Pope Francis has issued a document on his reform of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The English translation will not be available for some time, so I am dependent on articles by various media outlets for my information of what it contains. It is part of Francis’ intended major reform of the Curia, which, with the assistance of his Council of Cardinals, he has been working on since early in his pontificate.
First, let me say a little about my own experience of dealing with the CDF over the past ten years, and what I see as essential to any reform of that body. Ten years ago, after 40 years of ministry as a priest, I was forbidden to minister publicly because the CDF objected to some of my views in a magazine published monthly by my religious congregation, and that situation remains the same to this day.
The main problem about my dealings with the CDF was precisely that there was no dealing that in any way respected my basic dignity as a human person. As a member of a religious congregation, they dealt exclusively with my superiors, and made no contact whatsoever with me. They claimed at one stage that they attempted dialogue with me, which was untrue. To say that they had dialogue with my superiors would also be untrue.
Both my Superior General and my Provincial Superior made it clear to me that they were in no position to stand up to, or question, the decisions of the CDF, because that body had the power to remove them summarily from office and replace them with someone of their own choosing, as indeed they had done in other cases. So there was no dialogue, no defence, no court of appeal. I remember my Superior General telling me he greeted the then Prefect of the CDF, William Levada, with the words “Your Eminence”. Hardly a promising start to any meeting between equals. So, my experience of the CDF was of a body that had complete power, were extremely arrogant, who believed they could make decisions with enormous implication for people’s lives, which decisions could not be questioned or appealed to any independent body.
Does Pope Francis want to make real change in this body, and has he the power? He has already taken some significant actions. He has removed Gerhard Müller from his position as head of the CDF, much to Müller’s displeasure. More recently he has also removed Giacomo Morandi. Both these moves are, in my view, positive.
In the new motu proprio he is dividing the CDF into two distinct units, each with its own head, and with an overall Prefect. One units concerns discipline, and the other doctrine.
The discipline section will manage concerns related to the sexual abuse of minors and other “grave” crimes. Seemingly they have been swamped in recent years with cases involving clerical and religious abuse of minors, and this is an effort to deal more adequately and speedily with this. This body will also have the duty of training people in authority positions in the Church on how to handle these cases. That seems to be a very necessary function. In this initial document he does not seem to elaborate on what he means by “grave” crimes.
The second unit concerns doctrine. This section will manage matters related to the “promotion and protection” of issues of faith and morals, along with matrimonial concerns. It promotes studies aimed at increasing the understanding and transmission of the faith at the service of evangelisation, so that its light may be a criterion for understanding the meaning of existence, especially in the face of the questions posed by the progress of the sciences and the development of society.
I particularly like that last sentence, acknowledging that the Church, in its teaching and practice, needs to be aware of, and dialogue with, scientific and societal changes and developments.
In all of this it seems to me that Francis is trying to take the CDF out of its narrow doctrinal and authoritarian attitudes, and get it to think and engage in a more broadminded and tolerant attitude, even to the extent of helping people to understand the meaning of life. Rather than declaring in a dogmatic manner regarding what is and is not doctrine, he seems to want it to enter into discussion and discernment with the wider Church and society, in order to give space for the Spirit to work through all.
I know these are broad and general strokes Francis is painting in this document, but I like what I am reading about it. The one big caveat I have is around the area of personnel. It will be difficult to change the behaviour of a body that has existed for more than 500 years, as the Inquisition, the Holy Office, and now the CDF. The current Prefect, Luis Ladaria, will be retiring later this year. He will need to be replaced by a person who is strong, decisive and in the mind of Francis. If that happens, and under Francis’ direction, we could see real change, and the CDF, from being a negative and ultimately destructive presence in the Church, could instead become a resourceful presence that will help the whole Church to present better the message of Jesus to the modern world. I am hopeful.
Tony Flannery is a member of the Redemptorist congregation, a native of Attymon, near Athenry in County Galway, Ireland. In 2012 it was brought to his attention that the Vatican objected to some of his articles in Reality magazine. He was summoned to Rome by the Superior General of the Redemptorists, and this began a long process which culminated in him being forbidden to minister as a priest, a situation that continues to this day. He has written a full account of his dealings with the Vatican in his latest book, A Question of Conscience.