If you are anything like me, the very words “Vatican bureaucracy” is a trigger for a) jokes and b) instant unconsciousness from boredom. I have lived nearly 35 years as a Catholic and successfully avoided have to care at all about it. The Vatican bureaucracy holds no interest for me at all as a general rule, as does all bureaucracy. I am not one of the superstitious fools who thinks that we should be able to have a global Church without a bureaucracy in which all just harmoniously live by the inspiration of the Spirit without the need of the machinery human beings need in order to get stuff done. But neither do I care about such machinery over much, just as I have little interest in how the electrical grid gets me the power for writing this on my computer and posting it. I’m content that it works, but I don’t care how (unless it breaks).
Most of us live our lives this way. We don’t care about the nitty gritty of our food transport systems, our global finance system, our medical care systems, or a hundred other complex systems somebody or other runs to make sure stuff gets done. That’s why we create systems: so that a handful of specialists can handle all this boring, complicated stuff we don’t understand that the rest of us can focus on the things we do understand and care about. We’ve been doing that ever since we invented civilization and we aren’t about to change.
That said, now and then bureaucracies do, in fact, break or at least, do their jobs so badly that the rest of us start saying, “Do you smell that? Something is very wrong.”
That’s what started to happen 20 years ago when the abuse scandal started to give off a stench so bad that nobody could ignore it. And that stench was caused by another problem even deeper: the conception of the whole Church, not as ordered toward evangelization and mission, but as ordered toward institutional ass-covering and consolidation of power. The trouble is much older than 20 years, but that’s when the stench got so overwhelming it could not be ignored.
That’s why reform of the Vatican bureaucracy (an endeavor to which all bureaucracies are eternally resistant) is a big deal. Reforming any bureaucracy is incredibly hard. Reforming the oldest bureacracy in the world–and an Italian one to boot–is a miraculous Herculean feat and I salute the Pope for even attempting it, much less pulling it off.
Pope Francis has overhauled the Vatican’s central bureaucracy for the first time in over 30 years, dramatically expanding the number of top leadership roles lay men and women can hold and reorganizing Vatican departments under the central priority of evangelization.
The 54-page text of the new Apostolic Constitution was released on March 19 — 9 years to the day of Francis’ inauguration as pope in 2013 — and fulfills a top priority of the College of Cardinals, who made clear their desire to improve and decentralize church governance when they gathered in Rome to name a successor to the then-recently retired Pope Benedict XVI.
Under the title of Praedicate Evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), the new document stresses that evangelization is the central task of the church.
“The reform of the Roman Curia is also placed in the context of the missionary nature of the church,” states the preamble to the text.
The new constitution, currently only available in Italian, will take effect June 5, replacing Pope John Paul II’s 1988 constitution, Pastor Bonus (“The Good Shepherd”).
Overhaul of old and existing Vatican offices
Under the new constitution, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State — which is broadly responsible for helping the pope manage the Vatican and for conducting the Holy See’s international relations — remains the highest office, followed by 16 different Vatican departments.
The new structure eliminates previous distinctions between Vatican congregations and councils, with the newly streamlined title of “dicastery.”
Most notably, the document states that “any member of the faithful can preside over a dicastery,” an update to the 1988 constitution, which specifically stated that Vatican dicasteries are headed by a “cardinal prefect or the presiding archbishop.”
Among the 16 dicasteries, the newly constructed Dicastery for Evangelization is given top listing, just ahead of the newly reformed Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the oldest and, for centuries, arguably the most powerful office of the Roman curia.
As a sign of the office’s significance, the dicastery for evangelization will be headed directly by the pope — a parallel to how the Roman pontiff directly headed the doctrinal office until 1968.
The new office is responsible for the church’s evangelical efforts around the world, including supporting new churches, and is divided into two sections: one responsible for fundamental questions surrounding evangelization and the other tasked with overseeing places of “first evangelization.”
The section on fundamental questions is tasked specifically with “reflection on the history of evangelization and mission, especially in their relations with the political, social and cultural events that have marked and conditioned the preaching of the Gospel.”
In addition, that section will be expected to support local churches in the “process of inculturating the Good News of Jesus Christ in different cultures and ethnic groups, and helping their evangelization, with particular attention to expressions of popular piety.”
The reformed Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is listed second among the departments, follows the restructuring of that office set in motion in February, with autonomous doctrinal and discipline sections that will be coordinated by separate secretaries, both of whom will report to the prefect of the dicastery.
The constitution also now relocates the pope’s clergy abuse commission, known formally as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, within the Vatican’s doctrinal office. The restructuring marks a change from earlier draft versions of the constitution, which had confirmed the commission as an “independent institution connected to the Holy See, with an advisory function at the service of the Holy Father.”
The new constitution says the commission will remain composed of a president, a secretary and members appointed by the pope, and will continue to operate according to its own statutes.
The current president of the commission, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, immediately praised the new structuring, saying in a statement that “for the first time, Pope Francis has made safeguarding and the protection of minors a fundamental part of the structure of the Church’s central government: the Roman Curia.”
There’s a lot here and I expect there will be more tweaks and changes as this goes on, but the big takeaways are that Rome is trying to decentralize, is trying to give laity a bigger role in the work of the Church’s bureaucracy, and, above all, this most missionary of Popes is laboring to get the Church used to the reality that we now live in Missiondom, not Christendom.
This is what most of the Church, structurally speaking, is only barely starting to comprehend. So much of Catholic life is ordered toward maintaining and repairing structures built for Christendom. But Christendom is gone and the Church, much as she did in her first centuries, is facing a world in which the majority of the societies in which she lives do not even know the basics of the gospel, much less see why they need to live their lives in accord with it. (This is, by the way, why the “prolife” movement is so disastrously wrong in attempt to impose by force an ethos on a society that has not first been evangelized to see why they should accept the view of the human person that the gospel teaches. And small wonder, since most of those claiming to be “prolife” spit on that gospel’s view of the human person whenever it challenges their real religion: GOP dogma.)
What Francis understands is that the Church is called out go out into the highways and byways as the servant of all, and especially the least of these, not to act as the concubine of earthly power structures. And that is enormously threatening to vested interests, which is why Reactionaries hate his living guts.
But the Holy Spirit nonetheless leads–sometimes drags–the Church into all truth despite our best efforts to shout him down. So I pray that this shot at reform bears fruit in a Church that reads the signs of the times and becomes the Church of Mission God wills her to be.
St. Paul, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us!