What is the lay governance debate all about?

While last week’s meeting of the College of Cardinals failed to produce the kind of “big news” event some had predicted, the consistory did ask the cardinals to reflect upon Pope Francis’ recent reform of the Roman Curia.

But while the wild rumour that Francis was mulling the appointment of a coadjutor vice-pope didn’t pan out (no surprise!), the cardinals still had a major change to the life of the Church to consider — the concept of “lay governance.”

That conversation has the potential to change the way the Church governs and even defines itself at every level — from the Vatican to the German synodal way to local diocesan chanceries.

What’s going on?  What is this debate about, and does it mean for dioceses around the world?

Who’s talking about this?

When Pope Francis promulgated Praedicate Evangelium in March of this year, it included the now-famous reform that “any member of the faithful can preside over a Dicastery or Office,” clearing the way for laymen and women to serve at the highest levels of the Holy See’s administrative apparatus, for the first time.

In the text of Praedicate itself, however, that reform was contextualized in ways that canon lawyers have is unclear. And some theologians and canon lawyers have said that the plan – or certain interpretations, at least – could  be at odds with the teachings of Vatican Council II.

Those concerns were echoed by some cardinals in Rome this weekend.

And the issue is not just about the Vatican. While a change to governance policies in the Roman Curia is a big deal, the pope has been clear that he sees his curial reforms as an example for the whole Church.

Who has the power?

The Church says that bishops and others in positions of authority might exercise three kinds of functions, or munera, in the life of the Church — the offices of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, which flow the authority given by Jesus Christ to his apostles, and their successors.

While the idea has always been important, Vatican II took special care to emphasize that bishops have a special share in those functions.

Lumen gentium, Vatican Council II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, explained that “In his [episcopal] consecration a person is given an ontological participation in the sacred functions [munera]; this is absolutely clear from Tradition, liturgical tradition included.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this more simply: “Christ himself chose the apostles and gave them a share in his mission and authority.”

“Because it is joined with the episcopal order, the office of priests shares in the authority by which Christ himself builds up and sanctifies and rules his Body,” the Catechism explains.

This link between the sacrament of ordination and the exercise of governing power in the Church is also defined in the Code of Canon Law, which says that “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head.”

According to canon law, “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.”

While the Church talks about ordination and authority in a particular way, lay people can participate in the governing life of the Church as well. Lay people fill roles like that of the chancellor of a diocese, a promoter of justice (a canonical public prosecutor), and even as judges on canonical tribunals.

But the Church’s law defines their participation as “cooperation” in the power of governance,  and the scope of that cooperating role is limited.

What has changed?

When Pope Francis issued Praedicate, the new constitution defined every curial role as essentially a delegated function of the office of the Bishop of Rome, saying that “each curial institution carries out its proper mission by virtue of the power it has received from the Roman Pontiff, in whose name it operates with vicarious power in the exercise of his primatial munus.”

“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.” the constitution says.

That’s being interpreted by some observers as a theological sea change — they argue it separates sacramental ordination from the capability to fill those Church offices which directly exercise significant governance prerogatives.

But others say that the limiting clause, “depending on the power of governance…” means the pope’s announcement doesn’t amount to much — that lay people are restricted from appointment to most significant curial offices, because they’re not canonically (or theologically) capable of exercising the power of governance in their own right.

So which is it?

Some Vatican roles, like the head of the Dicastery for Catholic Education, could likely be filled by lay people without raising broad questions about the Church’s self-understanding.

But could a lay person be placed in charge of the Dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith, or Clergy, or Divine Worship and be given the stable power over rule bishops on matters of faith and morals, governance of their own priests, or the administration of the sacraments?

Praedicate itself isn’t clear on these questions – it offers a possibility, and a limit on that possibility, but no specifics.

And it doesn’t address the implications of an administrative decision that raises deep theological questions about the power and purpose of sacred orders in the life of the Church.

That’s what cardinals say they’re asking about this week. Continue reading

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