The single exception to this new uniform designation is the Secretariat of State, which retains its traditional name and is unquestionably the “first” Vatican department under the new constitution.
The most dramatic reform proposed in the current draft of Praedicate Evangelium is the effective ending of any curial department’s ability to exercise papal governing authority on a stably delegated basis.
The draft text lays down that a curial department “cannot issue laws or general decrees having the force of law, nor can it deviate from the prescriptions of the universal law” except on a case-by-case basis “approved specifically by the Supreme Pontiff.” It further provides that any “important, rare, and extraordinary affairs” cannot be treated by the prefect of the dicastery unless and until he has cleared the matter with the pope and received his approval.
Legally, this means that the pope must personally approve every authoritative decision to emerge from a curial department - an historic recentralization of Roman power into the person of the pope.
Closely related to the end of curial departments’ ability to exercise the power of governance is another historic proposed reform: that lay people can serve as the head of any dicastery.
Canon law defines ordination as a necessary qualification for the exercise of the power of governance. Lay people – according to the Code of Canon Law – can “cooperate” in the exercise, but not exercise it in their own right. Removing the stable exercise of delegated governing authority from all dicasteries is a legal necessity, either as cause or effect, for allowing lay prefects to lead a given department.
Many canonists and curial officials who have seen the draft privately warn it could prove a recipe for administrative gridlock.
“Imagine if the American president said that every binding decision taken by an executive department had to cross his desk and receive his personal approval – it is impossible, there is not time, nothing will get done,” one serving curial archbishop told CNA.
Deciding which matters arrive on the papal desk to receive the pope’s time, attention, and approval - and which do not - would, under the new constitution, effectively determine which areas of Church governance Rome chooses to control. Here again, the singular status of the Secretariat of State is underlined.
Unlike a “dicastery,” which can be headed by a lay person, Praedicate Evangelium provides that the Secretariat of State must be led by a cardinal, currently Cardinal Pietro Parolin. This department is placed in charge of coordinating the work of the dicasteries and, through meetings with the heads of those departments, “making decisions that will be proposed to the Supreme Pontiff.”
The Secretariat of State’s section for general affairs is also given charge of drafting governing legal documents, including apostolic constitutions, letters of decree, and apostolic letters, and of processing those acts which have been presented for personal papal approval.
“The [new constitution’s] preamble says a lot about collegiality and subsidiarity,” one long-serving curial official told CNA, “but this is just the total centralization of power in the office of the Secretary of State.”
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“Nothing can be done without the pope’s approval, and nothing gets to the pope except through [Cardinal Parolin] – it’s the creation of a vice-regency.”
Praedicate Evangelium’s blueprint for the new curia places considerable emphasis on regular meetings among the heads of dicasteries and the need for “collegiality, transparency and concerted action.”
One archbishop, currently serving in a senior curial role said that while these were “noble principles,” the result could be “inefficiency by design.”
“It is an essentially Soviet model. Lots of meetings, lots of discussion, but in the end the Secretary [of State] decides what will happen.”
Asked about the difficulty in securing papal approval for every authoritative decision, the archbishop told CNA “that is the design.”
“The pope cannot decide everything, that is why we have a curia to begin with. This pope above all hates meetings and this was understood [by the drafting committee]. It creates a filter, what it is decided he should approve he can approve, what is not, he will simply not receive.”