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Praedicate evangelium: Pope Francis’ curial reform still a work in progress

The new apostolic constitution for the Roman curia, promulgated by Pope Francis on Saturday, represents a landmark in his pontificate. When he was elected in 2013, the new pope was widely understood to have been elected with a mandate to reform a Vatican bureaucracy plagued by scandal. 

But, after a nine-year drafting process, the document leaves some of its more dramatic reforms undefined, and suggests more changes to come.

Pope Francis. Credit: Mazur/

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Praedicate evangelium, “To Preach the Gospel,” represents a tectonic shift in the functioning of the Roman curia aimed, as the title is meant to imply, towards bringing the Church’s mission to evangelize to the center of its governing structures. 

To this end, the pope has named himself as the head of the Dicastery for the Evangelization; a legal formality in terms of the day-to-day functioning of the department, but an historical nod to how previous popes chose to nominally lead the former Holy Office. The symbolism seems to be that, where previous popes considered themselves the supreme teachers of the Church, Francis wants instead to be seen as the evangelizer-in-chief.

But, beyond the combining, reordering, and renaming of various departments, some of the more apparently radical provisions of the new constitution remain unclear.

Most notably, the general provision that “any member of the faithful can preside over a dicastery” has been hailed as a revolutionary development. 

In canon law and in the Church’s sacramental theology, the exercise of the power of governance has always relied upon the power of orders (sacramental ordination), even if it is vicarious power delegated by a higher authority. It is for this reason that, at the level of dioceses, Judicial Vicars and Vicars General have to be clerics. 

While lay people can, according to the Church, cooperate in the exercise of the power of governance, the theoretical limits of this cooperation have been hotly contested among canonists for years. While Predicate might seem to open that power up, the actual text suggests that it remains both limited and as yet imprecisely defined.

Lay people can lead any department, the constitution says, but with regard “to the particular competence, power of governance and function” of the dicastery: “By reason of its particular nature, or of a special law, a curial institution can have a different structure from that established” by Predicate, the constitution says.

In other words, while it is possible for a layperson (including men and women religious) to lead at least some departments, others may require the exercise of the power of governance in such a particular way as to still require the power of orders. The extent to which lay people should not expect to be in the running for every curial job is further underlined in the constitution, which reserves some roles — like the head of the Council for the Economy — to a cardinal.

Where the line is between a dicastery which can be run by a lay person, and one which cannot, is likely to be intuited at the extremes to begin with: the Dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith, Clergy, and Bishops seem likely to still be run only every by a bishop, and most likely a cardinal, while the Dicasteries for Laity, Family and Life, Education and Culture, and Communications seem especially apt for lay leadership. 

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But it remains to be seen if the pope will press for lay leadership in a department like the Causes of Saints, or will promote a religious sister to the top job at the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. 

It may be especially interesting to see if Francis’ commitment to lay participation extends to the two pro-prefects of his own newly created Dicastery for the Evangelization. But the absence of a clear demarcation between roles open to laity and those not is notable, given the importance of the issue from an ecclesiological perspective — and the attention it was sure to draw.

Also curious is the lack of much reference to the Synod of Bishops in the new constitution, which is only mentioned once — with dicasteries “collaborating” with the synod’s secretariat when appropriate. 

The synod’s permanent secretariat, which is in Rome and headed by a cardinal, is defined by the Code of Canon Law and was not treated in the previous Vatican constitution, Pastor bonus, since it is defined as a consultative body meant to assist the pope in his leadership of the universal Church. 

However, given the emphasis on synodality, both in the text of Praedicate evangelium and in Francis’ vision for the universal Church — which is currently undertaking a global synodal process — it is noteworthy that the constitution does not more directly tie the curia to his vision for a Church that is permanently synodal in its life and governance. 

Interestingly, the constitution defines curial collaboration with the synod’s secretariat as “according to the methods established by the [secretariat] or to be established,” potentially clearing the path for more reforms following the conclusion of the 2023 synodal session in Rome.

Conversely, episcopal conferences are mentioned more than 50 times in the new constitution, up from less than ten in Pastor bonus

While the role of national bishops’ conferences has become more prominent in the life of the Church in recent decades, their actual constitution in canon law limits the scope of which subjects they can treat, and how, without explicit concession from Rome. 

However, Praedicate says they should now be consulted by the Roman Curia on many, if not all, questions of import for the universal Church, on issues ranging from the evangelization, to the teaching of right doctrine, to the appointment of bishops. For many of these issues, local bishops’ conferences will be left wondering if they can expect further canonical reforms explaining how they are meant to treat many of these issues — and perhaps granting them enhanced legal scope to do so.

The promulgation of Praedicate evangelium will rightly be seen as one of the key accomplishments of Pope Francis’ time as pope. However, after nearly a decade of preparation, consultation, and drafting, many were expecting the document to lay out Francis’ comprehensive vision for the curia and the governance of the universal Church. 

Instead, with every new dicastery now looking to clarify its internal governing norms, episcopal conferences left questioning the limits of their own seemingly expanded scope, and the synod of bishops likely to have an enhanced role after its meeting next year, it seems Francis’ curial reforms remain a dramatic work in progress.

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