203. “Praedicate Evangelium” – Envisioning the Roman Catholic Church of the Future

The constitution of a country is a kind of identity card for the country itself. Its different components, its various articles, the procedures that are enacted… they all create a window into what the country stands for and what its rules are. Since a country’s identity is reflected in every change of the constitution, any change signals a modification in the self-understanding of the entity.
The Roman Curia is governed by a kind of constitution that is issued by the Pope as the Head of the Church and Head of the State of the Vatican. It contains the rules that preside over the functioning of the Vatican departments and offices, which are at the service of the universal mission of the Roman Pontiff. It is the blueprint of the Vatican institution and is centered on the office of the Pope and practically implemented by the Roman Curia.
The recent promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium (PE) on 19th March 2022 gives the opportunity to examine how the Roman Catholic Church understands and organizes her institutional life as far as the present and the future are concerned.[1] More importantly, PE shows the inherent connection between the theological vision and the institutional outlook of the Roman Church, at least from the viewpoint of the Curia. Prior to PE, the Roman Curia operated under the constitution Pastor Bonus issued by John Paul II in 1988 and so it is also interesting to notice the changes after 25 years. The constitution defines the Roman Curia as “the institution which the Roman Pontiff ordinarily makes use of in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office and his universal mission in the world.” Furthermore, it states: “The Roman Curia is composed of the Secretariat of State, the Dicasteries and other bodies, all juridically equal to each other.”
Of course, PE is a juridical document and some interest and expertise in canon law is needed to come to terms with its contents.[2] The focus of this article will not so much be on the institutional re-arrangement of the Roman Curia and its organizational structure, but rather, on the theological vision that sustains it and that constitutes its framework. In what follows, I will try to look at PE from two different angles: the reordering of institutional priorities that it envisages and the significance of those priorities for the overall life of the Roman Catholic Church.Evangelicals are not always aware of the institutional picture and pay little attention to it. However, Rome is a big institution and one cannot come to terms with it without considering it. Therefore, this will be an exercise of evangelical discernment applied to the changing structure of the Roman Curia.
The Reordering of Priorities
“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel, n. 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church.[3] What kind of reformation did he have in mind? In some sense, PE is the institutional answer to the question asked at the beginning of his pontificate.In a nutshell, Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of his Church has to do with the increase of “synodality,” i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The Pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger role in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the particular churches, to ensure that they act better together. According to him, reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic in the internal organization of the Roman church in a synodical outlook. PE spells out what it means for the Pope to think and act toward this kind of reformation.
In The Joy of the Gospel, the Pope wrote: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (n. 27). Now 9 years after The Joy of the Gospel, PE is the tool by which the Pope wants mission to be at the center of the Vatican institutional life and not just a set of activities run by the Vatican institutions. It is a change of symbolic and conceptual significance.
PE attempts to make the Roman Curia at the service of mission. This concern is made clear by the prominence given to the Dicastery for Evangelization, which is the first in order of the departments of the Curia.[4] The Dicastery for Evangelization (directly chaired by the Pope with two pro-prefects in the sections into which it is divided) is formed through the merger of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization[5] and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The Pope himself takes full and direct responsibility to lead it. It has never happened before that the Pope would reclaim such a position and have such direct involvement.
In the list of PE, the Dicastery for Evangelization is followed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (which historically always had the first position among the old Congregations). The reverse of the order between the two is significant. The latter dicastery is followed by the new Dicastery for the Service of Charity, which was previously a simple Office, that of Apostolic Charity. The triadic order is therefore: evangelization, doctrine, charity. The more prominent role of “charity” is signaled by the institutional upgrade from Office to Dicastery.
It is worth pausing for a moment and reflect on the order that is envisioned by PE. Evangelization comes first and takes priority over doctrine. Evangelization is to become the first concern of the Roman Curia. Doctrine seems to be at the service of evangelization, no longer the other way around as has been the case for centuries. The Roman Curia is no longer supposed to be primarily a defensive structure guided by a body watching over doctrine, but needs to become an outward vector at the service of the mission of the Church. The shift is indicative of the new trajectory Pope Francis wants his church to move even beyond his time.
