News Analysis

The gaps in the Vatican’s draft constitution

The talk last week was all about the impending reform of the Roman Curia, to be accomplished – on paper, at any rate – by way of an apostolic constitution, Praedicate Evangelium, the contents of which were previewed in an article published Saturday by Spain’s leading Catholic weekly, Vida Nueva.

The major development was pride of place for the new “super-dicastery” dedicated to evangelisation. Putting the evangelisation department in first place among the curial departments means the demotion of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which previously held the top spot. Other elements of the reorganisation include the elevation of the office of the Papal Almoner to a full dicastery and the integration of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors within the curial system. All this received ample treatment over the past two weeks.

The picture the preview painted was of a somewhat streamlined operation, said to be dedicated to the service of the universal Church’s primary mission: evangelisation. The article contained quotations from two of the reform law’s principal draftsmen: Cardinals Oswald Gracias of Mumbai and Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa.
“The title of the text,” said Cardinal Gracias, “shows that evangelisation is the number one goal, ahead of anything else.” That is the reason for which the new “super-dicastery” for evangelisation “will be the first dicastery”.

The primacy of evangelisation is a consequence of the Great Commission: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). With the CDF sidelined, the question is: who will say what gets taught?

Anyone doubting the real practical urgency of the question should look up Serene Jones and Union Theological Seminary – the senior independent theological formation institution in the US, of which Jones is president. Jones recently told the New York Times: “For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.”

In short, there’s an evident danger with the new order of the Roman Curia, which is in essence and inescapably a power structure: that it might not be able to do a lot of the things it needs to.

There is, moreover, little indication that the blueprint actually addresses the problems that gave rise to calls for reform in the first place: cronyism, incompetence, careerism, corruption and the near-total lack of appreciation for the realities of contemporary communication, to name only a handful.

“The Pope wanted that an attitude of service prevail and that the Curia be also directly available to the bishops,” Cardinal Gracias told Vida Nueva. “We talked a lot about this in our meetings.”

The magazine explained in its preview that the basic idea is to make the departments of the Roman Curia not so much a tool for the Pope to use in supervising the world’s bishops, as to repurpose them, so that their “main role is to help [the bishops]”. That sounds nice, but it makes one think of US President Ronald Reagan, who famously quipped: “The scariest words in the English language are: ‘We’re from the government, and we’re here to help’.”

Also, when powerful men are given the task of reforming the institutions in which they themselves are somehow involved, and their main selling point is a promise of a new, service-oriented ethos, one is inclined to take their protestations with a grain of salt. At the very least, one is inclined to ask for specific illustrations of the ways in which they have checked, reordered and otherwise redistributed their power. One is further inclined to ask them how much of their power have they shared, and with whom, and to what specific practical ends.

Whatever the new order ends up looking like, the Church in most of the world will mostly keep on muddling. For a good while, at least, nothing will happen: the bureaucrats in Rome will have to figure out how the new system works – and doesn’t – while the bishops will mostly keep doing whatever it is they do.

The high anticipation is largely a function of the effort’s origin in Pope Francis’s election, from which it emerged that his electors had entrusted him with carrying out the reform everyone agreed was long past due. “[Praedicate Evangelium] offers to the People of God a new and courageous perspective of reform in the spirit of [Pope] Francis,” Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga told Vida Nueva.

That made this Vatican-watcher think of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri’s assertion that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christus vivit “will constitute for the near future a magna carta of youth and vocational pastoral ministry in the various ecclesial communities.”

These red hats need someone to explain to them the notion of over-selling.