What is Pope Francis’ pontificate direction? There are no definite answers to this question, but there are many clues, even controversial, that reveal Pope Francis’ way of governing. One of these clues is the new statute of the Dicastery Laity, Family and Life, released last week. The new Statutes replace those made official on June 4, 2016.

In two years, many things have happened.

On the background, there is the wide discussion that rose around the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In fact, Pope Francis further set his imprint with many other documents: the instruction Veritatis Gaudium redesigned Catholic education; the exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate provided a model of social teaching of the Church that is not enclosed on theological or life issues; the instruction on the Studies on Canon Law in light of the reform of the matrimonial process is intended to set up Canon Law studies, considering that new procedures for matrimonial nullity imply that the Bishop, and only the Bishop, can judge – this is what Pope Francis requested in his latest address to the Roman Rota.

Given this scenario, it was somehow odd that the dicastery for Laity, Family and Life was still designed according to classical criteria, as they were outlined when the dicastery was established.

Together with the Dicastery for the Promotion of the Integral Human Development, the Dicastery Laity, Family and Life was one of the novelties of the Roman Curia under Pope Francis. The other new offices were Secretariats (the Secretariat for Communication and that for the Economy), which meant that they had more governing tasks.

The Dicastery for the Promotion of the Integral Human Development got its statutes after a long discussion. It was immediately decided not to divide it in departments replicating the old division of the merged dicasteries, nor to adopt a name which would make any former dicastery (or theme) predominant.

Starting with its name, the Dicastery Laity, Family and Life was instead tailored in departments that reflected the old dicasteries. In the end, it seemed to be a merging operation that turned the old Pontifical Councils in mere departments.

This direction was apparently confirmed by the appointment of Fr. Alexandre Mello as secretary of the dicastery (not a lay person, despite the availability of this option) and two women undersecretaries to lead the departments.

However, the idea of having new dicasteries was not that of a merging, but rather that of an integration among their competences, a whole new way to interact. The new statutes are more faithful to this rationale. But the statutes also provide other clues.

First of all, the division in three departments of the dicastery, each one led by an undersecretary, fell off. According to the new statutes, the dicastery must have a minimum of two undersecretaries, that must be mandatorily lay people (the secretary, instead, can be a lay person). Also the description on how to prepare the lay faithful has slightly changed. Compared to the old statute, the participation of the lay faithful is not limited to the “catechetical instruction, in liturgical and sacramental life”, but also “in missionary activity, in the works of mercy, charity and human and social promotion.”

The new Statute states that the dicastery also support lay people in “active and responsible presence in parish and diocesan life, and in the advisory organs of governance present in the Church on a universal and particular level.”

This is a crucial issue, considering that a recently released new document of the International Theological Commission proposes to make mandatory the participation of lay people in diocesan councils, in order to create a habit of “synodality.”

This synodality, however, does not mean giving up the central “power.” Pope Francis’ exhortation Evangelii Gaudium raised the issue of giving new competences to the local Bishops’ Conferences. The Bishops’ Conferences have been appreciated by Pope Francis, who also quotes their documents in his. However, the local Bishops’ Conferences are not left alone.

The Statute of the Dicastery Laity, Family and Life underscores that the dicastery is called to evaluate “the initiatives of the Episcopal Conferences that ask the Holy See, according to the needs of the particular Churches, for the institution of new ministries and ecclesiastical offices”.

That means: synodality, but without forgetting that the Church is one “holy, hierarchical mother,” as Pope Francis likes to underscore.

Another noteworthy passage reads that the dicastery “expresses the particular concern of the Church for the young, promoting their agency in the midst of the challenges of today’s world.” This topic seems to be directly taken by the pre-Synod on young people. There is the risk that this issue can be manipulated during the next synod of bishops to carry forward some agenda saying that this is what is demanded by young people.

However, this is not the point. As usual, Pope Francis mixes things up: on the one hand, there is a sort of concession to modernity; on the other hand, there are traditional thoughts. The Statute, then, includes a mild attack on gender ideology – Pope Francis himself described the gender theory as demonic. The Statute reads: “The Dicastery works to deepen the reflection on the relationship between men and women in their respective specificity, reciprocity, complementarity and equal dignity.”

Immediately after, it is stated that the dicastery “valuing the feminine ‘genius’, it offers a contribution to ecclesial reflection on the identity and mission of women in the Church and in society, promoting their participation”.

This topic seems to incorporate the Pontifical Commission for Latin America request to put an emphasis on the role of women. After their latest plenary session, the commission asked for a Synod on the Woman as a natural follow up of the Synods on Family and of the upcoming Synod on young people.

Beyond the promotion of the preparation of the couples engaged to get married, the dicastery also expresses the pastoral care of the Church also in relation to so-called “irregular” situations,” that is a topic that directly came out of Amoris Laetitia.

And again, from the discussion taken from Amoris Laetitia to traditional issues. The dicastery – the Statute reads – “supports and coordinates initiatives in favour of responsible procreation, as well as for the protection of human life from conception to its natural end, bearing in mind the needs of the person in the various stages of evolution”, and “promotes and encourages organizations and associations that help women and families to welcome and cherish the gift of life, especially in the case of difficult pregnancies, and to prevent abortion. It also supports programs and initiatives aimed at helping women who have had abortions.”

In the end, the document did not change the organization of the dicastery, but provided an ideological framework.

It is worth noting the link with the Pontifical Theological Institute John Paul II. When the first Statutes went out, in 2016, there was the Institute John Paul II for Studies on Marriage and Family. As it awaits its statutes, it has been already made public that the new Pontifical Institute wants to open wide its views, including social sciences among its topics of discussion. This is a new approach, based not only on traditional teaching, but also on a wider reading of the signs of times.

What does it mean? Some guesses can be advanced. Probably, it is not Pope Francis’ intention to change the doctrine of the Church, that he instead defends. But it is Pope Francis’ intention to change a certain attitude, according to him too doctrinally rigid, and promote a pastoral conversion.

Whether this pastoral conversion leads to a pragmatic vision that de facto changes the doctrine is not put into question by the Pope. Pope Francis perhaps did not even go that far. Or, more likely, he trusts that the Holy Spirit will work things out – he always says we need to trust God.

Another guess: out of this Statutes, we see that the new Pope Francis’ Curia must not be a repacking of old schemes, but rather the expression of a sort of State of permanent Synod, that is, an always ongoing discussion. Hence, the decision not to have a dicastery divided in departments, in order to escape any functionalist rationale.

Finally, it is noteworthy that Pope Francis most definitely wants to include in the agenda topics like youth and feminine genius, so that they are not put aside. The issue of feminine genius is part of a discussion of the Commission on Women Deacons. The conclusions are being drafted, but it is likely Pope Francis will not make them public. It is possible the Pope will ask to discuss them further.

In the end, this is not a revolutionary plan. It is rather the promotion of a new mentality. The series of documents recently published are finally giving shape to Pope Francis’ idea. At least, something can be glimpsed in them.


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