By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
Every pope it seems likes to tinker with the structure of the Roman Curia, the central bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, and in recent years it was Pope Paul VI who did major tinkering. But it is Pope Francis who has done a radical one.
Almost from the inception of his pontificate nine years ago, Francis began the process of reforming—yet again—the Curia. Following extensive consultation with his newly-created Council of Cardinals, national episcopal conferences, and other relevant bodies, we now have at hand a foundation for significant and welcome change.
Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel) was formally released as an apostolic constitution on the anniversary of the pope’s election—March 19—and will be enacted on June 5. It embodies the pontiff’s ecclesiology in a practical and administrative way, reflects his pastoral priorities (evangelization and lay empowerment), places strong emphasis on service over power, and simplifies the nomenclature so that all the various bodies that constitute the Roman Curia are now identified as dicasteries and no longer as congregations and councils.
Of great consequence is the innovation regarding the laity. Qualified women and men can now be appointed to head one of the Vatican dicasteries—there will undoubtedly be a couple of exceptions that may require continued clerical oversight as with the departments that deal with clergy and bishops but let me be clear, this is a serious advancement in terms of governance and mission. The very idea that credentials, competence and a history of demonstrated commitment could trump holy orders when it comes to appointing Vatican-based leadership is astonishing. Jesuit canonist Gianfranco Ghirlanda notes what Francis underscores: “the power of governance in the church does not come from the sacrament of orders but from the canonical mission of every baptized Catholic.”
Of course, there have been qualified laywomen and laymen involved in diocesan leadership for decades now as chancellors, consultants, etc. and there have been laypersons in various curial positions in Rome for some time, but the new constitution opens things up in a boldly expansive way. And this means that the potential for the best leadership is now possible across the board—clerical and lay.
This is good for the Vatican; it is good for Francis; it is good for the People of God.