PE is not a detailed plan yet, but from the institutional perspective, it signals a significant change of priority. It is as if what was envisioned in The Joy of the Gospel has come to fruition. Through the re-structuring of the Roman Curia, evangelization and mission are now at the institutional center of the Vatican. The legacy of Pope Francis is a subject open to various interpretations. Doctrine has never received much attention by Pope Francis. Many of his critics have pointed out the doctrinal confusion if not failure in his leadership.[6] Other aspects of his reign are receiving some pushback. Whatever one thinks of him, PE is perhaps his most important and lasting contribution and something that all people inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church will have to deal with.[7]
What Does Evangelization Mean?
Given the importance of evangelization and mission in the new outlook of the Roman Curia, it is important to grapple with the theology of evangelization that lies at the heart of PE. “Evangelization” seems to be a popular word in Catholic circles. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (and also referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics, too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization.” It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. With PE, evangelization is given institutional importance.
“Evangelization” is a word that Rome has re-signified in order to suit its theological vision of embracing the world and in order to fulfill its calling to be, as Vatican II says, a “sign and instrument of the unity between God and mankind” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1). A similar genetic modification has occurred with  other words that have historically belonged to the Evangelical vocabulary, e.g. “conversion,” “unity” and “mission.” These words are some examples of the way in which Roman Catholicism can maintain the same spelling, while giving these terms a distinct Roman Catholic meaning.[8]
In The Joy of the Gospel, the “heart” of the Gospel is summarized in this way: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (n. 36). In this apparently Evangelical definition of the Gospel, something is missing: while the objective Good News of God is rightly related to the narrative of Jesus Christ, the subjective part of it (i.e. repentance from one’s own sin and personal faith) is omitted. The tragedy of being lost without Jesus Christ is also downplayed. For this reason, nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims, the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n.16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are associated to “the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254). The Gospel appears not to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead access to a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind. According to Francis, therefore, evangelization and mission are the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.
The word “evangelization” is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization, now in an embedded form in the Roman Curia. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.
Apart from Evangelii Gaudium, the most recent encyclical All Brothers (2020) is another window  into Pope Francis’ theology of evangelization. In this document, Francis pleads the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. Although it does not directly deal with evangelization, it nonetheless shapes the missiological framework of Francis’ theology of evangelization.
Among other issues, All Brothers raises a soteriological question. If we are all brothers as we are all children of God, does this mean that all will be saved? The whole encyclical is pervaded by a powerful universalist inspiration that also includes atheists (n. 281). Religions in the broad sense are always presented in a positive sense (nn. 277-279) and there is no mention of a biblical criticism of religions nor of the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the key to receiving salvation. Everything in the encyclical suggests that everyone, as brothers and sisters, will be saved. Evangelization is surely impacted by this assumption.
Then there is a Christological issue. Even though Jesus Christ is referred to here and there, his exclusive and “offensive” claims are kept silent. Francis wisely presents Jesus Christ not as the “cornerstone” on which the whole building of life stands or collapses, but as the stone only for those who recognize him. Above Jesus Christ, according to the encyclical, there is a “God” who is the father of all. We are children of this “God” even without recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is thus reduced to the rank of the champion of Christians alone, while the other “brothers” are still children of the same “God” regardless of faith in Jesus Christ. Evangelization cannot escape from being shaped by this shallow Christology.
Thirdly, there is an ecclesiological issue. If we are all “brothers,” there is a sense in which we are all part of the same church that gathers brothers and sisters together. The boundaries between humanity and church are so nonexistent that the two communities become coincident. Humanity is the church and the church is humanity. This is in line with the sacramental vision of the Roman Catholic Church which, according to Vatican II, is understood as a “sign and instrument of the unity of the whole human race”(Lumen Gentium, n. 1). According to All Brothers, the whole of the human race belongs to the church not on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, but on the basis of a shared divine sonship and human fraternity.
After sampling the theology of evangelization in Francis’ programmatic documents, it is useful to compare it with standard evangelical accounts of evangelization. According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation,” “historical and biblical Christ,” “persuasion,” and the emphasis on one’s personal reconciliation to God.
What “evangelization” is talked about in PE? The immediate answer is that of The Joy of the Gospel and All Brothers, and this is not really good news for Evangelicals. The word is the same, but the meaning is far different.[9] In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that with PE the Roman Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for: it is a flawed view of what “preach the Gospel” means according to the Bible.

