The Papacy has entered a new phase with Saturday’s release of the long-awaited reform programme of the Holy See bureaucracy. Chiefly, it envisages a greater decision-making role for the laity and gives institutional weight to efforts to fight sexual abuse on the part of clerics.
The 54-page text, titled Praedicate Evanglium, or “Proclaiming the Gospel,” replaces the founding constitution, “Pastor Bonus”, that was penned by St. John Paul II in 1988. It would be pertinent to recall that Francis was elected as Pope in 2013 following his promise to reform the bulky and inefficient Vatican bureaucracy, which acts as the organ of governance for the 1.3-billion strong Catholic Church. He named a Cabinet of cardinal advisers who have met periodically since his election to help him draft the changes.
Much of the reform work has been rolled out piecemeal over the years, with offices consolidated and financial reforms initiated. But the publication of the new document, for now only in Italian, finalizes the process and puts it into effect in June. The document was released on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of Francis’ installation as Pope and the feast of St. Joseph, an important figure to the Pope’s ministry.
The reforms emphasise the missionary and charitable focus of the church as well as the need for the Vatican to be at service both to the Pope and local dioceses. It envisages greater roles for laity, making explicitly clear that lay people ~ not just priests, bishops, or cardinals ~ can head a major Vatican office, and that staff should reflect the geographic universality of the church. In a major change, it brings the pope’s advisory commission on preventing sexual abuse into the Vatican’s powerful doctrine office which oversees the canonical investigations of abuse cases.
Previously, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors existed as an ad hoc commission that reported to the Pope but had no real institutional weight or power. It often found itself at odds with the more powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which reviews all cases of abuse. The advisory commission is now part of the newly named Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, where presumably its members who include abuse survivors can exert influence on decisions taken by prelates who decide whether predator priests are sanctioned and how.
For the first time, Pope Francis has made safeguarding and the protection of minors a fundamental part of the Church. Maintaining its status as a separate body within the dicastery that enjoys direct access to the Holy Father and with its own leadership and staffing, the renewed and re-affirmed Pontifical Commission will play an increasingly incisive role in ensuring the church is a safe place for children and vulnerable persons.
The changes introduced are indeed historic. Other changes involve making the Pope’s personal envoy for charity and alms the head of a dicastery in its own right, making clear the importance that this service-oriented job has for Francis.