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What is the ‘lay governance’ debate all about?

The debate about lay heads of Vatican departments could change the way the Church governs and defines itself at every level — So, what’s going on?

Eufemia Szaniawska, Abbess of the Benedictine Monastery in Nieśwież with a crosier, c. 1768, National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain.

While this week’s meeting of the College of Cardinals failed to produce the kind of “big news” event some had predicted, the consistory did ask the cardinals to reflect upon Pope Francis’ recent reform of the Roman curia.

But while the wild rumor that Francis was mulling the appointment of a coadjutor vice-pope didn’t pan out (no surprise!), the cardinals still had a major change to the life of the Church to consider — the concept of “lay governance.”

That conversation has the potential to change the way the Church governs, and even defines itself at every level — from the Vatican, to the German synodal way, to local diocesan chanceries.

What’s going on?  What is this debate about, and does it mean for dioceses around the world?

The Pillar explains:

Who’s talking about this?

When Pope Francis promulgated Praedicate Evangelium in March of this year, it included the now-famous reform that “any member of the faithful can preside over a Dicastery or Office,” clearing the way for laymen and women to serve at the highest levels of the Holy See’s administrative apparatus, for the first time.

In the text of Praedicate itself, however, that reform was contextualized in ways that canon lawyers have said is unclear. And some theologians and canon lawyers have said that the plan - or certain interpretations, at least - could  be at odds with the teachings of Vatican Council II.

Those concerns were echoed by some cardinals in Rome this weekend.

And the issue is not just about the Vatican. While a change to governance policies in the Roman Curia is a big deal, the pope has been clear that he sees his curial reforms as an example for the whole Church.

Who has the power?

The Church says that bishops and others in positions of authority might exercise three kinds of functions, or munera, in the life of the Church — the offices of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, which flow the authority given by Jesus Christ to his apostles, and their successors.

While the idea has always been important, Vatican II took special care to emphasize that bishops have a special share in those functions.

Lumen gentium, Vatican Council II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, explained that “In his [episcopal] consecration a person is given an ontological participation in the sacred functions [munera]; this is absolutely clear from Tradition, liturgical tradition included.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this more simply: “Christ himself chose the apostles and gave them a share in his mission and authority.”

“Because it is joined with the episcopal order, the office of priests shares in the authority by which Christ himself builds up and sanctifies and rules his Body,” the Catechism explains.

This link between the sacrament of ordination and the exercise of governing power in the Church is also defined in the Code of Canon Law, which says that “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head.”

According to canon law, “those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.”

While the Church talks about ordination and authority in a particular way, lay people can participate in the governing life of the Church as well. Lay people fill roles like that of the chancellor of a diocese, a promoter of justice (a canonical public prosecutor), and even as judges on canonical tribunals.

But the Church’s law defines their participation as “cooperation” in the power of governance,  and the scope of that cooperating role is limited.

What has changed?

When Pope Francis issued Praedicate, the new constitution defined every curial role as essentially a delegated function of the office of the Bishop of Rome, saying that “each curial institution carries out its proper mission by virtue of the power it has received from the Roman Pontiff, in whose name it operates with vicarious power in the exercise of his primatial munus.”

“For this reason, any member of the faithful can preside over a Dicastery or Office, depending on the power of governance and the specific competence and function of the Dicastery or Office in question.” the constitution says.

That’s being interpreted by some observers as a theological sea change — they argue it separates sacramental ordination from the capability to fill those Church offices which directly exercise significant governance prerogatives.

But others say that the limiting clause, “depending on the power of governance…” means the pope’s announcement doesn’t amount to much — that lay people are restricted from appointment to most significant curial offices, because they’re not canonically (or theologically) capable of exercising the power of governance in their own right.

So which is it?

Some Vatican roles, like the head of the Dicastery for Catholic Education, could likely be filled by lay people without raising broad questions about the Church’s self-understanding.

