“It can be good to have lay people in senior roles,” one curial archbishop who has seen a recent draft of the new constitution told CNA.
“But you cannot have laity exercising the power of governance on their own, this is clear.”
In practice, lay and clerical cooperation can be seen at the diocesan level, where, for example, lay canonists serve as judges on marriage tribunals. While lay judges may write the consensus opinions of the court, they make up a minority on judging panels, which are always chaired by a cleric.
Lay people may serve in senior diocesan roles, such as chancellor, but not in roles with a stable governing function, like vicar general. According to those working in the Roman curia, adopting a similar model in Vatican governance is not impossible.
“Certainly you could have a lay secretary of a dicastery, with acts which exercise the delegated power of governance being signed also by a prefect-cleric,” the archbishop said. “But to have a lay prefect of [for example] the CICLSAL [the department for religious orders] would mean having the pope sign everything in forma specifica for it to have authority.”
While canonists point out what they see as a potentially flawed ecclesiology in attempting to invest lay officials with the theoretical power to tell bishops or religious superiors what to do, curial officials warn that the attempt could backfire even as a gesture - noting that Rome had recently intervened to prevent similar efforts.
“They [C6] are speaking about ‘empowered’ lay leadership in the curia - I wonder how that will strike the Americans. Compared to a [lay] prefect of a governing dicastery, what they proposed [at the USCCB autumn assembly in Baltimore last year] is modest, and they were told ‘numquam,’” the Vatican official said.
Others close to the C6 have suggested that the push for lay leadership is actually less about empowering lay officials and more about draining power away from Rome altogether.
“There is a minority that sees the laity as a way to break the curia’s role,” one priest close to the C6 told CNA. “Give them the jobs they cannot do and give the power to actually do them to the episcopal conferences.”
The priest explained that since curial exercise of governance cannot be given to lay people, even if given prominent leadership positions, the exercise of that power would automatically revert back to the pope “unless it is delegated further down.”
“At least some of the [C6] cardinals see lay prefects as a way of cutting back Roman power, not just [of] the curia but [of] the pope. If you have lay prefects, you have to limit the competence [of the dicastery], and you give whatever they cannot do to the bishops’ conferences.”
“Rome gets the power of appearance of lay people in charge, lay people get the appearance of power, and the conferences get the real power,” the priest explained, “and they call it subsidiarity.”
While the coming weeks will likely see further discussion of the new Vatican constitution’s contents and release, it is clear nothing has made it past the draft stage yet.
“There is much [wider] consultation which must still happen,” the curial archbishop said. “We hope there will be more understanding after that. Too much now is the fruit of a few - what touches all must be approved by all.”