Action Alert!

Rewriting the 'constitution' of the Catholic Church

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 30, 2013

No, no, no, no, no, no, no!

I don’t expect secular agencies to be completely accurate in covering stories about Vatican reform, but there’s a difference between inaccuracy and absurdity, and this Fox News headline falls into the latter category:

Pope Francis, eight cardinals set to rewrite church's constitution

Insofar as a “constitution” is the fundamental law on which an institution is based, the “constitution” of the Church is the New Testament, which isn’t going to be changed. Or maybe you could use the term “constitution” to refer to the Code of Canon Law, which is the existing legislation for the Catholic world. But this story is about the Pope’s meetings this week with the Council of Cardinals, to discuss reforms of the Roman Curia. You could change the Curia any number of ways—you could abolish the Curia, for that matter—without affecting the fundamental constitution of the Church.

How did Fox get this story wrong? There’s a hot clue in the 2nd paragraph: “Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras says the group has received suggestions on Vatican reform from around the world, The Telegraph reports.”

Aha! The Daily Telegraph of London! Fox has violated Lawler’s Rule for reporting on Catholicism: Never rely on a British newspaper for coverage of Vatican affairs. Sure enough, the Telegraph carries a very similar inaccurate headline:

Pope Francis to 'rip up and rewrite' Vatican constitution

The Pope and the Council of Cardinals are planning a revision of Pastor Bonus, the 1988 document in which Blessed John Paul II established the current division of responsibilities among the offices of the Roman Curia. The date of the document should be a giveaway. If the “constitution” of the Catholic Church was written in 1988, then either the Church existed for nearly 2,000 years without a constitution, or else the fundamental law governing the Catholic world was changed at that time. Actually Pastor Bonus changed very little about Catholicism. Changing the structure of the Vatican bureaucracy does not entail changing the structure of the faith. Indeed, the Telegraph’s story gave a reasonably accurate description of Pastor Bonus as “the apostolic constitution which apportions power at the Holy See.”

Did you notice that term? Yes, that 1988 document is an apostolic constitution. But it’s not the constitution of the Church.

You can mount a constitutional challenge to federal legislation, and you can take a constitutional stroll after dinner. Sometimes the same word can have different meanings. Journalists, take note.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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