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The CDF, explained: 'Nobody expects the Roman Inquisition'

Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio, the seat of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Credit: Jim McIntosh via Flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

Pope Francis on Monday made some changes to the structure of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the department of the Roman curia responsible for overseeing both doctrinal and major disciplinary issues in the universal Church.

Don’t know much about the CDF? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

The Pillar brings you up to speed.

What is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

According to Pastor bonus, the Vatican’s constitutional document, the CDF is a Vatican department with the duty to “promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world.”

That’s kind of a broad description, huh? Well, put more concretely, the CDF monitors theological trends within the Church, and publishes corrections, clarifications, or guidelines when necessary. It can also examine and address the work of individual theologians, although it does this rarely, and it answers questions about theological issues — often with the authority of the pope — which are raised by bishops around the world.

Pastor bonus says that to promote Catholic doctrine, the CDF “fosters studies so that the understanding of the faith may grow and a response in the light of the faith may be given to new questions arising from the progress of the sciences or human culture.”

Pope Francis built on that definition in his new policy Monday, adding the “transmission of the faith in the service of the evangelization” to the aim of the CDF’s theological work.

So the CDF does doctrinal stuff. Well, that makes sense…

Actually, there’s more!

The work of the CDF is broken into two sections: doctrine, and discipline.

The doctrinal section is responsible for the work mentioned above. But the disciplinary section is charged with overseeing the Church’s canonical prosecution of graviora delicta, or “grave crimes” in canon law.

Those crimes include most instances of clerical sexual abuse. But they also include certain acts of sacrilege against the Eucharist, violating the seal of confession, or concelebrating the Eucharist — or even attempting to — with non-Catholic priests or ministers.

The disciplinary section doesn’t try every canonical case involving those kinds of crimes. But it is involved in nearly every such case — deciding whether to hold a trial or administrative penal process at the Vatican, whether to order dioceses to conduct those processes, whether to waive the canonical statute of limitations, and deciding other issues related to the cases.

Even without hearing every case, the CDF’s backlog of penal cases is very, very, long — the office just doesn’t have the number of staff members required to expedite cases and send them where they need to go. But the congregation does hear many of the most complicated cases, and certainly those involving bishops or cardinals.

It was the CDF’s disciplinary section, for example, which oversaw the penal process that saw Theodore McCarrick laicized in 2019.

In addition to the main work of the doctrinal and disciplinary sections, there are a few related institutions hanging around the CDF.

From 1988 until 2019, the CDF housed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, which was tasked with helping to reconcile traditionalist communities in some state of schism or separation from the Church. Ecclesia Dei conducted apostolic visitations, theological assessments, and dialogue with groups like the Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist organization said to be in “imperfect communion” with the Church. Pope Francis suppressed the commission in 2019, merging its responsibilities into the ordinary office life of the CDF.

Since 1971, the Pontifical Biblical Commission has also been a part of the CDF.

The PBC, as it’s known, exists to lead the Church’s study of Sacred Scripture, and to address questions about Scripture scholarship which arise in the life of the Church.

Also attached to the CDF is the International Theological Commission. Founded in 1969, the ITC consists of theologians from around the world, appointed by the pope, who advise the CDF on its doctrinal work.

Finally, the “marriage desk” at the CDF processes petitions for dissolutions of non-sacramental marriages “in favor of the faith,” when certain conditions are fulfilled. The pope himself makes the final decision regarding each such case.

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What did the pope change about the CDF this week?

Very little, actually.

In essence, Pope Francis ensured that both the doctrinal and disciplinary section of the CDF will each have an archbishop secretary responsible for overseeing the work, and reporting to the cardinal prefect of the entire congregation.

Previously, the congregation had only one secretary, who functions like a COO or a general manager, to oversee both sections, with the help of an undersecretary on each side. It is not clear whether those undersecretaries will be the bishops promoted to the new secretarial positions.

Where did the CDF come from? Has the Church always had one?

Great questions. Here’s a history, in a nutshell:

-In 1542, Pope Paul III established the Sacred Roman and Universal Inquisition, a Vatican tribunal, or court, staffed by cardinals, which would hear appeals in trials of heresy and schism conducted in more local ecclesiastical courts.

The pope was formally the head, or prefect, of the congregation — a custom that lasted until 1968. But within a few decades of its founding, most of the day-to-day management responsibilities of the Sacred Roman and Universal Inquisition were taken care of by a papally appointed cardinal secretary.

-Beginning in 1555, the scope of the court expanded significantly, growing over the next two centuries to include sexual abuse, desecration of sacraments, and other serious violations of morality and canon law.

- In 1571, a related office, the Congregation for the Reform of the Index of Forbidden Books, was created to investigate possibly heretical theological texts, and to ensure that texts which contained serious and misleading doctrinal errors were indexed, with appropriate warnings about their ability to lead readers into error - and sometimes canonical penalties for the unauthorized acquisition of those texts by clerics. Ultimately, it was the pope who decide which books would be listed on the index.

In 1917, the responsibilities of the forbidden books congregation were transferred to the CDF. And in 1966, the index was largely discontinued.

-In 1908, Pope Pius X modernized and reorganized the congregation, renaming it the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office.

- In 1965, the congregation was again renamed, and became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Beginning in 1968, following revisions from St. Pope Paul VI, the pope was no longer prefect of the congregation, and a cardinal was appointed to that role.

I hate to end on such a formal note. Got any interesting trivia about the CDF?

Sure, here’s something. Since it was founded in the 1500s, only three cardinals who headed the CDF were elected pope: Cardinal Antonio Ghislieri, O.P., became Pope St. Pius V, Cardinal Camilo Borghese became Pope Paul V, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.

Bartolomeo Passarotti - Pius V.jpg
Pope St. Pius V. Bartolomeo Passarotti, public domain.

Pope St. Pius V, who was a Dominican, is often credited with the custom of popes wearing white, because he continued to wear his white Dominican habit after he was elected to the papacy. But the custom was first documented at least 300 years before Pius V, during the papacy of Pope Gregory X, and was actually even more ancient even than that.

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