Can Laypeople Hold Top Vatican Positions?

Q: My husband and I are hoping that you can clear up our confusion about the significance of this article … about Pope Francis reorganizing the different offices in the Vatican.  It sounds to us like the Pope says that laypeople can now become heads of some Vatican offices, whereas in the past only priests could hold those positions.

Is our understanding accurate?  Is this a good change?  It’s hard for us to understand what this move means … [but] whenever Pope Francis changes something in the Church, we’ve learned to be suspicious…. –Marisol

A: Marisol’s confusion is entirely understandable.  She’s talking about Praedicate Evangelium (PE), an Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Francis on March 19 of this year.  Subtitled “On the Roman Curia and Its Service to the Church in the World,” this document’s primary purpose is to reorganize the structure of the various Congregations and other offices in the Vatican.  But as Marisol and her husband rightly noted, PE includes a brief statement about the role of the laity in the Vatican—which rightly caught the attention of canonists, theologians, and other Vatican-watchers around the world.  Let’s take a brief look at PE itself, and then consider the significance of the statement it contains about laity assuming positions of authority in the Church.

We Catholics know that Our Lord Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church—but He didn’t establish the Vatican, which is a purely human creation.  As such, its structure has developed, expanded, and changed in many other ways over the centuries, as various Popes sought to make the Vatican’s central offices better able to assist him in governing the universal Church (and, occasionally, to try to make them more efficient!).  Before PE was issued this year, the last restructuring of Vatican offices was done by Saint John Paul II, who issued Pastor Bonus (PB) back in 1988.  PB has now been completely abrogated by PE (PE art. 250.3).

Some aspects of the restructuring are intriguing, but may or may not amount to changes of any real significance in the long run.  For example, henceforth Vatican Congregations and Pontifical Councils will be known as dicasteries, and PE stresses that all are to be considered “juridically equal” (art. 12.1).  This represents a change in the definition of “dicastery,” which the now-abrogated PB told us was something of a generic, catch-all term for most Vatican offices, including the courts:

By the word “dicasteries” are understood the Secretariat of State, Congregations, Tribunals, Councils and Offices, namely the Apostolic Camera, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. (PB art. 2.1)

Previously, it was well understood that a “Congregation” out-ranked a “Council,” which in turn was more important than a mere “Office.”  Now that most of them are going to be referred to as “dicasteries,” we’ll see whether or not this has a sort of leveling effect—and whether or not it makes any appreciable practical difference.

But now let’s focus on the issue of laity potentially governing Vatican dicasteries, which prompted Marisol’s question.  In Article II of PE, which is titled “Principles and Criteria for the Service of the Roman Curia,” we find this phrase:

… [A]ny member of the faithful can preside over a Dicastery or Office, depending on the power of governance and the specific competence and function of the Dicastery or Office in question. (PE II, 5)

This assertion has turned a lot of heads—because Prefects, Secretaries, and Commission Presidents have, from time immemorial, always been clerics.  For centuries, it’s been accepted as a matter of course that the clergy, not the laity, run the Church; and since the Vatican is the entity which governs the universal Church, it has logically followed that only clergy run the offices of the Vatican.  So what’s going on here?

If life has spared you the experience of spending countless hours studying abstract canonical concepts in law school, it’s probably tempting to conclude (as Marisol and her husband have tentatively done) that this is some kind of heterodox, progressive theological shift brought about abruptly by a radical Pope Francis.  In actual fact, however, the issue of laypeople having (or not having) the power of governance in the Church has been with us for generations; and God alone knows how many students and professors at pontifical universities and seminaries have, at some point in their study of this topic, wanted to bang their heads against a wall in near-despair.

The fundamental issue is this: what, if any, is the connection between (a) reception of the sacrament of holy orders, and (b) the power of governance in the Catholic Church?  Must everyone holding a position of authority in the Church be a cleric?  There’s a flip-side to this question, too: does every cleric, by virtue of his ordination, exercise authority in the Church?

At first glance, the two concepts definitely do go together!  After all, the pastor of a parish (to take the most common example), who must be a priest as per canon 521.1, certainly can be said to “govern” the parish, in numerous ways.  In the sacramental realm, it’s the pastor who has the authority to decide whether to baptize a baby or not, in accord with canon 868.1 n. 2 (see “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” for more on this); to decide when children are properly prepared to make their First Holy Communion, as per canons 777 n. 2 and 914 (see “Refusing First Holy Communion to Children Who Are Ill-Prepared”); and to determine that a couple isn’t ready to get married yet, or maybe that they shouldn’t marry in the Church at all (cc. 1066 ff., and “When Can the Parish Priest Postpone a Wedding?”).  Clearly the pastor is exercising the power of governance in making these and other, similar sorts of sacramental decisions.

