With his second motu proprio in a few months, Pope Francis completed one part of the much discussed Curia reform, thus closing the era of reforms that followed Blessed Pope Paul VI’s rationale. The new dicastery for Integral Human Development does not simply mark the shutdown of the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace and Cor Unum (along with Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Health Workers). It even closes the era of social teaching the way it was designed under Paul VI, that is right after the Second Vatican Council and following its indications.

Paul VI established the office that was then shaped as a pontifical council saying that “Justice and Peace will be its name and its program,” thus establishing the base for a diplomatic outpost that was behind many of the Holy See’s initiatives in terms of the social teaching for the Church. Paul VI also established the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” in 1971, with the aim of making the Holy See a center for universal charity. Paul VI in fact had been cultivating this idea for years. When he was Deputy at the Secretariat of State, he promoted the creation of Caritas Internationalis, while in 1971, along with Cor Unum, he wanted the Italian Caritas to be established.

Paul VI’s world is no more. The statutes of the new dicastery help us to understand how things have changed. Though curial reform was shaped along pragmatic considerations in order to bring about an effective restructuring, the change is more ideological than merely formal.

A first clue is the name of the new dicastery. While “Laity, Family and Life” repeated the names of the dicasteries that were merged into the new body, and of the Pontifical Academy for Life that was linked to it, the “Dicastery for Integral Human Development” has no reference to the pontifical councils out of which it is established.

The name is the outcome of a long discussion. The Council of Cardinals at first called the new dicastery “Justice, Peace and Charity,” and designed it to include 5 departments (or secretariats), one of those being dedicated to human ecology – riding on the wave of the encyclical “Laudato Si” which was being drafted at the time.

The dicastery was then named Charity, Justice and Peace, and new drafts of the statutes emphasized charity as the fulcrum of the work of the future dicastery. Further discussions brought to Pope Francis’s attention that the topic of migrants was lost in the title of the new dicastery and – it was observed – this was not good, considering the Pope’s landmark efforts on the issue (just think about his first papal trip, to Lampedusa): hence, the name was changed to Justice, Peace and Migration. But then during the last Council of Cardinals’ meeting, Charity, Justice and Peace was restored.

What happened after the Council meeting? Cardinal Antonio Maria Vegliò, outgoing President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, had meetings and talks with the Pope and with the Secretariat of State, and his words were not ignored – the Secretariat of State was also concerned to put the new dicastery under its control. In the end, they found a Solomonic solution: the dicastery was named after a concept of the Church’s social teaching in order to include all the issues at stake.

The concept of “integral human development” was the Holy See’s diplomatic battlefield since St. John XXIII’s time and his encyclical Pacem in Terris. One of the greatest outcomes of Holy See diplomacy was the inclusion of that concept in a 1986 UN declaration on the right to development. The concepts turns on its head the notion of “sustainable development” promoted by the United Nations. The human being, as the image of God, is at the center of the Holy See’s global development commitment, since the Holy See serves God and the Gospel, and the Gospel demands that man be integrally respected. Not by chance, Pope Francis engineered a change of route: following the publication of “Laudato Si”, which adopted the UN’s language, he spoke in September 2015 to the UN with clear references to integral human development. This change in language was certainly prompted by people working in the Holy See who understood just how dangerous it could be to adopt the UN’s vocabulary and thereby put aside the ethical centrality of the human being.  

However, “integral human development” is just a concept, a part of the varied world of the Church’s social teaching. It is a formula that does not include the higher concepts of charity, justice and peace which are the key words providing the guidelines of the Holy See’s activity. For this reason Paul VI said that the name of the office spoke “its name and its program”.

Why then was the new dicastery not named so as to include all the social teachings of the Church? Probably because the final decision was made in a diplomatic spirit, rather than in a theological one. And probably because the theologians who had pondered the new name undervalued the theology behind the Roman Curia. Among these theologians, there was certainly Archbishop Victor Fernandez, Rector of the Catholic University of Argentina, and often described as the Pope’s ghostwriter. Archbishop Fernandez already proved not to understand how important the Curia is, even in theological terms, when he granted an interview to the Italian widespread newspaper Il Corriere della Sera

In fact, the new name needed to be further balanced, in order to address every internal criticism. Pope Francis has taken on ad tempus the helm of the section dedicated to migration, with an unprecedented decision. It is not clear what ad tempus means – or better: how much time is implied by it – but this way the Pope moved as if he was taking over the interim direction of a ministry. To sum up, the Pope formally kept for himself a part of the administration of a dicastery, as if he were not the person responsible for everything. But the Pope is the Holy See, and he is therefore the head of a structure whose body is the Curia: everything is already under his responsibility.