[1] So far the text of PE is only available in Italian. This explains why the document has so far received less attention than what it would deserve.
[2]An introductory presentation of PE can be found in G. Ghirlanda, “‘Praedicate Evangelium’ sulla Curia romana”, La Civiltà Cattolica 4123 (2/16 aprile 2022) pp. 41-56 and O.A.R. Maradiaga, Praedicate Evangelium. Una nuova curia per un tempo nuovo (Roma: Pubblicazioni Clarettiane, 2022).
[3]Cfr. A. Spadaro – C.M. Galli (edd.), La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Brescia: Queriniana, 2016).
[4]Here is the list of the dicasteries as they are arranged by PE: Dicastery for Evangelization; Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Dicastery for the Service of Charity (formerly the Office of Papal Charities); Dicastery for the Eastern Churches; Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Dicastery for the Causes of Saints; Dicastery for Bishops; Dicastery for the Clergy; Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life; Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue; Dicastery for Culture and Education; Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Dicastery for Legislative Texts; Dicastery for Communication.
[5]The Council for Promoting the New Evangelization was created by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
[6]See my “‘Confusion’ and ‘Failure’: Other Roman Catholic Blows Against Pope Francis”, Vatican Files (March 1st, 2019) and “Is the Pope Catholic?”, Unio Cum Christo (2022) forthcoming.
[7]As an aside, another important nuance that PE introduced has to do with the possibility for a lay person to preside over a dicastery, and this by virtue of the principle that “the power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of orders, but from the canonical mission” received by the Pope with the conferral of office.
[8]In my book Same Words, Different Worlds: Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel? (London: IVP, 2021), I explore words such are “generation,”“justification,”“cross,” etc. showing that the way these words are understood by Rome is significantly different from their biblical meaning.On Rome’s attempt at redefining biblical words, see my article “Left Without Words. How Roman Catholicism is Reshaping the Evangelical Vocabulary,”Vatican Files (April 1st, 2013).
[9]In Same Words, Different Worlds, cit. I argue that while Rome uses the same words of the gospel, its account of the gospel is flawed because the Roman Catholic Church is not committed to Scripture Alone as its foundational principle and therefore its understanding of the Bible is determined by non-biblical sources.

69. The Joy of the Gospel: A Window into Francis’ Vision

December 2nd, 2013

Five chapters, 288 paragraphs, and more than 220 pages. This is the Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis titled The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), the second magisterial document of his Pontificate (the previous being the encyclical Light of Faith). It is the first, however, to come entirely from his own pen (and was originally written in Spanish). In 2010 Benedict XVI launched the idea of the “new evangelization”, and in 2012 convened a Synod of Bishops to discuss it. Now we have Francis’ interpretation of the new evangelization in an authoritative statement which is also a compendium to interpret most of what the Pope has been saying and doing so far. Here are some selected highlights. 

Missionary Conversion

Although Evangelii Gaudium comes one year after the Synod and is quoted 27 times, Francis’ whole approach to the topic is more dependent on the 2007 Latin American document of Aparecida than from it. More than the “new evangelization” this Pope loves to speak about “mission”. The former attempts at reaching the un-practicing Catholics, the latter is a style of the whole Church going in all directions. The former is particularly relevant for the ever more secular West, the latter is a “catholic” agenda for the world. According to the Pope, “missionary outreach is paradigmatic to all the church’s activity” (15). Evangelization is a part of mission, not the other way around. Here we are confronted with a programmatic statement of the Papacy: the Church cannot afford to stay in a “simple maintenance” mode: she needs to be in a “permanent state of mission” (25), going out, being always engaged in involving others and being constantly focused on reaching out. Maintenance culture and self-referential attitudes are the “internal” enemies that Francis is willing to fight. The vision of Pope Francis is an outward one and “mission” (whatever it may mean) is at the center of it. His church will not be on the defensive, but will be proactively engaged in promoting its vision.

