Are the changes made by Pope Francis to canon law a real decentralization?


Are the changes made by Pope Francis to canon law a real decentralization?.

St. Peter’s Dome. /dade72 via Shutterstock.

Vatican City, February 16, 2022 / 06:30 (CNA).

In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis has expressed his desire to see “healthy decentralization” in the Catholic Church. He used the term again in his latest amendments to the canon law of the Latin and Eastern Churches, published on Tuesday.

The changes have been contained in the motu proprio Assegnare alcune competentze (“Assign certain skills”). A motu proprio is a document issued by the Pope “on his own initiative” and not at the request of an office of the Roman Curia. It is by this means that the pope seeks to achieve decentralization. (There are currently 49 documents listed in the section of the Vatican website dedicated to Pope Francis’ motu proprios.)

In practice, the pope imposed decentralization by centralizing decisions on himself, without involving the Roman curia – without even resorting to the councils of local bishops, who are the main recipients of the measures.

Formally, the consultation takes place through the Council of Cardinals, instituted by Pope Francis at the beginning of the pontificate precisely to help him in the governance of the Church and to outline a general reform of the curia.

Yet the pope made almost all decisions outside of the Council of Cardinals and not within the work of the council itself. The apostolic constitution reforming the Curia has still not been published after years of discussion. But Pope Francis indicated that it had been finalized in an interview last September.

The pope’s recent changes to canon law are more decisive than the reform of the curia. In accordance with recent custom, the title of the last motu proprio is in Italian, not Latin, and it aims to transfer certain powers from the Apostolic See to the bishops.

This transfer is signaled by the replacement of the word “approval” by “confirmation” in specific sections of the Code of Canon Law. Bishops can now approve the publication of catechisms, the creation of a seminary in their territory and orientations for priestly formation, which can be adapted to the pastoral needs of each region. These decisions only have to be confirmed by the Apostolic See.

In addition, the pope permits the incardination of priests into a particular Church or religious institute and a “public clerical association” recognized by the Holy See. The exclaustration of men and women religious — the possibility of allowing a religious to live outside his institute for serious reasons — has been extended from three to five years.

Archbishop Marco Mellino, secretary of the Council of Cardinals, told Vatican News that there is a substantial difference between “approval” and “confirmation” by the Holy See.

“Approval is the disposition by which a higher authority (in this case, the Holy See), after having examined the legitimacy and the expediency of an act of a lower authority, allows its execution”, a- he declared.

“On the other hand, confirmation is the mere ratification of the higher authority, which gives the disposition of the lower authority greater authority.”

“From this it is clear that approval, as compared to confirmation, involves greater commitment and involvement from higher authority. Therefore, it is clear that moving from the request for approval to the request for confirmation is not only a terminological change, but a substantial change, which goes precisely in the direction of decentralization.

In 2017, Pope Francis published the motu proprio Principal Magnumwhich established that translations of liturgical texts approved by national Episcopal Conferences should no longer be subject to revision by the Apostolic See, which would henceforth only confirm them.

At the time, Cardinal Robert Sarah, then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote a note on this subject, which interpreted the new legislation in a restrictive sense, emphasizing that it “does not modify the responsibility of the Holy See, nor its competence in matters of liturgical translations”.

But recognition and confirmation, Pope Francis replied in a letter, could not be equated, and indeed Principal Magnum “no longer maintains that translations must conform in all respects to the standards of Authentic liturgy [the 2001 document establishing criteria for translations] as it used to be. »

The pope added that episcopal conferences can now judge the quality and consistency of translations from Latin, albeit in dialogue with the Holy See. Previously, it was the dicastery that judged faithfulness to Latin and proposed the necessary corrections.

This interpretative note from Pope Francis should also apply to the last motu proprio, although some questions remain open.

Much will depend on how the Vatican decides to apply its faculty of confirmation: whether it chooses simply to confirm decisions or, on the contrary, to enter more directly into the questions, offering various observations.

At the same time, the episcopal conferences will lose the guarantee of communion in decisions with the Apostolic See. They are more autonomous in certain choices but always subject to confirmation by the Holy See. They are authorized but in a way under guardianship.

By promoting decentralization, Pope Francis wants to break the impasses he experienced as bishop in Argentina, also overcoming the perception that Rome is too restrictive and does not appreciate the sensitivities of local churches.

On the other hand, a centralized law guarantees justice, balance and harmony. The risk of losing this harmony is always close.

This point also arose when Pope Francis changed marital nullity procedures. Even then, he had somehow forced the bishops to take responsibility.

A year after the promulgation of the documents Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Mitis et misericors Iesus, the pope gave a speech to the Roman Rota in which he stressed that the simplified procedure of nullity could not be entrusted to an interdiocesan tribunal because that would distort “ the figure of the bishop, father, leader and judge of his faithful”, making him “a simple signatory of the sentence”.

This decision created difficulties for bishops in areas where interdiocesan tribunals functioned largely well, such as in Italy. It is therefore no coincidence that Pope Francis, with yet another motu proprio, created a pontifical commission last November to ensure that the changes are applied in Italy.

The commission was established directly in the tribunal of the Roman Rota, indicating that Pope Francis makes decisions that promote the autonomy of local churches. But paradoxically, he does it by centralizing everything in his hands.

This is the modus operandi with which Pope Francis aims to dismantle an existing system to create a new one. Key to understanding this modus operandi is the phrase “good, gentle violence” he used to describe the reforms in a speech to members of the Vatican’s communications department in 2017.

At the end of this process, the bishops will be more autonomous, but also more alone. Without a harmonizing guide, there is a risk that each particular Church will adapt decisions to its own territory and create new doctrinal orientations.

Who guarantees, in the end, that there will be no repetition of the episode of the “Dutch Catechism”? In 1966, the bishops of the Netherlands authorized the publication of “A new catechism: the Catholic faith for adults”. The text was so controversial that Pope Paul VI asked a commission of cardinals to review its presentation of Catholic teaching. Later, Pope John Paul II called a special assembly of the synod of bishops to discuss the issues raised by the episode.

And who now guarantees that the controversial texts produced by the “Synodal Way” in Germany will not be included in the training of priests by the local episcopal conferences?

These questions remain open.

If the Holy See approaches the “confirmation” process in harsh terms, then nothing will have changed. If he adopts a more relaxed approach, there is the risk that there will be radical differences between particular churches. The Catholic Church could then resemble a federation of episcopal conferences, with similar powers and substantial differences – no longer unity in diversity, but rather variety reconciled by common administrative management.

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