On Saturday 19 March, without prior announcement, Pope Francis released a new Apostolic Constitution: Praedicate evangelium, or “preach the Gospel”. It is 54 pages long and was released only in Italian. However, it is the result of nine years of work and it outlines a deep and thoroughgoing reform of the Roman Curia, something long-expected to come at the hands of Pope Francis.

On Monday 21 March, the Vatican formerly presented the document to the public at an hours-long press conference. The changes being made are wide-ranging, but beneath the exterior, institutional reforms, it was emphasised that the most important dimension of this document was ‘interior reform’, with greater attention on the personal conversion of those working in the curia.

As suggested by the title of the document, the purpose of the reforms is to reshape the curia to properly fulfil its missionary and evangelical purpose.

Over at Crux, Elise Ann Allen writes that historically the curia has been caught in a ‘cycle of dysfunction, apathy, and careerism’, that it was a place ‘where a lack of internal cooperation and coordination was notoriously a recipe for basic mistakes, a chronic lack of motivation, and simply not getting things done.’

For the past nine years, Pope Francis has engaged in over forty meetings that looked at how the curia might best be reorganised. This has been one of the principal objectives of his pontificate, with the curia’s reform being requested prior to his election to the papacy.

Key changes

Among the notable changes are these:

  1. Under the Constitution, there is no longer a distinction between pontifical councils and congregations. All bodies are now referred to as ‘dicasteries’, a generic term for religious offices.
  2. The Constitution emphasises the importance of local bishop’s conferences, and stresses that the purpose of the curia is to work collaboratively (or synodally) with local churches instead of over them. They are fundamentally instruments of service.
  3. All appointments in the curia will have strict term limits of five years. This may be extended if the person is especially competent at their job.
  4. It must be ensured that the people occupying their roles be qualified to do so.
  5. Although all departments of the curia have equal legal standing, the “top” dicastery is now the Dicastery for Evangelisation, combining the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and the Council for the New Evangelisation, and which will be chaired by the pope himself.
  6. Historically, the laity have not been permitted leadership positions in the curial offices. This changes under the Constitution, with offices of governance and responsibility being opened to lay people. It was explained at the press conference that it will be no longer ‘automatic’ that a Vatican head be a cardinal.
  7. A new Dicastery for the Service of Charity has been created, replacing the historic office of the apostolic almoner, in which a bishop served as the charitable arm of the pope.
  8. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors will be incorporated into the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the CDF).

Protection of minors and the legacy of abuse

This last change is perhaps one of the most significant. One of the challenges this commission has faced, according to reporter Christopher Lamb, is the lack of any legal recognition in the Vatican. Under the reform, whilst being incorporated into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it will continue to operate independently.

In a statement when the Constitution was released, the Commission’s head, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said:

For the first time, Pope Francis has made safeguarding and the protection of minors a fundamental part of the structure of the Church’s central government.’

One the criticisms levelled at the curia, and the CDF specifically, is that it has not been effective at hearing and acting on the complaints that have been made to them about problematic priests. Now that the Commission will be part of the CDF, it will be better positioned to have its recommendations heard and implemented.

History and future of the curia

The Roman Curia has a long history in the Catholic Church. Although its origins are hazy, there was a clear establishment of the curia as we know it today under Pope Sixtus V in 1588. Throughout its existence, the curia has undergone a number of different changes, but its purpose, according to Canon Law, is to perform the duties assigned to it in the name of the pope and by his authority (Can. 360).

The word curia is thought to derive from the Old Latin word coviria, which means “a gathering of men”, and in the context of the Church has referred to a collection of congregations, tribunals, institutes, and secretariats that assist the Pope in his universal jurisdiction of the Body of the Christ. In recent years it has come under increasing criticism, especially by Pope Francis himself, who in 2014 referred to it as a ‘ponderous, bureaucratic customs house, constantly inspecting and questioning, hindering the working of the Holy Spirit and the growth of God’s people.’

Pope Francis’ first step in reforming the curia was in creating the Secretariat for the Economy, initially headed by Cardinal George Pell, which was given the authority to oversee all the economic activities of the Holy See and the Vatican City State.

The new Apostolic Constitution is another huge step in reforming the curia to be more deeply missionary in spirit and style. As the Constitution is implemented, and properly translated into English, we will start to see clearly the scope of the reforms and their implications.