Two big moves show Curia reform not stalled

The reform of the Roman Curia accelerated over the summer with the creation of two new powerful bodies dealing with issues that affect most of humanity, signaling Pope Francis’ determination to make the Vatican less clerical and enclosed.

The new so-called “dicasteries” — for Laity, Family and Life, and for Promoting Human Development — take over the work of six pontifical councils, consolidating what have been too often overlapping functions.

As well as streamlining and simplifying these areas — the pope can now relate to two department heads, rather than six — the changes give the two new bodies a higher status than councils, effectively putting them on a par with congregations.

Both juridically and in terms of the optics, therefore, Pope Francis has elevated the status within the Vatican of ‘lay’ concerns such as family and life while giving new prominence to his vision of a battlefield-hospital church concerned for human welfare, and especially the poor.

Laity, family, life

The first body, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, takes over the work formerly done by the two pontifical councils for the Laity and the Family, and adds to its remit supervision of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Its statute was published last June, but its first prefect, Irish-born Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell, was named only at the end of August, just before the dicastery opened its doors for business on Sept. 1. In the statute, called Sedula Mater (“Like a Caring Mother), Pope Francis said he wants to offer particular help and support to lay people, families and life “because they are an active witness of the Gospel in our time and an expression of the kindness of the Redeemer.”

The dicastery is essentially in charge of promoting the reinvigoration of marriage and family laid out in Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which Bishop Farrell has warmly praised. The Spanish-speaking former Legionary — who is now, incidentally, the highest-ranking American in the Holy See — will initially live in Rome with his brother Brian, who is secretary for the pontifical council promoting Christian unity.

On the same day as that announcement, Francis tapped the outgoing head of the soon-to-be-defunct Pontifical Council for the Family, 71-year-old Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, to head two Rome bodies concerned with pro-life issues: the Pontifical Academy for Life — which falls under Bishop Farrell’s dicastery — and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

Paglia, who was promoter of Oscar Romero’s sainthood cause, is one of the founders of the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome and a natural Francis ally. By putting him in charge of the Vatican’s pro-life engagement, Francis is signaling his determination not to allow the life cause to be captured by conservative culture warriors (among the ordinary members of the Academy for Life are two signatories of a petition protesting Amoris Laetitia).

Human development

The second body, the Dicastery for Promoting Human Development, had been announced earlier in the summer, but not until Aug. 31 were either its name or its head known.

When it opens on Jan. 1, 2017, the human development dicastery will take over the work currently done by four pontifical councils, which will then close: Justice & Peace, Migrants & Itinerant Peoples, Health Workers (which oversees the work of around 6,000 Catholic hospitals and 18,000 clinics across the world), and the Vatican’s charitable arm, Cor Unum.

The dicastery will be headed by another Francis ally, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who currently is the president of the council for Justice and Peace.

The dicastery’s name is strongly redolent of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical, Popolorum Progressio, which speaks of “integral human development” as not merely economic and material growth but “must foster the development of each man and of the whole man.”

According to the apostolic letter creating it, Humanam Progressionem, the dicastery “will be competent particularly in issues regarding migrants, those in need, the sick, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters, and all forms of slavery and torture.”

An external focus

The new dicasteries are a major step forward in the curial shake-up being overseen by the pope’s council of nine advisers, or C-9. The first stage, in 2014, saw the creation of a new Secretariat for the Economy to oversee Vatican finances; then, last year, Francis created the Secretariat for Communications, to consolidate the Vatican’s multiple media outlets.

If the two secretariats were about putting the Vatican’s internal house in order, the two new dicasteries are about showing the importance of the Church’s engagement with the wider Church and world.

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The new bodies are neither congregations (which are executive bodies governing the work of the Church) nor pontifical councils (advisory bodies created at the time of Pope Paul VI) but a hybrid. Back in June, Father Federico Lombardi, who has since stood down as Vatican spokesman, said he did not know if there would be a final “qualification” of the new bodies as either one or the other, adding that the lack of a decision on the precise nature of the new dicastery was “intentional”.

Yet by making Bishop Farrell and Cardinal Turkson prefects rather than presidents, Francis has sent a clear signal that the internal regulation of the Church is not more important than its engagement with lay people, or life and justice issues.

He has also opened new opportunities for lay involvement, stipulating in the new dicastery statutes that the deputies in both cases “may also be laypeople” (men or women). In interviews, Bishop Farrell has said Francis wants to see lay people in more prominent positions in the Vatican bureaucracy, and both he and Cardinal Turkson are expected to name high-profile laypeople to senior positions.

Reform roll-out

It is clear by now that the curial reform is being staged rather than implemented all at once, and so any future new constitution — to replace Pope St. John Paul II’s Pastor Bonus, which regulates the Curia — will reflect, rather than determine, the reforms.

For now, there appear to be four kinds of departments in the Vatican: four powerful secretariats to govern the Vatican’s internal workings (state, synod, economy, communication), nine congregations to regulate the Church worldwide (clergy, bishops, religious congregations, eastern Churches, education, canonizations, missions, the sacraments and doctrine), two dicasteries concerned with the Church’s engagement with the wider Church and society (laity, family and life, and integral human development), and five pontifical councils (for culture, Christian unity, interreligious dialogue, legislative texts, and new evangelization, the last created in 2011), at least some of which are likely to be merged or absorbed in the next stage of the shake-up.

Although that next stage is not yet clear, it can no longer be said that curial reform is stalled. The Vatican already looks and feels different.

Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).