But at the same time, as we all know, a pastor has lots of power over other parish matters which do not involve sacramental ministry at all.  He is in charge of finances, and has the authority—or the “power,” if you like—to spend parish funds, to hire and fire parish employees, etc. etc. etc.  Thus there are plenty of occasions where a parish priest exercises the power of governance, over matters which are not uniquely priestly in nature.

The powers of a diocesan bishop may be considered comparable in this regard.  He has the authority to make many, many decisions of a sacramental nature: granting marriage dispensations (c. 87) is a big one, as was discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic” and “When Can You Get a Dispensation, and Who Can Grant It?”  To cite another common example, the diocesan bishop also determines whether and when to ordain seminarians to the priesthood, as per canon 1025.1, and as we saw in “Why Would a Bishop Refuse to Ordain a Seminarian?”  But as with parish priests, the diocesan bishop also has lots of power over affairs within his diocese which aren’t sacramental at all: among countless other matters, since he is effectively the chief executive of the diocese (cf. c. 381.1), the bishop has enormous authority over diocesan finances, as was discussed at length in “When, and How Much, Can a Bishop Tax a Parish?” and “Canon Law and Bishops of Bling.”

Catholics are well familiar with these sorts of decisions, which are made by our pastors and our bishops every day.  Consequently, if you’re not careful, you might easily fall into the trap of concluding that “a diocesan bishop has authority because he’s been ordained a bishop,” and “a pastor can govern his parish because he’s a priest.”  In actual fact, though, it’s more complicated than that—because for centuries it has been undeniable that in some cases, ordination and the power of governance do not go hand in hand.

Consider the case of a new monk, who has been ordained a priest (see “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty” for more on this).  Since he has received the sacrament of holy orders, he is obviously a cleric (cf. c. 266.1); but can we assume that therefore he also has the power of governance?  Imagine that this young monk is the newest member of his monastery, and as such he holds no authority role whatsoever.  He celebrates Mass with the other monks every morning (something discussed in “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?”), prays the Liturgy of the Hours with them at the appropriate points in the day (see “Do Priests Have to Celebrate Mass Every Day?” for more on this obligation), and spend the rest of his waking hours working in the monastery—cleaning or cooking, or perhaps engaged in horticulture if the monks support themselves with agricultural work.  Our imaginary young monk has no authority, no “power of governance” whatsoever!  There’s nothing unusual about his situation, either, and so we cannot reasonably conclude that “if you’re an ordained priest, you have power in the Church.”  The one does not automatically bring with it the other.

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin.  Are there non-clergy in the Church who can and do exercise the power of governance?  Traditionally, you need look no further than an abbey of women religious!  An abbess is the female superior of an abbey of nuns; and as a woman, she of course is not an ordained cleric—and yet there is no denying that historically, then and now, an abbess wields an impressive amount of power, as she governs the abbey and the nuns under her authority.  The precise parameters of her power of governance may vary, depending on her individual institute’s Constitutions (see “Leaving a Novice in Limbo” for more on how this works); but to cite a few general laypeople, power of governanceexamples, an abbess routinely makes decisions regarding the acceptance and rejection of aspiring new members of the abbey, and also concerning the operations of the abbey itself, including financial matters as well as building issues pertaining to the physical plant.  (Etc., etc., etc.)

In fact, just like a bishop, a “mitred abbess” actually has a crosier, a symbol of her governing authority—here’s an interesting webpage with many pictures of crosier-wielding abbesses over the centuries.  But if you’re inclined to think that “this may have been true historically, but it doesn’t happen nowadays,” see here and here (U.S.), here (Germany) and here (Australia) for photos of current examples of this, in abbeys of women which are in full communion with the Catholic Church.

If this doesn’t constitute “power of governance,” then what is it?  And if it was historically an “abuse” which was subsequently stamped out by the Church (as some scholars have argued), then why does it still take place in legitimate Catholic abbeys of women religious today?

The frustrating fact is, the Church has long waffled back and forth over the relationship between holy orders and power of governance.  Its position hasn’t been historically consistent, and it still hasn’t been consistent even in our lifetimes (more on that in a moment).