A Conversion of the Papacy?

In calling others to change, the Pope is also aware of the need for the Papacy to be converted. At times, some “ecclesial structures” may become a burden and should therefore be open to transformation (26). In a telling passage, he goes as far as to say that the he is willing to see a “conversion of the papacy” (32). For those who may wonder what this expression means, this conversion does not entail a deconstruction of the dogmatic outlook of the Papacy, nor the radical questioning of the Papal claims about the Petrine office. It has to do more with how the Vatican bureaucracy functions than with the doctrinal substance of the Papacy. The document in fact speaks of “decentralization” (16) over against “excessive centralization” (32) or the growing role of the Episcopal Conferences (32). There is no sign of “real” conversion of the Papacy in the Biblical sense. The change that is foreseen is in the realm of internal church governance.

More Joy than Gospel

The word “joy” is repeated 59 times and is the common theme of the document. The Pope wants to give a joyful flavor to mission. The Gospel is also part of the title but has a lesser role in it. The “heart” of the Gospel is summarized in this way: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (36). In this apparently Evangelical definition of the Gospel something is missing: while the objective Good news of God is rightly related to the narrative of Jesus Christ, the subjective part of it (i.e. repentance from one’s own sin and personal faith) is omitted. The tragedy of being lost without Jesus Christ is also downplayed. For this reason nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (244), Jews don’t need to convert (247), and with believing Muslims the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium 16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are associated to “the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (254). The Gospel appears not to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead access to a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind. According to Francis, therefore, mission is the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.

Roman Catholicism in Pill Form

The document provides interesting comments by the Pope on preaching (“homily” in Catholic language, 135-159), special consideration for the poor (186-216) and the “evangelizing power of popular piety” (122-126), i.e. the various forms of the cult of the saints and Mary. What is even more noteworthy, however, is the section where Francis refers to various slogans that mark the Roman Catholic worldview as it opens up to the missionary task. Here are just two of them:

–          “Unity prevails over conflict” (226-230). The Pope encourages Catholics to find ways in which “conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity” (228). This resolution “takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides” (idem). The “reconciled diversity” (230) is the traditional et-et (both-and) approach that makes a synthesis of opposing views and beliefs, holding them in a “catholic” equilibrium.

–          “The whole is greater than the parts” (234-237). The Pope here encourages Catholics to see the big picture of things. “The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts” (235). This “principle of totality” (237) recalls another distinctive aspect of the Roman Catholic vision in that the Church is “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1).

A final question needs to be asked: Is not the mission envisaged by Francis an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to increase its catholicity and to expand its being the ultimate sign of unity for all mankind?


Si scrive “missione”, si legge “cattolicità” (romana). La Evangelii Gaudium di Papa Francesco

2 dicembre 2013

Sin qui il pontificato di Francesco era proceduto con comportamenti, gesti, parole, ecc. che non era facile capire e, soprattutto, mettere dentro un orizzonte coerente.  La frugalità dello stile, il linguaggio della missione, le concessioni unilaterali nel dialogo coi laici, il marianesimo spinto, la distanza dalla difesa dei valori non-negoziabili, costituivano “pezzi” di pontificato che risultava complesso mettere insieme. Prima di diventata papa, Bergoglio non aveva scritto in modo significativo e, quindi, non esisteva un documento che aiutasse a capirne l’universo di senso.  L’enciclica Lumen Fidei (5 luglio 2013) da lui firmata era, in realtà, stata scritta da Benedetto XVI e Francesco l’ha semplicemente promulgata. Era in ogni caso chiaro che non era farina del suo sacco. Ora, finalmente, il Papa ha scritto un testo programmatico, di suo pugno, che presenta la sua visione delle cose in modo più organico.

5 capitoli, 288 paragrafi, più di 220 pagine: la Evangelii Gaudium è un’esortazione apostolica che esce a un anno di distanza dal Sinodo dei vescovi sulla “nuova evangelizzazione”. Essa può essere letta come una dichiarazione d’intenti per il pontificato. Quali sono gli elementi principali?

