World’s cardinals gather to ponder Vatican reform

consist2015a[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome]  Prior to the ceremony to create 20 new cardinals in St Peter’s tomorrow, the college of cardinals have been meeting in the synod hall to hear reports on the progress of Vatican reforms, and to consider plans for the biggest restructuring of its bureaucracy in generations.

Pope Francis yesterday morning opened the two-day “extraordinary consistory” of the college — 165 cardinals were present yesterday, including the 20 who are to be given their red hats tomorrow — with a speech reminded them of the purpose of church reform: not as an end in itself, but to enable a more effective Christian witness, to evangelise, and to build bridges. (Transcript here.)

The goal, he said, was to enable the various departments (known as “dicasteries”) of the Vatican to work better together, ” in order to achieve a more effective collaboration in that absolute transparency which builds authentic sinodality and collegiality” — two key words in Francis’s reform (for background, see CV Comment here).

consist2015bHe added that the reform had been strongly urged by the cardinals prior to the conclave that elected him in March 2013. They had been concerned that the Vatican had become, in Francis’s own memorable word, “self-referential”, and that its purpose — to facilitate the mission of the Pope — had been obscured. Francis yesterday told the cardinals that the reform “will further perfect the identity of the same Roman Curia, which is to assist the Successor of Peter in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office for the good of and in the service of the universal Church and the particular Churches.” He then reminded them of the purpose of the Pope: ” to strengthen the unity of faith and communion of the people of God and promote the mission of the Church in the world.”

Getting to that point would not be easy: it “requires time, determination and above all  everyone’s cooperation”. Above all, he said, it required prayer and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

He then urged the cardinals, as he had urged the synod of bishops in October last year, to speak freely and boldly. The meeting, he said, would be fruitful “thanks to the contribution which each of us can express with parrhesia [apostolic courage], fidelity to the Magisterium and the knowledge that all of this contributes to the supreme law, that being the salus animarum [the good or health of souls].”

Archbishop Semeraro

Archbishop Semeraro

The proposals for the restructuring of the Curia were presented by the Council of 9 Cardinals, or C-9, who have spent over a year working on the plans.

The C9’s secretary, Archbishop Marcello Semeraro, read from a document sent to the cardinals that spells out the main ideas behind the reform, among them “the problem of relations with the bishops’ conferences” as  well as “considerations governing the quality of staff” and “the presence of lay people in the service of the various dicasteries”. The reform, in other words, aims to address bishops’ longstanding complaints at excessive Vatican centralism, staff who are sometimes recruited more because of who rather than what they know, as well the need to have more lay people, and especially women, working in the Vatican.

consist2015dAlthough no draft yet exists of a new constitution, it was confirmed yesterday that at the heart of the plans are two new, high-profile congregations: the Congregation for Laity, Family and Life, and the Congregation for Charity, Justice and Peace. At least six of the existing pontifical councils — advisory bodies set up under Pope Paul VI — would be absorbed within these congregations as special sections. Thus the Congregation for Charity, Justice and Peace would include within it the existing councils for health care and migrants, but will also have a new section dedicated to “safeguarding creation”, the subject of a major encyclical Pope Francis is currently working on, to be released in the summer.

The Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, stressed that it wasn’t just a question of “taking certain offices and putting them together in order to reduce their number”, but about giving structural expression to an “ecclesial and theological vision”. The overall effect would be to put the concerns of these two new congregations on the same level as the other existing nine congregations (which are executive bodies with legislative power), while giving laity and family the same standing as clergy, bishops and religious.

However, like those other congregations, the two new ones were likely to be headed by a cardinal, even if the number two could be a lay person.

There were plenty of reminders yesterday, both in comments by Father Lombardi and by cardinals in media interviews, that the road to reform is not easy and will be slow. “There’s a long way to go,” he said, stressing that the new Constitution setting out the new structure will not be ready this year. However, he added, nothing prevented new structures from being created on a provisional basis.

Father Lombardi also said the jury was out on whether it will be effective. “If the reforms lead to a more efficient and less centralized service is something that only time and history will tell,” he said.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, the South-African cardinal Wilfred Napier said that while Pope Francis and the C9 were backed by a majority of the cardinals, he had noted a cooling-off in some. When it comes to reform, “those shouting the loudest” for reform before Pope Francis was elected in 2013 do not seem to be as enthusiastic now, he said, adding: “It’s one thing to say it needs to be done, another to do it”.

Cardinal Napier

Cardinal Napier

Napier, who sits on the Council for the Economy (which oversees the work of the Vatican’s new finance ministry, the Secretariat for the Economy), also said that a number of the larger Vatican congregations long used to a large degree of autonomy were shocked at having now to account for their spending.

“It’s a culture shock to have to report to somebody other than themselves,” he said, adding that getting used to what are standard practices in most companies requires “a mind shift and a change of heart.”

Another complex area is the attempt to restore authority to local bishops’ conferences — as well as continental church bodies such as Latin America’s CELAM or the Asian FABC — after a long period of the Vatican assuming a tight control of doctrinal matters. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis noted:

The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.

This is clearly a complex area which will need a lot of further study. Among the 12 speeches yesterday was one by Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, warning that certain doctrinal competences were not capable of being transferred or devolved, although the document presented to the cardinals contained no specific proposals in that respect.

However, it is clear that in two areas, reform is moving ahead firmly: economic reform, and safeguarding.

The reports made by the C9 to the cardinals yesterday included details of the first meeting of the expanded Commission for the Protection of Minors which took place on 6-8 February.

Peter Saunders of NAPAC

Peter Saunders of NAPAC

The Commission, which includes experts as well as survivors of clerical sexual abuse, agreed terms of reference, set up eleven working groups to make specific recommendations, and has a permanent office in the Vatican which will shortly have its own website. The Commission will oversee the implementation of safeguarding principles across the Church worldwide, while looking at how the Church can help meet the needs of victims.

By including survivors such as Peter Saunders, chief executive of the National Association of People Abuse in Childhood, the Vatican is essentially making itself accountable to them. (Saunders has warned that, while he believes Francis “gets it”, the Church can be too slow to change — and that if he hasn’t seen concrete developments within two years, he will leave.)

(Austen Ivereigh’s biography of Pope Francis,
The Great Reformer, is published by Allen & Unwin in the UK/Ireland and by Henry Holt in the US.)

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