It was thirty years ago this summer that St John Paul II promulgated Pastor Bonus, his reorganization of the Roman Curia, completing the curial reforms started by Blessed Paul VI in the years after the Council. Pope Francis sought to update those measures, and his own curial reform has been underway for five years, notably producing the amalgamation of some pontifical councils into a larger department, or “dicastery” in curial parlance. Recently, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery of Laity, Family and Life, explained the rationale for his new department.

“The [new discastery] is to give prominence to laity,” Farrell told Intercom, the magazine of the Irish bishops. “They are the most important people in the Church, not the clergy, not the bishops. Pope Francis directly told me that he is tired of all these congregations taking the first role in everything. He said that he wants a department in the Vatican for lay people, that is equivalent to all of the other congregations (for Bishops, Clergy, Religious and so on). And by lay people, he does not mean people who belong to ecclesial movements, rather to the regular people who go to church. The Church does not want to clericalise the laity.”

That bears careful reading. First, it is not obvious why the laity are more important than clergy. If the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, it would seem counter-intuitive that the grace of Holy Orders, which makes one capable of confecting the Eucharist, would render a man less important. But Cardinal Farrell was probably speaking loosely with the intent of demonstrating that he does not look down upon the laity.

But what does the creation of the new dicastery say about how the laity is regarded from a curial perspective? The ambiguous name “dicastery” could give rise to some confusion.

There are three principal types of “dicasteries” – secretariats, congregations and councils. Secretariats have broad coordinating authority to carry out the pope’s wishes. That is why it was significant that Pope Francis added a “secretariat” for economic affairs in 2014, signalling that it would have authority over other bodies, as does the Secretariat of State.

“Congregations” exercise the supreme authority of the Holy Father in various jurisdictions – doctrine, missions, liturgy, bishops, clergy, religious, eastern Churches, education, saints. They make decrees and govern, in the pope’s name, the areas of ecclesial life entrusted to them.

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