.- After the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace made headlines this week by issuing a document advocating the creation of a global financial body, one expert in Vatican documents downplayed its authority and said that it is only meant to spur reflection.
âIâd say if it calls itself âa note,ââ Father Robert Christian, O.P., told CNA Oct. 26, âit is simply a meant to prompt the consciences of people as they ponder issues that seem to be of importance to the Universal Church.â
âSo youâd say this is not something that is meant to bind consciences but is meant to stimulate consciences to reflection.â
Fr. Christian is Vice Dean of Theology at the Dominican Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome, also known as the Angelicum. He is a long-standing expert in interpreting âVatican documents,â not all of which, he said, carry the same weight.
âThere is a ranking of papal and Vatican documents that you can figure out if you look at the index of the âActa Apostolicae Sedis,â as it lists the documents in a rank from the most important to the least important.â
The âActa Apostolicae Sedisâ (Acts of the Apostolic See) is an annual publication dating back over 150 years. It contains the main public documents of the Pope and the Roman Curia. Fr. Christian describes it as âthe Vaticanâs own ranking of the relative solemnity of different teachings,â and he kindly took CNA down to the vast library vaults of the Angelicum University to explain his point.
âSo weâre looking at the 1950 volume,â he said, opening the thick red volume and reading down the page. It âshows the dogmatic definition of the Assumption of Mary at the very top â thatâs whatâs known as a âBulla Dogmaticaâ â then the Encyclical âHumanae Generisâ and then onto lower level documents such as apostolic constitutions and so on.â
Fr. Christian explained that there is a âa hierarchy of documents,â and also a hierarchy of bodies within the Roman Curia. Inside of the Curia, âcongregationsâ are more significant than âpontifical councils,â which means that âin terms of pastoral authority the Secretariat of State is top and in terms of doctrinal authority the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is top.â
Another factor, he said, to take into consideration when assessing the significance of a âVatican documentâ is whether it has been âreviewed by the Holy Father himself,â and also the number of Vatican departments involved in its creation.
He lamented that âunfortunately, the Church herself hasnât actually explained that hierarchy very well.â Thus, he believes, it can be confusing for Catholics to understand what significance to give to different publications emanating from bodies within the Vatican.
As for this weekâs document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Fr. Christian has only read some of it but his initial analysis is that while it is appropriate for Vatican departments to speak out as part of the Churchâs âsocial missionâ they also have to be wary of straying beyond the limits of their competence.
âIs it the Churchâs place to decry systems that seem to infringe on the dignity of peoples or to applaud those areas which seem to promote human dignity? Yes,â he said firmly.
âBut is it the Churchâs role to hypothesis concrete solutions to these things? Normally we would say âno.â Thatâs what makes me a little nervous about a document which it seems may be promoting something rather more concrete than usual.â
He explained that such hands-on, practical decisions are termed âcontingent realitiesâ and held up Pope John Paul IIâs social encyclical âCentesimus Annusâ as a good example of how the Church usually approaches such matters.
In the 1991 document, he said, Pope John Paul âdecried the excessesâ of both state socialism and unbridled capitalism so that âwe could see the correctness of the principle.â
But âthe Pope didnât hazard an idea of what concrete steps should be made because thatâs really what politics is supposed to do. They are supposed to work on the basis of principles towards the concrete installation of structures and procedures that will help people.â
So while the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is trying to give âan expression of the application of real principles grounded in revelation to the world situation, such as the economic situation,â they are merely âasking for people to take this very seriously but there is no corresponding penalty for saying ânoâ.â
Certainly at the press conference to launch the document the Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., stressed that the publication was ânot an expression of papal magisterium,â and that it would be wrong to attach the words âPope Benedict says,â to any subsequent reporting of it. However, he did add that the document was an âauthoritative note of a Vatican agency.â
Fr. Christian thinks that to avoid any confusion in the future it might be better not to publish such discussion papers through official Vatican channels.
One possibility he suggested would be for the Vatican to officially collaborate with the the social science faculties at places like the Angelicum or Gregorian Universities in Rome. Another, he said, would be to host officially sanctioned academic symposia in the presence of several cardinals.
In reality, he explained, the Vatican already uses a range of outside institutions and publications for the development of new ideas. The Jesuit journal âLa Civilta Cattolica,â for example, is vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State and so already has âa semi-official status,â he said.
Similarly, Fr. Christianâs own Angelicum University has been used in the past by the Vatican as an interlocutor with Muslim universities in the Arab world. This, he believes, actually gives the Vatican greater freedom than it would have if it used the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, which âcan always carry all sorts of political overtones and misunderstanding.â