True, the Second Vatican Council brought us some welcome clarity in the famous “Explanatory Note” appended to Lumen Gentium (LG), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, when it discussed the difference between (a) the sacramental ordination of a bishop, and (b) the power connected to the office of bishop of a given diocese:

2. A person becomes a member of the College by virtue of Episcopal consecration and by hierarchical communion with the head of the College and with its members….
In his consecration a person is given an ontological participation in the sacred functions [munera]; this is absolutely clear from Tradition, liturgical tradition included. The word “functions [munera]” is used deliberately instead of the word “powers [potestates],” because the latter word could be understood as a power fully ready to act. But for this power to be fully ready to act, there must be a further canonical or juridical determination through the hierarchical authority.  This determination of power can consist in the granting of a particular office or in the allotment of subjects, and it is done according to the norms approved by the supreme authority. An additional norm of this sort is required by the very nature of the case, because it involves functions [munera] which must be exercised by many subjects cooperating in a hierarchical manner in accordance with Christ’s will.  It is evident that this “communion” was applied in the Church’s life according to the circumstances of the time, before it was codified as law.  (Emphasis added)

In normal English, this means that a bishop doesn’t have jurisdiction simply because he has been sacramentally ordained a bishop; while his episcopal consecration is of course vital for sacramental reasons, he obtains the necessary governing power by canonical mission, when he is officially made the Bishop of X Diocese by the Pope.  In other words, LG made a critical distinction between sacramental ordination/episcopal consecration, and the power of governance—and indicated clearly that yes, it’s possible to have the first one without the other.

Thus, if a priest is to become the Bishop of Diocese X, two different things both have to happen:
(1) He must be consecrated a bishop (giving him sacramental powers which he didn’t have before); and
(2) The Pope must formally name him the Bishop of Diocese X, giving him the canonical mission to govern that particular diocese (by which he obtains the power of governance of that diocese).
If the Pope decrees that the already ordained Bishop of X is now to become the Bishop of Y instead, the bishop naturally doesn’t have to repeat (1) above; but he still needs (2).  In other words, the Bishop of one diocese can’t just waltz into another diocese on his own and start running the place—because he gets his authority to do that from the Pope.

(This, incidentally, is why bishops validly consecrated within the Society of St. Pius X [SSPX] do indeed have sacramental powers—but they do not have the power of governance/jurisdiction possessed by a diocesan bishop, because only the Pope can give that to them.  And since they are not in hierarchical communion with the head of the Church, they cannot be given such powers.)

Well, this statement from the LG Explanatory Note is very helpful to us!  Unfortunately … LG also says this:

Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.  (LG 21)

So at one point in LG we’re told that holy orders and power of governance are two different things, and at another point in the same document we hear that ordination brings with it the power of governance.  Are you confused yet?  For the record, the issue is actually far more complicated than the relatively brief summary being presented here!  Canon-law students in particular should take note that many solid scholars from around the world are not always sure of the relationship between the “functions” (munera) cited in the above-mentioned quote from LG, and “power.”  How do you define “power,” anyway?  Similarly, many scholars reasonably object to the idea that “jurisdiction” and “power of governance” are always synonymous.  (Except that it does seem that sometimes they are.  Refer back to what was said earlier, about banging one’s head against the wall in frustration.)  But here’s the crux of the issue, which ties in with Marisol’s question: If sacramental ordination and power of governance are two separate things, and we know that there are cases in the Church where Catholics can legitimately have one without the other … then it’s only logical to conclude that laypeople can—at least in some cases—be given power of governance within the Church.

That’s why canon 129 of the current Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, says this:

Canon 129.1 Those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.
129.2 Lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this same power according to the norm of law (emphasis added).

Canonists and theologians can, and certainly do, ponder the precise meanings of the terms “qualified” (habiles in the official Latin text), and “cooperate.”  But at least we see here a fundamental recognition that there’s more to the question than simply asserting, “only clergy  have the power of governance.”

Unfortunately … things get murkier when you look at canon 274 in the very same Code of Canon Law, because it says this:

Canon 274.1 Only clerics can obtain offices for whose exercise the power of orders or the power of ecclesiastical governance is required (emphasis added).

Sigh!  We’re right back where we started, aren’t we?  How can canons 129 and 274 even coexist in the same Code of Canon Law, since they appear to directly contradict each other?  For decades, canon-law professors and other scholars have jumped through hoops, trying to reconcile the two.  You might say there has been an uneasy truce between the two positions represented by these two canons, and by the two different statements in LG that were discussed above.  In the meantime, though, the code also specifically asserts that lay canonists can serve as judges in marriage Tribunals (c. 1421.2), and financial officers in diocesan chanceries (c. 494), among other things.  It’s hard to argue that people serving in these roles are not exercising some sort of power of governance!