Intanto, il papa vuole imprimere alla chiesa cattolica un’inversione di tendenza: dall’essere un’istituzione con atteggiamento difensivo e in una modalità manutentiva, vuole spingerla a diventare “missionaria”, coinvolta, pronta a sporcarsi le mani nel mondo, senza essere ossessionata dalla continua ricerca di marcare il territorio. Meno puntature identitarie sulla dottrina e sulla morale e più slancio verso l’esterno per accarezzare, comprendere, lenire le ferite degli uomini e le periferie del mondo. Meno burocrazia ecclesiastica, più missione ecclesiale. Meno divisione tra operatori-spettatori e più partecipazione di tutti. Meno giudizi su chi è “fuori” o chi si trova in zone “irregolari” della vita e più calore fraterno per tutti, mettendo in secondo piano le situazioni moralmente spurie.

Papa Francesco chiama “conversione” questa inversione.  Conversione per lui non è primariamente il pentimento dai peccati e la fede professata in Cristo da parte di chi non crede, ma è il cambiamento costante dei cristiani dalla pesantezza dell’istituzione verso lo slancio della missione (così intesa). Addirittura, arriva a parlare di “conversione del papato” (32). Naturalmente, non preannuncia alcuna riforma in senso biblico, ma un processo di “decentralizzazione” del governo della chiesa verso un ruolo più marcato delle conferenze episcopali regionali. In questo caso, la “conversione del papato” ha più a che fare con la burocrazia interna della chiesa di Roma che non con lo smantellamento delle prerogative dogmatiche dell’ufficio petrino.

Che “conversione” sia una chiamata per i cattolici è evidente anche da come in non-cattolici sono visti nel documento. Gli altri cristiani sono già uniti tramite il battesimo e a loro non è chiesta conversione (244). Gli ebrei sono sotto un’alleanza “mai revocata” e quindi non devono convertirsi (247). I musulmani adorano lo stesso unico e misericordioso Dio (252) e non è chiesto loro altro, se non riconoscere la libertà religiosa. Gli altri non cristiani sono “giustificati mediante la grazia di Dio” (254) anche senza un’esplicita professione di fede in Gesù Cristo. Il “vangelo” di cui parla il titolo non è un messaggio di salvezza dal giusto giudizio di Dio, ma l’accesso ad una più profonda, più piena, più gioiosa salvezza che è già data a tutta l’umanità. La “missione” di cui parla Papa Francesco è, allora, la volontà di estendere a tutti la pienezza della grazia ad un mondo già graziato.

Nel documento papale c’è più “gioia” che “vangelo”. Il vangelo presentato è monco della necessità da parte di tutti di rispondere in pentimento e in fede all’annuncio della buona notizia di Gesù Cristo. Si tratta allora di un’indistinta forma di universalismo religioso, di un incolore pan-cristianesimo in cui tutti sono già inclusi? Non proprio.

Il Papa, nel suo stile argomentativo che si sofferma su parole specifiche e su espressioni particolari, richiama alcuni slogan che aiutano a pensare alla “missione” come lui la intende.  Uno è “l’unità prevale sul conflitto” (226-230) e l’altro è “il tutto è superiore alla parte” (234-237). Sia l’uno che l’altro stanno al cuore della visione cattolico-romana delle cose. Sono due elementi essenziali della “cattolicità” romana, cioè quella capacità della chiesa di Roma di pensarsi come “sacramento”, segno e strumento dell’unità con Dio e dell’unità del genere umano. Il cattolicesimo si presenta quindi come il “luogo” spirituale (ma anche sempre istituzionale) in cui cercare l’unità oltre il conflitto e in cui il tutto comprende le parti, tutte le parti. Allora: si scrive “missione”, ma si legge “cattolicità”.

“Conversione” e “missione” sono le parole chiave del pontificato. Sono due parole bibliche, ma non basta citarle per significare quello che la Bibbia intende quando le impiega. Se non si approfondisce il senso che il Papa dà loro, si correrà il rischio di attribuire loro per default un significato improprio e non si capirà nulla di quello che Francesco sta dicendo.