A Week of Big Changes

By the end of this week, the Vatican will have carried out two large acts. This past Saturday, the Feast of St. Joseph and the ninth anniversary of the pope’s election, Rome finally released the long-awaited blueprint for reform of the Curia, Predicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel” – Italian text available by clicking here). Next Friday, the Feast of the Annunciation, Pope Francis will consecrate Russia and Ukraine, in the midst of Russia’s brutal aggression, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It will be interesting to see what consequences may follow from the one and the other move.

Some of the pope’s most unwavering acolytes have claimed that he was elected to be “the great reformer.” Given the divisions, confusions, and worse of the past nine years and the ongoing problems with the Vatican’s finances and handling of abuse cases, history may see things differently.

But his “Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia and its Service to the Church in the World” (its full title) is ambitious. It’s clearly intended to streamline various Vatican offices (partly, it may be, because of fiscal deficits) and to point them in a more outward-facing direction. It replaces St. John Paul II’s 1983 Pastor Bonus, which also attempted curial reform but, as the past four decades show, did not resolve some major administrative problems.

The Catholic Thing will be bringing you pointed commentary on the many proposed changes in coming weeks and months, as we see where they lead. But it’s important in the short run to get a few of the larger points clear to help prevent some alleged “spirit of the reform” from blotting out everything else – as happened after Vatican II.

Secular news outlets have already tried to interpret the new arrangements within the framework of the “issues” that they think most important such as allowing laypeople and women to head certain offices. But at this point in human history, that sort of thing is small potatoes compared with the main issue: Is the Church now going to be both more faithful and more effective in the world it speaks of “serving”? Clearly, in recent years, it’s been failing on both fronts.

In one way, the who matters much less than the what. If you’re going to “Preach the Gospel,” it has to be the Gospel – the whole Gospel and nothing but – and not some halfway compromise with a post-everything world.

In another way, of course, the personnel matter very much – not whether they are male or female, lay or cleric, Western or not, but whether they care more about the Biblical way of things than they do the world’s wayward embrace of race, class, and gender. Coming appointments will tell us much about all that.


Some of the more reliable observers of the Roman scene point out that there are theological complications that come with the administrative changes. In the older system, a Cardinal headed a “congregation” – which is to say an assembly of bishops, clerics, perhaps laypeople – who formed a kind of collaborative group advising the pope. The Congregations will now become “dicasteries,” more like independent offices with authority designated to them by the Holy Father. Whether that will foster or hinder collaboration remains to be seen.

There’s a theological dimension to the bureaucratic shift. Under the older system, clerics – which is to say people ordained and thereby sharing in the authority Christ committed to Peter and the apostles – could exercise authority over others – in particular, Cardinals and archbishops issued orders to other Cardinals, bishops, priests, religious. But can a layperson – though worthy of attention as a fellow Christian, of course – exercise authority over ordained authorities?

Predicate evangelium does not seem to have carefully considered that ecclesiological problem.

There also seems to be a general levelling down of the different dicasteries. For many faithful Catholics, the older Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was the bulwark against all the temptations inside and outside the Church to water down the apostolic tradition. It’s unclear whether the newer Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith will still be able to play that role given that other dicasteries seem to be on an equal footing.

Liturgists have been quick to point out that the term “extraordinary form” of the Latin Mass has returned in the document even though Traditionis custodes said there was only one form of the Roman Rite. Carelessness, or a deliberate clarification? Time will tell.

Since the document was issued in Italian, and there is no authoritative Latin version by which to measure the accuracy of various vernacular translations, details such as these remain very much in limbo – an odd debut for a text that has been nine years in the making.


The consecration – some argue re-consecration – of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary seems far more straightforward. When John Paul II consecrated Russia and the whole world to Mary in 1984 Ukraine was one of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Now, Pope Francis is quite boldly placing the two separate nations under the mantle of one of the most amazing Catholic events of the 20th century, the appearances of the Virgin Mary at Fatima.

The secular side of my work has been taking me to Portugal annually for more than a dozen years. I almost always drive up to the still-small village where Our Lady appeared because, to my mind and in the understanding of many others, she predicted much of the course of the 20th century, the coming of Russian Communism, and the way to triumph over it.

Russian Communism is gone; Russian imperialism and cultural pretentions may call for further Marian intervention. So kudos to Pope Francis for taking this bold step and asking the bishops of the world to join him in this consecration, in the midst of an agonizing war. Whatever the immediate military or political outcome, the whole world and the Church will, as with the USSR, over time be much the better for it.


*Image: Mary, Queen of Heaven by the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, c. 1485-1500 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Fatima the Uncanny

Michael Pakaluk’s Is Vatican II Spent?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.