He added: “Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”
From the beginning, he was therefore thinking of reforming the CDF. Yet none of the 39 communiqués issued at the end of the meetings of the Council of Cardinals has ever spoken of a reform of the Congregation.
Moreover, the issue did not come up in the briefings that the directors of the Holy See Press Office (Father Federico Lombardi and then Greg Burke) initially held with the journalists on the Council’s work.
The reform of the CDF, in short, comes without much advanced warning and at the end of a gradual path of changes.
From four offices to two sections
The Congregation previously consisted of four offices: one was disciplinary, another doctrinal, and a third matrimonial. There was also a fourth section, which, we read in the Pontifical Yearbook of 2021, had “the task of following the question of relations with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X [SSPX], the application of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the life of institutes already submitted to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, and, in a general way, the things pertaining to celebrations according to the ancient liturgy, defined as the ‘extraordinary form of the Roman Rite.’”
The fourth section had no reason to exist after the publication of the 2021 motu proprio Traditionis custodes (“Guardians of the Tradition”), which revoked Benedict XVI’s provisions on using the ancient rite and redefined the concessions as biritualism, that is, the use of a double rite. In practice, the Old Rite was no longer considered an “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite, but rather as another rite.
The fourth section was established after Pope Francis closed the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei in 2019. The commission was created within the Congregation precisely to look after relations with the SSPX. The commission’s closure also came via a motu proprio.
The separate marriage office is also now closed, while the Congregation is re-established in two distinct sections, with two different secretaries. Everything suggests that one of the secretaries will be the current under-secretary Father Matteo Visioli, who is due a promotion since Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, who had served as secretary of the CDF since 2017, was named bishop of Reggio Emilia in January.
The other secretary is likely to be the theologian Msgr. Armando Matteo, who is highly esteemed by Pope Francis. The pope had words of great praise for him at the end of his pre-Christmas speech to the Roman Curia. For Matteo, Pope Francis had created the new position of adjunct under-secretary in the CDF.
It is worth noting that Matteo was received in private audience by Pope Francis on Jan. 21, just before the pope gave a speech to participants in the CDF’s plenary meeting.
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Doctrine and discipline
With two sections, the Congregation’s management profile seems to be strengthened, with a more hierarchical structure and sharper division of competencies. But it is also true that the four offices, working in synchrony, displayed true collegiality in their choices and created specialists in specific topics.
Above all, the doctrinal question was never neglected in decisions. There is a risk that the disciplinary element will now prevail over the doctrinal one because it will be a separate section, with decision-making autonomy and therefore not necessarily called upon to share choices in a broad discussion.
This is currently only a risk, however, and we must wait to see how the Congregation operates following the motu proprio.
Public opinion wanted an answer on the disciplinary issue. The reactions to this change were positive. Many commentators have noted that the pope has, with the reform, strengthened the canonical treatment of clerical sexual abuse by creating the disciplinary section.
As we have seen, the disciplinary office already existed. With the reforms desired first by John Paul II and then by Benedict XVI, the CDF became an essential reference point for dealing with abuse. The novelty, therefore, is that the disciplinary body is now a section, not just an office.