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Still C.D.F. - Francis begins congregation’s next episode

Pope Francis on Monday issued a policy that will create a new senior level official at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and that affirmed the importance of the congregation within the Roman Curia’s hierarchy of offices and departments. 

Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Pillar file photo.


The motu proprio, titled Fidem servare, reforms the internal organization of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and paves the way for several senior appointments within the department. 

Promulgated in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano on Monday, the text calls for a more formal split between the doctrinal and disciplinary offices of the CDF, and for the appointment of two CDF secretaries, with each leading one section of the congregation under the leadership of a prefect.

The doctrinal office of the CDF is responsible for overseeing the work of theologians and responding to questions from bishops about doctrinal issues, while the disciplinary section oversees the most serious canonical cases in the Church’s life, including most clerical sexual abuse cases.

The creation of a new, second secretary is significant. 

Pope Francis has ordered the visitations of a number of curial departments in recent years. In the aftermath of those visitations, the pope’s departmental reforms have generally included a reduction in staff count, rather than an increase, in line with chronic curia-wide budgetary concerns.

Most departments, called dicasteries, of the Roman Curia, have one prefect, who is generally a cardinal, and one secretary, who is generally an archbishop. The CDF will now have two archbishop secretaries — a rarity within the structures of the Roman curia. 

The Congregation for Clergy had until last year a second archbishop secretary, responsible for dealing with seminaries. But after an apostolic visitation of the department, the incumbent was assigned to lead a Mexican archdiocese, and the position was left vacant. 

By cutting against the trend of personnel reductions, the pope emphasized the continued importance of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith within the Vatican — while most predictions for Curial reform expected that the Secretariat of State would grow in preeminence, while the CDF’s stature in the Vatican diminished.

The move also paved the way for some expected personnel moves.

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The most recent secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, was moved out of the department in January, and appointed head of the Italian Diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla. 

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the former chief prosecutor of the CDF’s disciplinary section and a trusted papal confidante has been widely rumored to replace Morandi.

Scicluna, a well-regarded canon lawyer, has been an adjunct secretary of the department since 2018. 

The archbishop was reported last month as the frontrunner to replace Morandi, and even as a possible future successor for the CDF’s current prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer. But it would be unusual for a canon lawyer, rather than a theologian, to be handed a senior coordinating role over the Church’s doctrinal department — a fact which some Vatican staffers have already noted. 

The creation of a second secretary-level position, with a formal division between doctrinal and disciplinary affairs, could be intended to make it easier for a canon lawyer like Scicluna to take a stable senior leadership position at the CDF.

Pope Francis now has a full slate of appointments to make for the congregation’s senior positions: in addition to needing to appoint two archbishop secretaries, Cardinal Ladaria will turn 78 in April, and complete his five-year term of office this year.


The doctrinal section of the CDF “deals with matters that have a bearing on the promotion and protection of the doctrine of faith and morals,” according to the motu proprio, and “fosters studies aimed at increasing the understanding and the transmission of faith in the service of evangelization, so that its light may be a criterion for understanding the meaning of existence, especially in the face of the questions posed by the progress of the sciences and the development of society.”

The doctrinal section is also responsible for handling “the examination of the documents that must be published by other Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, as well as of the writings and opinions that appear problematic for the right faith.” 

The doctrinal section also retains competence to deal with all questions relating to the ordinariates established by the 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, which provided personal dioceses for former members of the Anglican communion who enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. 

Several important Church institutions, including the International Theological Commission and the Pontifical Biblical Commission located within the congregation under the norms of Pastor Bonus, John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on the Roman curia, are not mentioned in the new motu proprio but are expected to remain unaffected under their own proper norms within the department. 

The CDF’s disciplinary section handles those canonical crimes which are deemed to be against the faith, including clerical sexual abuse of minors, and against the sacraments. Under canonical reforms issued by St. John Paul II, and reformed by both Benedict XVI and Francis, such crimes are reserved to the exclusive competence of the Holy See through the CDF, with bishops legally required to immediately forward all such allegations to Rome. 

The congregation’ disciplinary section constitutes, under authority delegated to the prefect by the pope, a Supreme Apostolic Tribunal for reserved canonical crimes — essentially the Church’s highest criminal court, separate to the Roman Rota and the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

The disciplinary section also retains responsibility for fostering “a correct understanding and application of the canonical norms relating to their area of ​​competence,” appearing to settle questions about the congregation’s interpretive role in relation to penal law. 

Since the promulgation of Pope Francis’ 2019 law Vos estis lux mundi, there has been ongoing debate among canonists, and between curial departments, about the law’s application, especially concerning the newly-expanded legal category of “vulnerable persons.”

Some canonists have argued that cases involving vulnerable adults as defined by VELM should be handled by the CDF, even though the department has a different legal definition and standard for the term. 

However, in November, in a presentation to U.S. bishops, Archbishop Scicluna said that prosecuting cases involving vulnerable persons was the responsibility of local diocesan bishops, and that they could themselves be subject to charges of negligence if they failed to do so. 

The text of the pope’s new policy was signed by Pope Francis on Friday, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, after the pope had received the congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, SJ, in audience the previous day.

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