The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development has easily the most political portfolio in the curia

The Franciscan reforms of the Roman Curia are, three years on, beginning to break the surface. Already this month we have seen the leadership of the much trumpeted Congregation for the Laity announced, and yesterday saw the publication of a new motu proprio by which the Pope effectively combined the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Vatican’s charitable arm Cor Unum, the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, and the Pontifical Council for Healthcare Workers.

The new department is referred to in the motu proprio as the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and Cardinal Peter Turkson, currently the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has been announced as its first prefect.

It is interesting to note that the new department, or “super department” as any aggregate of smaller offices is inevitably dubbed, is referred to only as a dicastery. In one sense, this is correct: the word simply means department. But curial sections are usually given a more descriptive heading, such as Congregation, Secretariat, or Pontifical Council, and these titles say much and imply more about the body’s size and importance.

The Franciscan preference for the more runcible “dicastery”, which was also used for the new curial “super department” for the laity, is a bit ambiguous. In both cases, the heads of the new departments are described as “prefects”, which is traditionally reserved for Congregations, which are the larger and more prestigious departments. On the other hand, nothing is said about the need for the new prefects to be a cardinal; when Bishop Farrell of Dallas was appointed as head of the new Dicastery for the Laity he was called simply the Bishop-Prefect, with no mention of his pending elevation to either archbishop or cardinal; meanwhile, Cardinal Turkson is already both.

Opinion is divided about the significance of this ambiguity of titles. Some see it as part of a wider effort by the Pope to democratise the curia and cool any careerist interest in titles and status, while clearing the path for laymen to serve in senior positions like Secretary and Undersecretary. Others wonder if the ambiguity of terms isn’t just a reflection of the curia’s own uncertainty about the Pope’s intentions, and a way of announcing the broad strokes of reform before the detail has been settled. Indeed it is not clear how much actually will change in the day-to-day operations of the newly combined departments.

It is certainly true that all of the announcements of different curial reforms must be set against the backdrop of the so-called C9 Council of Cardinals’ ongoing work to reform, or replace entirely, the Holy See’s governing constitution Pastor Bonus. While the motu proprio establishing the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development abrogates some eleven articles of Pastor Bonus, where it will sit within the new reformed constitution, whenever that should materialise, is still anyone’s guess.

For this reason, many consider the ambiguity of language and titles for the new departments and their heads as an indication of how much big-picture reform is still to come, with the recent announcements serving as little more than indications of the Pope’s priorities; certainly in the case of the new Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development there is a clear papal interest.

While Cardinal Turkson is in overall charge of the new department, Pope Francis has placed himself in direct control, at least for now, of the section dealing with migrants and refugees. That the Pope should want to manage directly the Holy See’s work on an issue which is both a highly prominent geo-political issue and a personal priority of his own is not surprising, nor is it unprecedented. In his own reforms of the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict XV placed himself in direct charge of what would become the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, so that he could personally oversee its work.

Regardless of whether the new department for Human Development remains as an umbrella for previously separate smaller departments or emerges as something truly new, its portfolio is easily the most political of any curial section, and its work is likely to attract more than its fair share of attention.

Cardinal Turkson has, in his previous roles, shown himself to be more than prepared to wade into matters of international politics and policy, as well as global economics and financial reform; his 2011 document Towards Reforming The International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority concluded with a bold call for a global central bank and international financial authority, with power to regulate and tax global financial transactions. Given the cardinal’s clear willingness to engage in the substance of policy debate, and Pope Francis’ strong emphasis on global poverty and the institutionally marginalised, it will be interesting to see how such internationalist problems and solutions are balanced against the Pope’s equally famous enthusiasm for the principle of subsidiarity.

Another part of the new department’s work which will be extremely interesting to watch will be in the area of healthcare. Here there is an inbuilt tension to resolve: on the one hand the Holy See has been solidly internationalist in its work towards improving global health, especially in developing nations; on the other, the United Nations and an increasing number of western governments insist on making “reproductive health”, ie abortion, a central pillar of their work.

Already considered by the UN to be a “basic health service”, there is a longstanding campaign to upgrade abortion to the status of a “human right”. How the new department balances its instinctive sympathy for international bodies and institutions, and the desire to promote and cooperate with global efforts, against the need to articulate the Church’s increasingly reviled teaching on the sanctity of human life will be a key indication of where its priorities lie.

Along this line, it is interesting to note that the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences was not included in the merger but that the new department’s divisions for charity, ecology, and health workers will each maintain a “close relationship” with it. Given that the thrust of Francis’s curial reforms thus far have been to combine the work of smaller institutions, it is interesting to see that this body was left independent.

As with so many of Pope Francis’s structural reforms, it is hard to discern what the eventual effects will be on how day-to-day business is conducted in the Vatican; it could be that those curial civil servants working in the new department will notice that little changes apart from the sign on the door.

Instead, today’s motu proprio is a further indication of the Pope’s policy priorities and personal concerns. As with every other aspect of curial reform, the scope of real change will be dictated by those placed in charge, and on the Pope’s willingness to remain personally involved.

It is easy to speak about issues like justice and peace, the refugee crisis, and global health with urgency and concern, what is much harder to do is to propose serious and coherent contributions towards their resolution. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the new Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development can go beyond the poetry of concern and use the Magisterium to help write the prose of policy.