But could a lay person be placed in charge of the Dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith, or Clergy, or Divine Worship and be given the stable power over rule bishops on matters of faith and morals, governance of their own priests, or the administration of the sacraments?

Praedicate itself isn’t clear on these questions - it offers a possibility, and a limit on that possibility, but no specifics.

And it doesn’t address the implications of an administrative decision that raises deep theological questions about the power and purpose of sacred orders in the life of the Church.

That’s what cardinals say they’re asking about this week.

What are the cardinals saying?

In a Vatican press conference after Praedicate’s promulgation, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, a senior canon lawyer who helped draft the constitution, offered a maximalist interpretation of the roles open to lay people, saying “the power of governance in the Church doesn't come from the sacrament of Holy Orders, but from the canonical mission.”

Ghirlanda seemed to endorse a theological argument which says that in the end, the only power of governance in the Church comes from the pope, and he can share it or delegate it as he likes. Bishops, according to some versions of that argument, have a strictly sacramental function, beyond which they operate under papal authority alone.

Ghirlanda’s comments caused a stir at the time — some theologians and canonists said they seemed to discount the teaching of Lumen Gentium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the intrinsic link between sacramental ordination and Church governance, and the emphasis of Vatican Council II on the nature and authority of the college of bishops — with the pope as its head — as the supreme authority in the Church.

Shortly thereafter, Francis nominated the then-79-year-old canonist to become a cardinal; Ghirlanda was among the 20 new members of the college to participate in the consistory this week.

But while his inclusion in the college suggests Pope Francis has at least an open ear for Ghirlanda’s theory of Church governance, it’s by no means the only opinion he will have heard this past weekend.

While there was no open general discussion during the consistory, cardinals were encouraged to send their thoughts straight to Francis, after they met in smaller language groups.

Several cardinals, including members of the pope’s closest circle of advisors, have warned against pushing ahead with the separation of governance from sacramental orders.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops and the longest-serving member of Francis’ curia, made his own feedback public, as did Cardinal Walter Kasper, the German cardinal whom Francis tasked with leading the main discussion during the last full consistory meeting in 2014.

In his own assessment of Ghirlanda’s position, published L’Osservatore Romano last month, Ouellet acknowledged that the same issue has been debated at different times throughout the Church’s history, and pointed to examples for both sides. But the cardinal noted that many canonists consider Ghirlanda’s argument to be “a Copernican revolution in the governance of the Church, not in continuity with or even going against the ecclesiological development of Vatican Council II.”

“As for the government of the Roman curia,” wrote Ouellet, “it is not enough to say that the canonical mission entrusted by the Holy Father is sufficient to establish the power of jurisdiction of every authority exercised in the dicasteries, be it the person designated cardinal, bishop, religious or lay person.”

To do so, said the cardinal, would perpetuate “a juridical mentality… which places the emphasis only on the delegation of power, without taking into account the charismatic dimension of the Church, which would go directly against the opening to authentic decentralization.”

In his own thoughts, Kasper, whom Pope Francis repeatedly credited as an inspiration and a mentor in the early years of his pontificate, stressed that Vatican Council II “tends to reconnect the two areas and unite the two powers” of sacramental and governing authority.

“A dualism between the authority sacramentally conferred by ordination and the authority of governance or jurisdiction conferred by mandate,” wrote Kasper, “could end up becoming detached from the sacramental life of the Church and could also develop a certain life of its own with unhappy consequences.”

Supporters of the Ghirlanda school of thought tend to argue from history - pointing out times in the past in which certain lay ecclesiastical authorities did seem to exercise jurisdictional authority. The most common such example is that of mitered abbesses in past centuries, who sometimes exercised a kind of de facto ordinary authority over the ecclesiastical life in the territory surrounding their monasteries.

Mother Abbess Placida von Eichendorff of of Frauenchiemsee Abbey. Public domain.

Other supporters argue that an idea of governance in the Church which views sacramental orders as essential for exercising certain offices is just an argument for clericalism. If supreme governing authority belongs to the pope, they contend, it is for the pope to decide who can and should share in his governing authority, and he can delegate that authority to whomever he decides is best able to do the job.

