By Ed Condon
Pope Francis is widely expected to approve a new structure for the Roman curia in the near future. While the apostolic constitution outlining that structure is not expected to be released for several more weeks, many Church-watchers have begun speculating about what the reorganization could look like, and what it might mean.
Evangelium praedicate, as the constitution is expected to be entitled, will be the culmination of six years of work undertaken by Francis’s Council of Cardinals to better structure curial offices to the current needs of the Church.
Among its provisions, the new constitution is expected to fold the work of various smaller departments into the larger ones. This would be an extension of previous moves by Francis over the last several years, which have already seen various pontifical councils merged into the more well-known congregations, often under a new heading of simply “dicastery.”
One of the most anticipated and commented upon changes is the expected creation of a “super-dicastery” that would come through the merger of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, usually known as Propaganda Fide, with the much smaller Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, created by Pope Benedict in 2010.
In reality, this would be an acquisition, not a merger, as Propaganda Fide, charged with the Church’s missionary works and territories, has a much broader portfolio, and significantly more administrative responsibility, than the council on the new evangelization.
Still, the prediction of a more prominent role for Propaganda Fide is curiously pitched. Already one of the largest curial departments, it has a size and scope far exceeding almost any other.
Its apparently pending expansion into a so-called “super-department” comes as something of a surprise to those experts and curial staffers who consider that it has been, in fact, a “super-department” of the Vatican for several hundred years.
The beneficiary of centuries of dedicated legacies and bequests, Propaganda Fide is also the most financially autonomous curial department. During Francis’s early attempts to impose financial transparency on the curia, one staffer at the Prefecture for the Economy noted that Propaganda Fide probably had a larger asset portfolio and discretionary budget than APSA, the Vatican’s central bank.
While it is hard to see how such a department could get measurably “bigger,” much of the commentary surrounding its supposed elevation in the coming reforms seems to suggest a change in seniority. Some have described it as “replacing” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as the Vatican’s “supreme” department. Such predictions appear to reflect a viewpoint out of step with how the curia is constituted and actually functions.
The traditional billing of the CDF as the “supreme” congregation was rooted in a now dormant custom by which the pope personally served as the department’s head. That practice, along with the use of the word “supreme” in its title, was dropped decades ago.
The very idea of a fixed departmental hierarchy misunderstands the Church’s own concept of the curia, which exists only as an extension of the papal office, at the service of the whole Church.
In the current apostolic constitution organizing the Vatican, Pastor bonus, Pope St. John Paul II describes the curia as being at the service of unity, working to strengthen the unity of the world’s bishops and dioceses with the pope and with each other in the threefold communion which defines Catholicism: communion of faith, of sacraments, and of discipline.
In 1198, Pope Innocent III described curial officials as “extensions of our own body,” charged with tending to those things the pope would handle himself if time allowed. Throughout history, different departments have appeared to have more or less prominence, depending on the priorities of the pope at the time and the situation he was addressing.
Having no inherent authority of their own, and being only a practical creation of ecclesiastical (not divine) law, every curial department exists as an expression of the pope’s own authority. While one or another department’s work might appear prioritized according to the circumstances of the time, suggesting that one expression of papal authority “outranks” any other is simply contradictory to the Church’s expressed self-understanding.
The specific comparison of Propaganda Fide with the CDF offers a useful illustration of the essentially complementary work of all the Vatican departments.
The CDF’s responsibility is, at its core, vigilance. Concerned with protecting the Church from error in faith and morals, it handles matters ranging from the vetting of theological works to judging canonical crimes against the faith – including sexual abuse.
But as an office of vigilance, the work, in a sense, comes to it. The CDF does not have geographic territory or a “missionary function.” It does not post officials around the world to carry out its work.
Propaganda Fide, on the other hand, has a dynamic and global function. Charged with the whole of the Church’s missionary outreach, and with oversight of the Church’s institutional presence in large swathes of the globe, including – for example – China, and other places where dioceses have either not been erected or are not yet self-sustaining.
At a time when much of the Church’s concern focused on a world that was institutionally Christian but prone to great doctrinal controversies, especially in the centuries following the protestant reformation, the CDF’s role was of special significance.
As the Church enters the third millennium explicitly focused on a “new evangelization” of a secularized culture, Propaganda Fide’s mandate has a near universal applicability – something already reflected in the relative size of its staff and resources compared to other departments.
Suggestions that future curial changes in emphasis are reflective of a shift in core Church priorities would seem to mistake the essential unity of the curia’s work in service to the Church’s basic mission to announce the gospel always and everywhere.
Viewing, for example, Propaganda Fide’s work as somehow separate, subordinate or superior to that of the CDF seems to suggest a mistaken understanding that the act of preaching the good news is in conflict with the content of the message.
While the publication of the final document is not expected before next month, Francis has repeatedly stated his aim for curial structures to be better organized to serve their intended purpose and reflect the evangelical mission of the Church.
That mission will be served better by a curia constantly reoriented to its purpose, but achieving that requires a right understanding of the curia’s nature.