© Reuters. The Italian laywoman Francesca Di Giovanni, named by Pope Francis as the first woman to hold senior office in the Vatican Secretariat of State, is pictured in the Vatican, Dec. 23, 2013. Photo taken Dec. 23, 2013. Vatican Media/Hand

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis on Saturday passed a landmark reform that would allow any baptized lay Catholic, including women, to face most Vatican branches under a new constitution for the central administration of the Holy See.

For centuries, the divisions were led by male clergy, usually cardinals or bishops, but that could change from June 5, when the new charter takes effect after more than nine years of work.

The 54-page constitution, called Praedicate Evangelium, was released on the ninth anniversary of Francis’ installation as pope in 2013, and replaces a constitution promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

The preamble says that the “Pope, bishops and other ordained ministers are not the only evangelists in the church,” adding that lay men and women “should have a governmental role and responsibility” in the central government, known as the Curia.

The principles section of the constitution says that “any member of the faithful can lead a dicastery (Curia branch) or organism” if the Pope decides they are qualified and appoints them.

Under the 1988 constitution, with a few exceptions, the branches would be headed by a cardinal or bishop and assisted by a secretary, experts and administrators.

The new constitution makes no distinction between lay men and lay women, although experts said at least two departments — the bishops’ department and the clergy’s department — will be headed by men because only men can be priests in the Catholic Church.

The Consecrated Life Department, which is responsible for religious orders, could potentially be run by a nun in the future, experts said. It is now headed by a cardinal.

In a 2018 interview with Reuters, the pope said he had shortlisted a woman to head an economics department at the Vatican, but she was unable to take the job due to personal reasons.


The new constitution said the role of Catholic laypeople in governing positions in the Curia was “essential” because of their familiarity with family life and “social realities”.

Francis has also merged some offices, established a new one to oversee charitable efforts, and created a new order of importance.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which includes laymen and victims of abuse, appears to have gained more institutional influence by being included in the Doctrinal Section, which decides sanctions for priests convicted of sexual abuse.

But one of the original committee members, Marie Collins of Ireland, said on Twitter (NYSE:) that this could damage her independence.

While the Secretariat of State maintained its preeminent position as an administrative, coordinating, and diplomatic department, the age-old high status of the doctrinal ministry was subordinated to that of the Evangelization Department.

The Pope himself will lead the evangelization office and emphasizes the importance he attaches to the spread and revival of the faith.

Francis has already named a number of laypeople, including women, after the Vatican departments.

Last year, for the first time, he appointed a woman to the second position in the governorship of Vatican City, making Sister Raffaella Petrini the tallest woman in the world’s smallest state.

Also last year, he appointed the Italian nun, Sister Alessandra Smerilli, to the interim position of secretary of the Vatican’s development agency, which deals with justice and peace issues.

In addition, Francis has appointed Nathalie Becquart, a French member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters, as co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, which prepares large gatherings of world bishops every few years.

(Refiles to correct typo in 8th paragraph)

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