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A Vatican-inspired theological revolution

  • 28 June 2022
I’m not telling you anything new when I say that one of most toxic problems facing Catholicism is clericalism. By ‘clericalism’ I mean the tendency to place priests on a pedestal, to accept their pronouncements as gospel, encouraging them to feel, as Pope Francis says, ‘superior to lay people.’

It begins in seminary training when candidates start to see themselves as joining a unique male, celibate, secretive caste enjoying privilege and power, set apart from ordinary humanity by ordination. Clericalism is at the root of sexual abuse when inadequate, immature men feel they can use children to satisfy their warped sexual impulses. It is a way of life far removed from Jesus, ‘the man who had nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). It’s also very different to Pope Francis’ call to priests to experience ‘the smell of the sheep.’

But in his recent (March 19, 2022) Apostolic Constitution entitled Praedicate evangelium (PE), ‘Preach the Gospel’, Pope Francis dealt clericalism a major blow. This is the final document in a long-planned reform of the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy.

The cardinals who elected him in 2013 asked Francis to restructure the curia following several scandals under Benedict XVI and John Paul II. PE is the result. The practical detail is not important; my personal view is that no matter what the structure, the curia is a creature of the 16th century and is irreformable.

But there was a basic principle laid down in PE that is profoundly important with far-reaching consequences for the whole church. This principle states that any baptised Catholic ‘can preside over a dicastery,’ that is run a Vatican department. Previously only ordained clerics could do this because ordination was the absolute precondition for exercising ‘ordinary jurisdiction’ or church governance.

Explaining the change canon lawyer, Father (now Cardinal) Gianfranco Ghirlando, SJ said unequivocally ‘that the power of governance in the church does not come from ordination, but from one’s mission’ (my emphasis).

'It is a decisive, even revolutionary theological shift because it re-roots ministry in the mission to which all are called by baptism.'

Yes, but so what? Well, as sometimes happens, profound, long-term change follows a seemingly minor shift of emphasis. Essentially, Ghirlando is saying, reflecting Francis, that you don’t have to be ordained a priest to exercise the power of governance in the church. And by ‘governance’ Ghirlando means the administrative authority that comes with a call from the church to carry