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Why a ‘superdicastery’ for evangelization is not a good idea

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 26, 2019

After six years and 29 working sessions (each stretching across three days), the Council of Cardinals is finally ready to unveil its plan for reorganizing the Roman Curia. A preview report, based on interviews with two of the cardinals on the Pope’s advisory committee, the new plan features a “superdicastery” devoted to evangelization.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the chairman of the Council of Cardinals, explains that Pope Francis wants to underline the primary duty of the Church: to evangelize. “For this reason,” he says, “it’s logical that we put in the first place the dicastery for evangelization and not the one for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

But wait a minute. If you look at the structure of the Roman Curia today, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) does not hold the “first place” among the offices of the Vatican. The CDF is the oldest of the offices in the Roman Curia, and its history (as the Inquisition and later the Holy Office) is the stuff of legends, but the “superdicastery” today is the Secretariat of State. And at least to date, no one has suggested that situation will be changed by Praedicate Evangelium, the proposed apostolic constitution that is now being circulated among Church leaders for comments and suggestions.

In the US government, the Secretary of State is charged with the conduct of foreign affairs. At the Vatican, however, the office is more like that of a prime minister. Yes, the Secretariat of State handles relations with the world’s governments, through the offices of apostolic nuncios and other Vatican diplomats. But that function is assigned, significantly, to the “Second Section” of the Secretariat of State. The First Section has a broader mandate (as set forth in Pastor Bonus, the apostolic constitution currently governing the Curia) “to expedite the business concerning the daily service of the Supreme Pontiff…” This section is headed by the sostituto, a prelate who coordinates all the paperwork that flows through the Vatican bureaucracy.

Anyone who knows how the Vatican operates today recognizes the Secretariat of State as the “superdicastery.” I recall having a cup of coffee with a Vatican official, who spoke about how all his efforts were dependent on “what they decide”—as he nodded his head toward the offices of the Secretariat of State. Another official, the head of a less prestigious dicastery, recounted how he had been charged with setting up a working group to handle a particular question. After a few meetings he noticed that attendance was slipping. Only later did he learn that the Secretary of State had formed his own committee to handle the same question, and everyone implicitly understood that the original group was now irrelevant.

In the past I have argued that the overweening power of the Secretariat of State is an obstacle to Vatican reform. Because of its twofold role—dealing simultaneously with the pressures imposed by secular governments and the internal business of the Church—the office is subject to conflicting pressures. Moreover it is traditionally staffed by Vatican diplomats, who are trained to avoid conflict, whereas Catholic bishops are, or should be, willing to speak boldly and forthrightly. “Aren’t there inherent risks involved,” I have asked, “in giving career diplomats the authority to influence the Vatican offices that supervise the selection of bishops, the evangelization of mission territories, the training of clerics, and even the teaching of Catholic doctrine?”

If the CDF were the “superdicastery,” we would have some assurance that all Vatican policies would be guided by an overriding concern for doctrinal clarity. Unfortunately, for the last few years the CDF has clearly been left out of the discussions preceding important policy decisions. Pope Francis tells us that evangelizing—preaching the faith—is our top priority. And so it is. But what exactly is this faith that we preach? Clarity in doctrine is not an obstacle to evangelization; it is a necessary condition for spreading the Gospel message.

Yet I have another, more pressing reason for questioning the wisdom of establishing a “superdicastery” devoted to evangelization. The work of spreading the faith, of bringing people to Christ, is ordinarily not the work of an office or institution. It is one-on-one work, done by individuals: by missionaries, by parish priests, and above all by lay people—by parents teaching their children, by friends talking to friends, by loyal Catholics bearing public witness to their faith. Pope Francis has called for a decentralization of Church governance, and evangelization is the ultimate field for decentralized activity. All baptized Christians are commissioned to evangelize. It is our work, not the work of an office in Rome.

What is it, exactly, that a dicastery for evangelization would accomplish? Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI spoke frequently about the need for a “new evangelization”—a drive to restore the health of Christianity in the societies of Europe and North America, where the faith, once dominant, has now sunk into desuetude. In 2010 Pope Benedict established the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization to supervise that campaign. It seemed like a good idea, but unfortunately that dicastery has become an office in search of a mission; its most conspicuous activities have been coordinating pilgrimages and other “set pieces” of pious devotion—worthy efforts, to be sure, but not novel approaches to evangelization. Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, the secularizing trend has accelerated.

Evangelization is the mission of the entire Church. The offices of the Roman Curia have a more specific mission: to assist the Holy Father in his work, promoting and ensuring the unity and integrity of the faith.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Apr. 27, 2019 8:41 PM ET USA

    Oh Phil, this will reinforce the idea that evangelization is the work of clerics, not the laity. Uh, that is clericalism. I see it every day. It is not a good idea unless we think of it. Besides, what does Cdl. Mariadaiga know about evangelism???