (mostly women religious and members of movements) have long occupied important posts in the Curia—women such as Francesca Di Giovanni, entrusted with the Holy See’s relations with the United Nations and other multilateral bodies. Yet there was something new here, something momentous, in the justification for that principle: “any of the faithful” can in principle head a dicastery because authority in the Curia is exercised vicariously, on the pope’s behalf, with power delegated directly from him.
Now it is true that John Paul II’s constitution also made clear that the Curia’s power is exercised vicariously, through power received from the pope. But Pastor bonus assumed that this power was delegated only to cardinals and bishops, because, well, since 1588 that had been the case. In the press conference to launch Praedicate, however, the Jesuit canonist Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda showed that the assumption should, if anything, be the opposite. If the power is the same (vicarious, delegated by the pope) whether exercised by a bishop, priest, religious, or layperson, then it settles a longstanding ecclesiological disputatio—namely, whether the power of governance is conferred by the sacrament of Orders. If it were, then lay people could not receive any office in the Church which involves the exercise of this power.
The Second Vatican Council did not want to settle the question and it was left open in the revised 1983 Code of Canon Law. But now, according to Ghirlanda, whose work has been on this very topic, Praedicate “confirms that the power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of Orders, but from the canonical mission.” Hear that? Rome has spoken; the matter is settled. The fact that Ghirlanda was asked officially to present the constitution can only mean that this broader implication is what the pope intends, and it is law. Never has clericalism been dealt such a deadly, final blow.
In this and so many other ways, the understated presentation of Praedicate was at odds with its import, as the pope, who hates triumphalism, doubtless intended. For Praedicate distills into law the essence of the Francis reform, showing not just what the Roman Curia is for, but what the Church is for—and what shape and culture both must have if they are credibly to perform the Gospel they preach in the third millennium.