The Pope’s decision reduces the role of the Roman Curia to the merely functional, and even risks reducing the perception of the Pope as that of a lower-level official within the ranks of his government. The move was intended to show Pope Francis’s personal concern for migrants – a great concern, as is often proven – but his coup de theatre might have some rebound that must also be weighed – just think about the many accusations over the Pope pretending priests are like any other employee under the Pope’s management and that the Holy See a structure designed like a company.

The competences of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples are included among those of the new dicastery. However, the new statutes fail to mention the responsibility for the Apostleship of the Sea that was entrusted to Migrants. This is not a minor lacuna: the Apostleship of the Sea was established with St. John Paul II’s motu proprio Stella Maris. This Apostleship is crucial, and Pope Francis should know it very well. As he made the fight against human trafficking and exploitation of persons one of the core issues of his pontificate, he should know that one of the core commitments of the Apostleship of the Sea is to advocate against the exploitation of fishermen in the Asian seas. This is a work in support of the least and the forgotten ones – no Western media reports on the conditions of fishermen in Asia – an issue that is now suspended in the curial reform, one that is waiting for a new place.

The new statutes also question the issue of collegiality. Under “Pastor Bonus” – the document that regulates functions and tasks of the Roman Curia – dicasteries were given the possibility of drafting documents, and this is what happened. Under St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, documents were often passed around different dicasteries, as collegiality also meant finding a balance and a common line on important issues. The new statutes clarify the primacy of the Secretariat of State, and underscore that the latter has exclusive competence in relations with States and other international subjects. Does this mean that a dossier to be debated at the UN will no longer pass across the desk of Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s expert on social teaching?

It is possible, as clues have been detected. For a long time now, the Justice and Peace dicastery has not been staffed with skilled international legal experts and its chief expert on social teaching, the former Secretary, Bishop Mario Toso, is now Bishop of Faenza. Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi was called to replace him temporarily: he was formerly the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the UN in Geneva, and he is a fine and expert diplomat who nevertheless cannot be considered a real expert on social teaching. Instead, he is one who knows how to defend social teaching in diplomatic negotiations.  

Another issue at stake is that of the commissions established within the new dicastery. The statutes at article 4, section 5 read that “Commission for Charity, the Commission for Ecology and the Commission for Health Workers are established within the Dicastery, and they operate according to their own norms. They are chaired by the Prefect of the Dicastery itself, and convened by him any time it is considered opportune or necessary.”

So, the Prefect of the Dicastery – Cardinal Peter Turkson was appointed to the post – has widespread power and chairs all of the commissions. The new dicastery is not shaped like the other new curial offices: both the Secretariat for Communication and the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life saw the appointment as head of their departments other individuals than the Prefect (with the exception of the Secretariat for Communication’s editorial department, whose interim head is the Prefect of the Secretariat). This way, competences were shared and coordinated, something that does not seem to be the case in the new Dicastery for Integral Human Development.

Finally, the most important issue at stake is the way the new Curia is being shaped. Like the statutes of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, the statutes for this latest dicastery stress that all the articles concerning the pontifical councils that have been merged into the new body are abrogated. But the new dicastery is not de facto included in “Pastor Bonus”, and neither are the other newly established offices of Pope Francis. Pope Francis limits his decisions to mere abrogation, perhaps waiting for the final draft of the new apostolic constitution which the Council of Cardinals has been debating for the last three years.

Given this, if this Pontificate should end tomorrow, the sede vacante will be characterized by a series of dicasteries with their own statutes, but without any mention in “Pastor Bonus” – the Apostolic Constitution which is still in effect, as the Secretariat of State has insisted on clarifying, but which has now been deprived of some of its pillars.

For these reasons, Pope Francis’s reform apparently aims at parceling out and dismantling the Curia. Born out of a need for greater economizing in the Curia, the reform leaves out many details, and is the subject of stress-producing trial and error. The rationale behind the reform remain vague, as it is always evolving.

What is clear is that Pope Francis is bringing about a paradigm change in curial reform, because the real reform he is interested in is that of the profile of new bishops. The new paradigm overturns the paradigm developed by Blessed Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council. This change is not just about a new theological sensitivity, as suggested by the appointment of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as President of the Pontifical Academy for Life and Chancellor of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. This change is also about the theological profile of the administration. Reforms until now developed in continuity with Blessed Paul VI’s indications, that came out of the Second Vatican Council. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI made adjustments and changes, but they adhered to that original spirit. Pope Francis has cut the umbilical cord with that spirit. This decision must not be underestimated, even if its consequences are not yet fully developed or understood.


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