Individual dioceses all over the world have thus had laypeople in power-positions for decades; but in more recent years there already have been laymen and laywomen holding top positions in Vatican dicasteries too.  In 2014, the layman René Brülhart was named the President of the Vatican’s Autorità di Informazione Finanziaria (AIF), the office which serves as a watchdog over Vatican finances (and if that doesn’t constitute “power,” then nothing does).  The Disciplinary Commission of the Roman Curia is now headed by a lay canonist, and a lay sister is now the head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.  These positions require particular types of expertise—but they don’t directly involve any sort of sacramental ministry.

In light of all this, it’s quite misleading to suggest that the statement made by Pope Francis in Praedicate Evangelium, about laypeople heading Vatican offices, is like a bolt out of the blue!  The Pope’s new Apostolic Constitution is simply restating parts of LG when it says this:

10. The Pope, the Bishops and other ordained ministers are not the sole evangelizers in the Church.  They “know that they were not established by Christ to undertake by themselves the entire saving mission of the Church to the world.”  Each Christian, by virtue of baptism, is a missionary disciple “to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  This must necessarily be taken into account in the reform of the Curia, which should consequently make provision for the involvement of lay women and men, also in roles of government and responsibility.  Their presence and their participation is essential, since they contribute to the well-being of the entire Church…. they have much to offer….

One day after PE was promulgated, Bishop Marco Mellino, the secretary of the council of cardinals that helped to draft PE, provided the public with a report (at the Holy Father’s request) which discusses various aspects of the document—including its references to lay Vatican officials.  Here is how he laid out the current understanding of power in the Vatican dicasteries:

The Roman Curia … is at the service of the Pope: it exists and acts only in so far as it serves the Holy Father; in his name and with his authority it fulfills its function (ordinary vicarious power)….
[An] innovative aspect … is that of the role of the laity within the Roman Curia…. [It] is based on a fundamental fact: the vicarious nature of the Curia.  This means that it is by virtue of the power received by the Roman Pontiff (i.e., ordinary vicarious power) that Vatican institutions are empowered to intervene authoritatively by their competence in a given matter, or at the request of bishops, or on their own initiative when necessary.
From this follows another affirmation, truly innovative: “for this reason any member of the faithful can preside over a Dicastery or Office, depending on the power of governance and the specific competence and function of the Dicastery or Office in question.”  This affirmation makes it clear that whoever is in charge of a dicastery or other body of the Roman Curia does not have authority by virtue of the hierarchical rank which he holds, but by virtue of the power he receives from the Roman Pontiff and exercises in his name.  (Section 6, my translation)

In other words, Mellino rightly notes that those bishops who have traditionally headed up the various Vatican Congregations were exercising power which was not their own by virtue of their episcopal consecration.  No, they held power only because the Pope gave it to them—he asked them to act in his name.  Canon 131 tells us that the first type of power is called proper power, since a person wields it in his own name; and the second is termed vicarious power, since the person using it acts in the name of the one who gave it to him to use.

And if a bishop can wield vicarious power, on behalf of the Pope … why can’t a layperson do the same thing?

Mellino cites LG accurately when he concludes, “the power of order is conferred by the sacrament, while the power of jurisdiction is attached to the office conferred by the mission or canonical provision (can. 146).”  And by now it should be clear that this assertion about laypeople holding power-positions in the Vatican isn’t all that radically new after all.  It is a logical development in the ongoing discussion/debate within the canonical world, about the power of governance and the role of the laity in the Church.

Could this concept be abused?  As Marisol put it, “whenever Pope Francis changes something in the Church, we’ve learned to be suspicious,” presumably because such changes can be exploited to further a political or ideological agenda.  But let’s be frank: any law, or norm, or policy can end up being abused for ulterior motives, if the people charged with implementing/applying it have their own personal reasons for doing so, and the power to do it.  Rather than worrying about the possible political ramifications of a procedural change in the structure of the Vatican, we might be better off focusing on the personal sanctity and sincerity of those Catholics—both cleric and lay—who are put in positions of power.  In short, let’s not panic over the not-new-at-all role which the laity can potentially play in church governance; rather, let’s continue to pray for the overall wellbeing of the Church and its leaders!

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