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Pope Francis launches Vatican restructure aimed at flexibility and collaboration

After years of anticipation, Pope Francis issued Saturday a plan to restructure the Roman Curia, the central administrative offices and institutions charged with assisting the pope in leading the Catholic Church, and referred to commonly as the Vatican. 

Photo. The façade is wide and has a row of huge columns rising from the basement to support the cornice. The ribbed, ovoid dome is surmounted by a lantern topped with ball and cross. Its drum is framed by two very much smaller domes.
St. Peter’s Basilica. public domain.


Pope Francis wrote March 19 that his reforms aim to ensure that curial offices serve the needs of diocesan bishops and the mission of the papacy, and emphasized “transparency and coordinated action” — pointed responses to the pope’s longstanding concern that Vatican offices can seem territorial, opaque, and inflexible. 

The norms themselves, published in the apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium, task the Vatican Secretariat of State with administrative coordination, while overhauling and combining related but long-independent offices. The pope himself took on responsibility for the missionary and evangelization departments of the Roman Curia, while elevating the status of the papal almoner, who coordinates Vatican charitable works. 

The text also states directly that lay people can oversee some offices, or dicasteries, of the Curia, while limiting that prerogative according to the competence and responsibilities of the office itself. 

But while much has been made in media coverage about Praedicate evangelium’s affirmation of the “juridical equality” of all Vatican departments, the notion is actually borrowed from Pastor Bonus, the 1988 constitution which Pope Francis has replaced.

The pope’s March 19 publication of Praedicate evangelium came as a surprise to most Vatican watchers, even while the text’s eventual promulgation has been expected for most of the Francis papacy, which began in 2013.

The norms published Saturday come after previously circulating drafts suggested a more dramatic set of changes than those eventually chosen by Francis —  earlier drafts would have seen a far more elevated role for the Secretariat of State than that which Pope Francis ultimately settled upon, along with other proposed changes which did not make the final cut — like a once-proposed assertion of doctrinal teaching authority within national or regional episcopal conferences.

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Structurally, the text depicts a Vatican in which the Secretariat of State, also called the Papal Secretariat in Francis’ text, is given a coordinating role for inter-Vatican projects and initiatives.

The pope redefines the term “dicastery” — while once a general term for several kinds of Vatican offices, Praedicate evangelium retools the term, using it in a limited sense to describe the Vatican offices formerly known as “congregations” — the central administrative offices tasked with governing responsibilities in particular areas like education or doctrine, and in which cardinals constitute a kind of board of members overseeing their work. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for example, has been renamed the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the Congregation for Catholic Education, now merged with the Pontifical Council for Culture, has become the Dicastery for Culture and Education.

The role of the now-Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is modified in the new governing Vatican norms. While the congregation previously had responsibility to approve Vatican texts, from any department, which touched upon faith and morals, the dicastery must now be consulted on such matters, and is tasked with a more hands-on and collaborative process of working with other Vatican departments as tasks are developed.  

Among significant developments is the combination of several Vatican offices focused on evangelization into a large dicastery which will be technically headed by the pope himself.

The Dicastery for Evangelization combines the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which governs the Church’s administration in missionary territories, with the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, an office launched during the papacy of Benedict XVI. The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, known as “Propaganda Fide,” has a broad administrative portfolio covering large swaths of the world, and is one of the wealthiest and most influential Vatican departments. 

The text establishes a new Dicastery for the Service of Charity which did not have a parallel in Pastor bonus.

The new office, which will be headed by papal almoner Cardinal Konrad Krajewski “is a special expression of mercy and, starting from the option for the poor, the vulnerable and the excluded, carries out the work of assistance and help anywhere in the world . towards them in the name of the Roman Pontiff, who in cases of particular poverty or other necessity personally arranges the aid to be allocated.”

The pope’s approach to his commission on child abuse protection has provoked a sharp response from some child protection advocates.

Rather than existing as an independent Vatican body, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is now situated within the framework of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, whose disciplinary section also has responsibility for adjudicating serious sexual misconduct allegations.

Irish abuse survivor and victims’ advocate Marie Collins, who resigned from the commission in 2017 under frustration with the Vatican’s pace of reform, tweeted March 19 that the commission “has now officially lost even a semblance of independence.”

It is not clear what the functional relationship between the DDF and the commission will actually be, or whether the change is simply part of an overall effort to situate advisory commissions within relevant dicasterial offices, apparently for the purposes of budgeting, planning, and a streamlined organizational chart. 

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 Notably, the financial structures of the Holy See are listed separately from the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, in an apparent recognition of their distinct status within the Vatican’s administrative apparatus. And, curiously, the financial offices do not appear to share in the revised naming schema applied to most other Vatican departments. 

The Council for the Economy, which by law must still be headed by a cardinal, retains oversight of nearly all Vatican financial policies and affairs. The Secretariat for the Economy, like the Secretariat of State, is described as the “Papal Secretariat” for economic and financial matters, with “control and supervision” in administrative and financial matters for the curia, and with “special control” over Peter’s Pence and other papal funds.

However, in a notable carve out to the secretariat’s mandate, it merely “collaborates” with the Secretariat of State, which has “exclusive competence” over matters touching diplomatic functions and anything touching international law.

The secretariat and council for the economy’s authority also does not extend to anything covered by state secrecy, which is under the supervision of the Commission for Reserved Matters, currently headed by the Cardinal camerlengo, Cardinal Kevin Farrell. 

Pope Francis has made financial reform of the Roman curia a cornerstone of his pontificate, but many of his early reforming efforts led to clashes between the Secretariat for the Economy, first led by Cardinal George Pell, and the Secretariat of State.

Clashes between those two departments in recent years included the London property deal, a Vatican investigation into which led to the charging of 10 former officials and associates at the Secretariat of State. 

Previous reforms issued by Francis removed control of Church assets and funds from the Secretariat of State, transferring them to APSA, the Holy See’s sovereign wealth manager, or placing them under the oversight of the Secretariat for the Economy. These include the funds used for the 2018 London deal at the center of a Vatican City criminal trial.

However, the Vatican criminal trial also concerns the use of Secretariat of State funds for covert activities and alleged acts of espionage within the Vatican, and the defendants in these cases, Cardinal Angelo Becciu and Ms. Cecilia Marogna have asserted state secrecy while declining to give evidence in court.

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While Praedicate evangelium affirms that lay people can take up the mantle of leadership in certain Vatican departments — a practice which has already begun in recent years — the text did not indicate any standards of compensation for experts tapped for Vatican administrative roles. Laity actually working in Vatican departments in recent years have raised the complaint that the Holy See — facing massive budget troubles — is not situated to pay a living wage, and that its pay scale reflects a mostly clerical staff who receive supplemental income from their dioceses or religious orders. 

Over the next three months, the Vatican will  begin the massive project of organizational transition from the structure of Pastor bonus to the new structure promulgated by Pope Francis — that transition will seemingly require everything from centralization of budgets, assessment of personnel redundancies, and even ordering new stationery to reflect name changes.

The new constitution takes effect June 5.    

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