Pontifical Councils

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Pontifical councils operate on the fourth tier of the holy see's governing structure. They have within their competence special functions in connection to ecclesial life that the pope deems to be of primary importance. As such, they carry out their duties in an official capacity in the pope's name and by his authority (CIC, c. 360). At the end of the 20th century there were 11 pontifical councils, all of which fell under the regulations of Pastor bonus, the 1988 apostolic constitution of Pope john paul ii that reorganized the Roman curia. These include the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum," the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Assistance of Health-Care Workers, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the pontifical council for culture (which subsumed the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers in 1993), and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Structures. All the pontifical councils are led by a cardinal or archbishop who takes title of the office of president (Pastor bonus I, a. 3, §§1). They are assisted typically by a secretary and undersecretary. Members are usually selected from the episcopate; consultors and professional staff are employed to assist in the work of each council. Lay participation is permitted on all councils, though clerics continue to dominate. Each dicastery may issue norms relative to its field of competence or may join with other curial bodies in issuing joint statements of mutual concern. The councils meet on a regular basis, sometimes in plenary assembly. Membership on each of the councils is by term appointment or at the pleasure of the Holy Father. Many of the pontifical councils are housed in offices located in the St. Callixtus complex in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood.

History and Aims. The history of pontifical councils varies, though they all sink their roots in the 20th century. Some, such as the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, emerged directly from commissions established to participate in the Second vatican council. Other dicasteries were shaped by Pope Paul's apostolic constitution Regimini Ecclesiae universae (Aug. 15, 1967) which established norms for the implementation of the conciliar decrees during an "experimental period" in which the local churches would seek ways to adapt to the new situation created by the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II has established several pontifical councils either as entirely new entities (Health Care, Legislative Texts, Culture) or by raising already established secretariats or commissions to the dignity of a pontifical council (Christian Unity, Family, Justice and Peace, Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, Social Communications). What follows here is a brief history of each of the pontifical councils, together with a short description of their fundamental purposes.

Pontifical Council for the Laity. The Pontifical Council for the Laity seeks to engage the lay apostolate on all levels through sustained interaction with international lay groups, national laity councils, and institutions participating in catholic action. It promotes the lay apostolate under the guidance of the relevant texts of the Second Vatican Council as well as the post-synodal apostolic exhortation christifideles laici (1988). The council's history may be traced as far back as 1908 when Pope pius x issued the apostolic constitution Sapienti consilio. That text reformed the Roman Curia and was later made part of the universal law of the Church (1917), making the Sacred Congregation of the Council competent for "the discipline of the secular clergy and of the Christian people." The importance of Catholic Action in the years preceding the Second Vatican Council provided the impetus for a more formal recognition of the lay apostolate in the council itself. The conciliar decree Apostolicam actuositatem proposed that a secretariat for the laity form part of the Roman Curia (AA 26), and this was formally constituted "ad experimentum" for five years by the motu proprio Catholicam Christi ecclesiam of Pope Paul VI (January 6, 1967). Pope Paul gave both recognition and definition to this secretariat. With Regimini, the "Consilium de Laicis" was given general and particular norms, the latter of which were altered with only minor changes in Pastor bonus. Nearly ten years after the creation of the "Consilium de Laicis," Paul VI's motu proprio Apostolatus peragendi (Dec. 10, 1976) further solidified this dicastery by making it a pontifical council. The current council comprises sections pertaining to youth, Catholic international organizations, and (in conjunction with the Congregation for the Clergy) new ecclesial ministries within parishes and other contexts, as well as emerging associations of the lay faithful.

Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. In 1966, after the council had ended, Pope Paul VI confirmed the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity as a permanent dicastery of the Holy See. In Pastor bonus Pope John Paul II changed the secretariat into the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (effective March 1, 1989). The council exercises a double role. First of all, it is entrusted with the promotion, within the Catholic Church, of an authentic ecumenical spirit according to the conciliar decree Unitatis redintegratio. It was for this purpose that an ecumenical directory was published in 196770 and a revised edition issued in 1993 as Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. The council also aims to develop dialogue and collaboration with other churches and world communions. Since its creation, it has established a cordial cooperation with the world council of churches (wcc); 12 Catholic theologians have been members of the faith and order commission, the theological department of the WCC. The work of this dicastery is divided between an Eastern section, dealing with Orthodox churches of Byzantine tradition and the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Malankara), as well as the Assyrian Church of the East; and a Western section, dealing with the different churches and ecclesial communities of the West and the World Council of Churches. This dicastery also maintains the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews that Pope Paul VI established on Oct. 22, 1974. Although it is an autonomous unit, it is largely staffed by members of the pontifical council.

Pontifical Council for the Family. This dicastery was instituted by John Paul II with the motu proprio Familia a Deo instituta (May 9, 1981), replacing the Committee for the Family created by Paul VI in 1973. The committee had remained closely linked to the "Consilium de Laicis" and was governed by Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam. There are still links between the two pontifical councils, such as the presence of the two secretaries in each of the presidential committees. The council is responsible for the promotion of the pastoral ministry of and apostolate to the family, assisting in all dimensions of family life and encompassing such issues as responsible procreation, theology and catechesis of the family, marital and family spirituality, the rights of the family and the child, lay formation, and marriage preparation courses. Due to the influence that issues such as pornography, prostitution, and drugs can have on the family, these topics also fall under the council's purview.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Pope Paul VI created the Pontifical Commission "Iustitia et Pax" in 1967 as an experiment (together with the Pontifical Council for the Laity) but made it a definitive dicastery of the Holy See with the motu proprio Iustitiam et pacem (1976). It became a pontifical council with Pastor bonus. The council's raison d'etre is to promote peace and justice in the world according to the gospel and the social doctrine of the Church. It is principally concerned with labor and human rights and frequently collaborates with other organizations, not necessarily affiliated with the Church, who share common goals.

