Wednesday, August 31, 2016

For "Social Office," Pope Taps Turkson... For Migrants, Peter Picks Himself

Even before the usual "starting gun" to the Vatican's working year, the Pope has again moved to end August with a bang: at Roman Noon today, the Holy See announced the consolidation of the four Pontifical Councils focused on social teaching and outreach into a new "Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development," with the longtime Justice and Peace Czar, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson (above), tapped as the combined entity's founding head.

Essentially placing all the Holy See's silos dealing with the Social Magisterium – among them, the business, political and military worlds – under one umbrella, the merged office will absorb the functions of the respective Councils for Justice and Peace, Cor Unum ("One Heart," which oversees the global church's charitable and humanitarian works, plus relief efforts), Migrants and Itinerant Peoples and the Pastoral Care of Health Workers. Yet in a remarkable act meant to underscore Francis' well-burnished concern and advocacy for migrants and refugees, the Pope wrote into the new body's statutes that – at least temporarily – that lone section of the office "is placed [directly] under the leadership of the Supreme Pontiff," to be personally overseen by him.

Though the handful of pontifical commissions Papa Bergoglio has established on various topics – e.g. protection of minors, reform of annulments, most recently the diaconate – all report directly to Francis, no Curial entity to date has explicitly been headed by the Pope himself: not merely in this pontificate, but any in recent times.

With the move – set to take effect on January 1st (which, for the last half-century, the church has observed as the World Day of Peace) – only five councils will remain from what had been 12 second-tier Curial offices before Francis' slow-burn, piecemeal reform began in early 2014; a complete overhaul of Pastor Bonus – St John Paul II's 1988 constitution organizing the church's central government – remains in the works. Yet as the merger of the Pontifical Councils for the Laity and the Family takes effect tomorrow with the formal launch of the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life – its founding announced almost a year ago – it bears noting that today's consolidation has come on a far more rapid timeframe, ostensibly as the pontiff had his choice to lead the social organ already on-site.

Given the red hat by John Paul at his last Consistory, Turkson was brought to Rome by B16 in 2009 to serve as the church's lead spokesman on social justice issues. The lone Scripture scholar among the cardinal-electors until the tail-end of Benedict's pontificate – and long touted as the most sensible and astute African papabile – the 67 year-old prelate possesses a rare mix of charisma and intellect: as a student at the Franciscan-run (now closed) St Anthony's Seminary in upstate New York, the future cardinal famously painted a wall of his dorm-room black, using it as a chalkboard to study Hebrew. Named an archbishop at home at age 44 – while still working on his doctoral dissertation – Turkson made it his practice to live with his transitional deacons over their year of preparation to examine their fitness for priesthood up close.

Said to be fluent in eight languages, Turkson's profile has only risen further amid Francis' enhanced emphasis on peace, the poor and development issues, crossing the globe to deliver loaded reflections on Catholic social teaching and its implications on a host of fronts. Above all, however, the cardinal was the lead player behind the preparation and rollout of Laudato Si' – last year's landmark encyclical on the environment – whose publication saw such mammoth interest that the release day media briefing had to be moved from the Vatican Press Office to a larger venue. (For purposes of context, that didn't even happen for Amoris.)

All that said, with today's merger the evolving structure of Francis' rebooted Curia is becoming clearer: "Secretariats" at the top, which govern internal matters – Economy, Communication, State and the Synod – then "Dicasteries" (formerly the generic title of Curial offices) to handle more broad-based topics. At the same time, while any reforms to the top-level congregations – the nine offices which exercise the pontiff's delegated authority over distinct elements of the church's life – is still in the offing (amid an ongoing review by the "Gang of 9" cardinal-advisers), it's nonetheless significant that, as with the new Laity/Family arm, the Pope's regulations for the Development office explicitly provide that the prefect's team of lead deputies need not be clerics but "may also be laypeople." As Turkson recruited the lone laywoman to hold "superior" rank in the Curia – the Italian academic Dr Flaminia Giovanelli, his longtime #3 at Justice and Peace – an even heavier non-ordained presence in the new arrangement's top ranks stands to be expected... and to be sure, as he looks to assemble his own leadership squad at Laity, Family, Life, the new prefect there, Bishop Kevin Farrell, is likewise understood to be heading in the same direction.

Initially fashioned by Blessed Paul VI in the post-Conciliar years as an element of Vatican governance that primarily would engage various fields instead of exercising jurisdiction, the range of pontifical councils was further expanded under both St John Paul II and Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, the latter adding the final of the dozen in 2010 with the establishment of an office for Promoting the New Evangelization. On the flip-side, however, today's move actually brings to completion a plan initially mooted by Papa Ratzinger, who attempted to consolidate Justice and Peace with Cor Unum early in his pontificate, but was warded off it by the Curia's traditional penchant for protecting bureaucratic turfs.

Beyond the respective deputies of the two catch-all dicasteries, another major question remains in the air: the slates of prelates and lay experts who will form the memberships of each office. As each of the merging councils have had sizable groups of members and consultants on their own until now, whether all those seats will be folded into the new offices or reconstituted from scratch is still decidedly unclear, and will have a sizable impact on the scope and focus the new bodies will carve out for themselves.

Notably, the announcement of the Development Dicastery comes on the eve of tomorrow's second observance in the Catholic church of the World Day of Prayer for the Protection of Creation, which the Pope joined last year following the initiative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. As coordinating the church's activities for the day falls to the new office, Francis will mark the occasion with an evening prayer rite in St Peter's – his first major message of the new "Vatican year."