While most canonists and theologians agree with that principle to a degree, there isn’t consensus about how far it extends, and what the theological consequences might be for trying to separate the governance of the Church from its sacramental hierarchy.

Beyond Rome

The decentralization of governing authority in the Church, in favor of a renewed appreciation for the apostolic authority of individual diocesan bishops, was a key theme of Vatican Council II, and remains a live issue in the Church’s ongoing leadership reform.

The “synodal way” now being undertaken by bishops in Germany has made decentralization of teaching authority and ecclesiastical governance away from Rome and towards enhanced local lay governance a key priority, including advancing a plan for permanent “synodal assembly” to act as a national governing body for the Church, placing a committee of lay people and bishops in authority over diocesan bishops across a range of issues.

That plan, and the German “synodal way” more broadly, have triggered repeated warnings from Rome, including Ouellet’s Dicastery for Bishops, which has called the German synodal way “not ecclesiologically valid,” and the idea of a joint lay-bishop governance board impossible.

Kasper, long-considered one of the leading progressive voices in the German and global Church, has denounced the idea of a permanent synodal governing body with lay members as “an outrageous innovation.”

But if German plans for more lay governance have been repeatedly opposed by Rome, and by the pope himself, that opposition does not seem to be universal, even among Francis’ closest collaborators.

In an interview with German periodical Herder Thema this week, the head of the Permanent Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, Cardinal Mario Grech, criticized public warnings about the German plans from senior churchmen like Kasper.

Grech, who was made a cardinal by Francis in 2020, is responsible for coordinating the global process of the “synod on synodality,” currently in the continental phase and scheduled to finish in Rome next year.

The cardinal said that “denunciations” of the German plans were unhelpful and polarizing, and that those sharing the concerns of Ouellet and Kasper should “dialogue” with the synodal leaders.

Grech encouraged critics to “trust in the Catholic Church in Germany and in the bishops, that they know what they are doing."

Grech’s apparent sympathy to the German plans, and his inclination to give their viability the benefit of the doubt could prove significant. In addition to being on the agenda during the consistory this week, the subject of lay governance has been repeatedly flagged in synodal reports from other countries and dioceses.

Crucially, the synodal reports which flag lay governance as a key issue tend to be from European or North American dioceses which also report the lowest levels of participation in the synodal process itself — unusually an anemic 1% of local Catholics — compared to dioceses in places like Africa, which boast much higher rates of participation and much more confidence in the Church’s traditional governing structures.

As head of the synodal secretariat, Grech’s view of the debate on lay governance could end up swaying much of the synodal agenda, and the tone of the conversation around lay governance in Rome in the run up to its meeting next October.

What happens next?

In the more immediate future, Pope Francis is expected to name a slate of new heads for Vatican dicasteries in the next month, including a replacement for the 78 year old Ouellet. How many lay people the pope decides to appoint, and to which departments, will be a clear early indication of how far the pope wants to push the notion of lay governance — at least for now.

But it’s also possible the Vatican could start quietly authorizing dioceses to appoint lay people to local chancery offices reserved to clerics in canon law.

Multiple sources in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, for example, have told The Pillar that earlier this year Cardinal Wilton Gregory asked the Holy See to allow him to appoint a layman as moderator of the curia, a role overseeing the administration of the archdiocese which canon law says should ordinarily be a vicar general and must always be a priest.

If Washington and other dioceses in places like the U.S. begin to appoint lay people to roles explicitly reserved to priests in canon law - with Vatican approval - it could signal that Francis intends his curial reforms to be carried into the ordinary workings of local Churches right away.

Further ahead, the extent to which expansionist visions of lay governance are given space in the synodal documents coming out of Rome over the next year will likely be a key indication of the tone and direction of the debate during the synod itself, and even in the synod’s final document, which could in turn help shape the pope’s attitude to future lay appointments in more Vatican departments and in dioceses around the world.

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