Council of Cardinals considers decentralizing authority over permanent deacons

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The group of cardinals advising Pope Francis on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy has considered specific ways to decentralize authority in the Catholic church, proposing in particular that more responsibility for permanent deacons could move from Rome to local bishops' conferences.

The nine member Council of Cardinals spoke in their June 12-14 meeting about "transferring some faculties from the Roman Curia to local bishops or bishops' conferences," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said in a short briefing June 14.

Burke said the group spoke specifically about transferring some authority over permanent deacons from the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy to national bishops' conferences. The spokesman said authority that could be transferred includes allowing a deacon who has become a widower to remarry.

Catholic permanent deacons are ordained members of the clergy who can conduct certain ministries in the church, such as offering the sacrament of baptism. The role is generally open to married men who have reached the age of 35.

At the moment, a deacon who has become a widower after his ordination and wishes to marry again must petition Rome for permission. Some deacons have said in the past that such petitions are answered very slowly and are rarely answered in the affirmative.

Related: Widowed deacon remarries, gets laicized

Burke said the possibility of transferring authority over deacons was one of several types of decentralization the Council of Cardinals considered in its meeting. "In many dicasteries there are things like this that depend on Rome but do not have to necessarily," he said.

The spokesman said the prelates also discussed the process by which bishops are chosen in the Catholic church, discussing in particular a desire to find "a more systematic way" to give lay people and members of religious orders a "fuller consultation" when a bishop candidate is being considered.

Beyond decentralization and bishops' selection, Burke said the prelates spoke about the functioning of several Vatican offices, including: the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples; the Pontifical Councils for Interreligious Dialogue, for the Eastern Churches, and for Legislative Texts; and the three Vatican tribunals.

The next meeting of the Council of Cardinals is scheduled for Sept. 11-13. Francis will miss the beginning of the meeting, as he is scheduled to travel to Colombia from Sept. 6-11.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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