How Pope Francis is reforming the Roman Curia

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Children ride with Pope Francis in the popemobile during the pope’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 25, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

On Pentecost, the birthday of the church, Pope Francis’ reform of the church’s central government will officially come into effect. A new constitution of the Roman Curia, “Praedicate Evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel”), seeks to ensure the Curia’s mission is one of service to the pope and local churches for the purposes of evangelization. Crucially, it opens the path for laypeople to lead Vatican offices, something that has far-reaching implications and that is part of Francis’ attempts to address clericalism in church structures.

New constitutions for the Curia are rare. “Praedicate Evangelium” is just the fourth to have been issued since Pope Sixtus V’s reorganization in 1588, and comes after nine years of painstaking work with his cardinal advisers. It was finally released on March 19 following numerous revisions and a certain amount of bureaucratic filibustering and quibbling.

None of that is surprising, given that Francis’ constitution is the most far-reaching curial reform since Sixtus V established the permanent congregations of cardinals to advise the pope. Francis has made his mark by doing away with congregations and replacing them with “dicasteries,” the departments that help the Roman pontiff govern the church. This is where we come to the most significant change.

When Sixtus V issued his constitution, he ruled that the members of the congregations would all be cardinals. This remained the case until 1967, when Pope Paul VI allowed diocesan bishops to be members of congregations. Francis has gone a step further by saying that any suitably qualified Catholic can be tasked with leading a dicastery.

The pope’s reforms break the link between ordination to the priesthood and governance. In the past, the obstacle for more lay involvement in the running of the church has been the assumption that it is only the ordained who can govern. “Praedicate Evangelium” rules that anyone in leadership in the Roman Curia is not there by their position in the hierarchy but shares in the governance of the Successor of St. Peter. This can now include laypeople. In other words: positions of responsibility are based on the mission that an individual has received rather than ordination to the priesthood. 

Francis is now ensuring this is the case across the church. A couple of months after the new curial constitution, the pope made a special concession allowing brothers to be appointed superiors of religious communities made up of priests and brothers and even the global head of an entire order. In the past, anyone elected to such a position needed to be ordained a priest. It means that a brother could be the leader of the Jesuits, Franciscans or Benedictines.

The latest changes to the male religious orders were made after groups of religious personally appealed to Francis to allow brothers to be elected to leadership positions. After all, neither St. Francis nor St. Benedict was an ordained priest, and the early years of the Franciscans saw non-cleric brothers elected to lead the order. The pope is opening processes that have the potential to bring major reform.

The fundamental shift that Francis is seeking to bring about is reshaping church leadership on the basis of everyone being encouraged to become active, missionary disciples. The aim is to widen participation and utilize a wider pool of talents. To that end, he’s established the lay ministries, open to men and women, of catechist, acolyte and reader. In a synodal model of the church, lay ministry should work alongside, and complement, ordained leadership.

What Francis wants to avoid is a clericalized laity, which he warns can become a “a little group that is close to the priest and commands everyone,” or the belief only those in a Roman collar can make a real contribution to the church. The pope has already appointed a former journalist, Paolo Ruffini, as prefect of the Vatican’s communications department, and there’s no reason why a woman could not lead the new department for culture and education. But the principle of lay leadership has much wider ramifications than what happens in Rome. Applied more broadly, it would mean that lay ministers could be appointed to a wide variety of senior positions.

The real test of the Francis reforms, however, will be in their implementation. Following the release of the constitution, it is widely expected that the pope is going to appoint new leaders to a raft of Vatican departments where a number of top officials have passed the age of retirement. These include the powerful departments overseeing the appointment of bishops (the Dicastery for Bishops) and the doctrine office (the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith). It’s unlikely that laypeople will be appointed to run those departments, given that Francis is also working for broader cultural reform along with personnel changes.

What the reforms of this pontificate seek to reflect is that, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all believers without distinction. The spirit blows where it will, and often in surprising directions.



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