Further Observations on “Preach the Gospel”

Praedicate Evangelium, the long-awaited new constitution for the Roman Curia, has finally been published. I see some light there, especially when it comes to financial oversight and accountability. There is also some strong and appropriate signaling in the pope’s decision to prioritize Evangelization, and to emphasize the Church’s care for the poor. I want to state these good points clearly before critiquing others. In fairness, the previous curial constitutions issued by Paul VI and John Paul II also had their problems, and were not simply improvements on what came before them.

The new constitution says a great deal about synodality as the guiding principle for the new curial regime. When we look at how this is explained, we mostly get a description that resembles how the curia has already been operating for a long time. Ironically, the new emphasis on synodality clashes with the decision to call all the curial departments “Dicasteries” rather than “Congregations” or “Councils.” The older terms expressed the synodal principle more emphatically.

Most importantly, however, there is no synodal government of the curia as such: the new Dicastery for Evangelization, headed by the pope himself, is not the one coordinating all curial work. Instead, the very non-synodical Secretary of State still comes first. Moreover, the fact that the curia and all its organs totally depend on the pope alone is rather more emphasized than previously. If the curia is to become more synodal, uniting the Council for Evangelization to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith would have been more courageous and more traditional – creating a supreme organ at the Holy Office by which the pope would preside over his curia, and make clear what evangelization is.

But there are still other tensions. The constitution, to a rather extreme degree, answers one of the hotly-debated questions in Church law: What is the source of governing authority (potestas regiminis)? Praedicate Evangelium presupposes that in the curia people and organisms have such potestas simply because the pope appoints them (missio canonica). Who they are, whether they are ordained as bishops and priests, seemingly plays no role. At least, that is how it looks to the cursory reader.

The trained eye will see hidden indications that this is not actually the case. If people now believe that any office at the Vatican can be held by anyone – bishops, priests, religious, or laypeople – they’re mistaken and crazy. There are professors in Germany and Switzerland who believe that. But was it wise to allow people more broadly to get such wrong impressions?

We cannot radically separate sacramental ordination and canonical mission simply because they can be distinguished. More fundamentally, if we separate them too much, the Church’s constitution is no longer sacramental but merely structured by delegation and distribution of power.

Some formulations in the constitution must be understood as signals, not realities. The curia itself cannot and need not be a prime agent of evangelization or charitable outreach. It’s also not a think tank. Its ministry is leadership, precisely because the pope himself has the primacy of jurisdiction and teaching only: there is no such primacy in catechesis, pastoral and sacramental ministry, or charity. If popes want to invest more in these areas, they should do so via the diocese of Rome, giving example for others to follow.

*

In a sense, Praedicate Evangelium continues the problematic development of post-Vatican II papalism disguised as collegiality and (now) synodality: there’s much talk about “decentralization” but, in reality, there are now more things that the pope and his curia want to direct, foster, coordinate, etc. – whatever other words are used to cover up the extension of Roman primacy beyond jurisdiction and teaching. At the same time, the core papal functions don’t get the attention they deserve: the near-global abuse crisis is the consequence of not-applying canonical procedures. And in the area of doctrine, we have not exactly seen effective disciplinary action either.

Synodality as it appears in Praedicate Evangelium, is obscure: the particular role of bishops (and cardinals) remains under-determined. Moreover, the way in which the cooperation of clergy, religious, and laypeople at the Vatican is described sounds oddly similar to the idea of representing “classes” or “estates” in governing assemblies, like Old-World General Estates. This is a curious, Catholic version of post-modern identity politics and intersectionality. Theologically, it’s a rather serious misunderstanding of what it means to be a layperson or a cleric.

Equality in the Church consists fundamentally in being baptized believers. Some are called to religious life, others to ordained ministry. Ordained ministry, however, exists in order to teach, sanctify, and lead/govern, much like the Church exists in order to evangelize. No progress can be made unless we are clear on these two essential points.

The idea that leadership is largely separate from the sacrament of ordination is seriously problematic; it becomes a logic of power. The pope himself has his authority because he is the bishop of Rome. Analogously, this connection to ordination applies to all leadership in the Church. The non-ordained can, of course, be involved in Church governance. But there is a fundamental difference and, yes, inequality here.

The Church is sacramentally ordered, which makes her a hierarchical communion. The authority and charism of leadership are intrinsic to the sacrament of holy orders, otherwise that sacrament itself and the very life of the Church as a sacramentally structured community are hollowed out.

At closer inspection, the constitution is as much a theologico-political message as it is a juridical document. That’s a problem, on one side, but on the other, that means it does not demand “religious submission of will and intellect,” but merely that we show loyalty and make every attempt to understand it with great charity.

The document may help the Church to “preach the gospel,” to rediscover that this is at the heart of her mission. At the same time, we must not create the impression that the Church can really do without priests, that getting them out of the way in Rome will produce a better future. There is no evidence for why that should work. It has never worked anywhere.

*Image: The Conversion of the Proconsul (also known as The Blinding of Elymas) by Raphael, 1515-16 [Victoria & Albert Museum, London]. The scene depicted is from Acts 13: 6-12. This is the “cartoon” for one of the tapestries now at the Vatican.

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Who Needs Synodality?

Stephen P. White’s A Solid Foundation for Reform

Msgr. Hans Feichtinger

Msgr. Hans Feichtinger, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is pastor of St. Albertus and of St George’s, and an adjunct professor at the theology faculty of St. Paul University, in Ottawa.

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