Pontifical Council "Cor Unum." The Pontifical Council "Cor Unum" was created by Paul VI who described it, in his lettera autografa (hand-written letter) Amoris officio (July 15, 1971), as a dicastery at the level of the universal Church "for human and Christian promotion." The council is concerned with understanding the demands of solidarity and development and enacting them according to the principles of the gospel. The council promotes the catechesis of charity and stimulates the faithful to bear witness to it, coordinates initiatives of those Catholic institutions that help the less fortunate, helps promote a more just distribution of aid in times of disasters, and acts as a go-between with Catholic charitable and humanitarian organizations. Half of the council's members are bishops and representatives from developing countries, while the other half represent Catholic aid organizations. "Cor Unum" is also responsible for the Holy Father's charitable donations. From the World Council of Churches (Unit IV), the council receives information on aid programs for those countries that have been struck by natural calamities, ethnic conflicts, or civil wars. In 1984, Pope John Paul established the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel, providing drought relief and and programs against desertification. In 1992, the Holy Father also founded the Populorum Progressio Foundation, which is at the service of indigenous, racially mixed, Afro-American, and campesinos of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples. Pope Pius XII drew attention in 1952 to a pressing pastoral need that had been fomenting throughout the aftermath of World War II, namely, the plight of the emigrant. The apostolic constitution Exsul familia (1952) established both the Superior Council for Emigration and the Work of the Apostleship of the Sea within the Consistorial Congregation, now known as the Congregation for Bishops. Six years later Pope Pius broadened the scope of the congregation's duties to include air travelers through an institution called "Opera dell'Apostolatus Coeli o Aeris." In 1969, at the request of the Congregation for Bishops, Paul VI updated his predecessor's creations and the following year established a single entity with his motu proprio Apostolicae caritatis (March 19, 1970), calling it the Pontifical Commission for the Spiritual Care of Migrants and Travelers. This commission embraced all those pastoral ministries regarding human mobility: migrants, exiles, refugees, seafarers, air travel personnel and passengers, nomads, pilgrims, and tourists. To these were later added gypsies and "circus people." With Pastor bonus the commission was raised to the dignity of a pontifical council.

Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health-Care Workers. With the motu proprio Dolentium hominum (Feb. 11, 1985), John Paul II instituted the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Assistance to Health-Care Workers, which with Pastor bonus became a pontifical council. It stimulates and promotes the work of formation, study, and action carried out by the diverse international Catholic organizations in the health-care field. The council coordinates the activities of different dicasteries of the Roman Curia as they relate to the health care sector and its problems. It spreads, explains, and defends the teachings of the Church on health issues and favors its involvement in health-care practice. It also maintains contacts with the local Churches and especially with bishops' commissions related to health care.

Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. With his motu proprio cum iuris canonici (Sept. 15, 1917), Pope benedict xv inaugurated a pontifical commission for the authentic interpretation of the Code of Canon Law, promulgated the previous May. At the time of the Second Vatican Council the commission became an instrument by which the council's legislation was prepared. In the post-conciliar era, the commission was responsible for delivering authentic interpretations of the conciliar texts as well as working toward a revised code of canons in light of the new legislation. That code was approved by Pope John Paul II in 1983. He later charged the commission with the task of interpreting the new code through his motu proprio Recognito iuris canonici codice (Jan. 2, 1984). Pastor bonus raised the commission to the dignity of a pontifical council, and placed it council in charge of all authentic interpretations of both singular and inter-dicastoral documents.

Pontifical Council for Culture. Dating back to the Second Vatican Council, this pontifical council's roots are grounded in Gaudium et spes 5362. It did not emerge as a distinct entity until John Paul II founded it in 1982 (personal letter to the Cardinal Secretary of State, May 20, 1982). In his motu proprio Inde a Pontificatus (March 25, 1993), John Paul II merged the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers (founded in 1965 by Paul VI) with the Pontifical Council for Culture. The council's main tasks are to bring the gospel into diverse cultures and seek ways to enliven those in the sciences, letters, and arts through the Church's sustained interest in their work "in the service of truth, goodness, and beauty." As such, this dicastery coordinates the activities of the pontifical academies and cooperates on a regular basis with the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church.

Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

This dicastery has undergone a number of incarnations since the secretariat of state of Pope Pius XII first ordered that a Pontifical Commission for the Study and Ecclesiastical Evaluation of Films on Religious or Moral Subjects be established (Jan. 30, 1948, by letter, protocol no.153.561). On Sept. 17, 1948, Pius XII approved the statutes of this new office and renamed it the Pontifical Commission for Educational and Religious Films, later to become the Pontifical Commission for Cinema, the statutes of which were approved Jan. 1, 1952. After consultation with bishops and Catholic film organizations, the name of the commission was once more changed, this time to the Pontifical Commission for the Cinema, Radio, and Television (Dec. 31, 1954). Pope John XXIII entrusted the commission with developing the Vatican Film Library. Pope John also added the responsibility of coordinating the communications media needed for the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI transformed it into the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications (motu proprio in fructibus multis, April 2, 1964). It was responsible for dealing with the all the problems raised by cinema, radio, television, and the daily and periodical press in relation to the interests of the Catholic religion. With Pastor bonus, the commission became a pontifical council.

Bibliography: Annuario Pontificio: 2000 (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000). t. j. reese, Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996). Canon Law Digest, vols. 58.

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