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from issue no. 02 - 2004

Interview with the Prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signet

Salus animarum suprema lex

Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda speaks on the procedure for the designation of bishops, on the possible decentralization of cases of matrimonial nullity, on a rule of the conclave...

by Gianni Cardinale

“Decentralization” is a buzz word in the political idiom nowadays. But can it also be so, in some way, even in the clerical one? 30Days talked about this and other connected themes with the Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda, usually a very reserved person, one of greatest experts in Canon Law in the Roman Curia, for a little more than four years Prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signet after long service in the Roman Rota of which he was dean (cf Box).
The Sardinian cardinal points out that in the Church the term “collegiality” is to be preferred in that, «having the Roman pontiff as fulcrum, it indicates participation of the local Churches and hence of the episcopate in the Petrine office». «This collegiality», the cardinal makes clear, «has taken various concrete shapes especially since Vatican II: think of the Synod of the bishops, which, though only endowed with advisory function, is called by the Pope to contribute to the solution of the great problems of the Church. The very composition of the Roman departments, in which the bishops from the various parts of the world take part along with the cardinals, is a demonstration of that spirit of collegiality».

Your Eminence, is true “decentralization”, in the sense of the conferral on the bishops of faculties at present reserved to the Roman Curia, conceivable?
MARIO FRANCESCO POMPEDDA: In line of principle the thing doesn’t seem to me wholly impossible: and for that matter already by the 1983 Code of Canon Law faculties reserved to the Curia were devolved on the bishops. But it will be the circumstances, the necessitas Ecclesiae or rather pastoral needs that eventually prompt similar extensions in future.
But did not perhaps a speech of yours at the extraordinary Consistory of May 2001 mean to suggest a certain “decentralization” even in the nomination of bishops?
POMPEDDA: I want to be clear-cut on this so that what was and is my thinking can’t be misunderstood. While the principle that the nomination of bishops is reserved to the Supreme Pontiff remains firm, and while aware that the actual rules and practices require consultation over a wide spectrum, entrusted in the first stage to the apostolic nuncios, I would think that greater involvement of the local episcopates would be highly relevant.
In what way?
POMPEDDA: Let me explain. Already at present, in accordance with Canon Law, the bishops of the different ecclesiastical regions periodically present lists of priests they retain fit for the episcopate. When it is then a matter of dealing with a vacant See, the bishops themselves are among the persons mainly consulted: but that consultation, in my view, would be more responsible if done in collegial manner, even if under the chairmanship of the apostolic nuncio. I believe, in fact, that direct assessment and hence a reasoned opinion from the bishops of the region, expressed in a vote – that also has advisory nature only – would contribute to the making of fitting choices of people known and evaluated by bishops who have considerable acquaintance of men, things and circumstances.
A procession of cardinals entering Saint Peter’s basilica

A procession of cardinals entering Saint Peter’s basilica

Do you think that greater collegiality in the mechanism of episcopal nomination could have positive implications also in the ecumenic sphere?
POMPEDDA: There could certainly be positive spin-off for the other Churches and ecclesial communities also. The Orthodox, for example, view the current system for the nomination of bishops in the Latin Church as too bureaucratic. Greater involvement of the local Churches could perhaps change their perception.
Some years ago Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, then Dean, now Dean Emeritus, of the Sacred College – in an interview with 30Days - expressed the wish that the temptation to ecclesiastical careerism might be checked by a return to the ancient ecclesiastical rule that prevented transfer from one Episcopal See to another.
POMPEDDA: There are particularly large dioceses and archdioceses that require, among other things, particular gifts for pastoral government. I don’t think it unreasonable or inadvisable to appoint to such Sees a churchman who has already given fair proof of himself in a less complex diocese. That then there may be people who maneuver to “make a career”, that lies in the nature of things, it’s a matter of human temptation. Even we churchmen are not immune from original sin...
And then some people are perplexed by an alleged over-inflation in the nominations of titular bishops or archbishops in the organisms of the Holy See...
POMPEDDA: It’s a delicate matter. The election to a titular Episcopal See cannot be seen as a simple honor. The cardinalate can be an honorary title, not the episcopate. The nomination as bishop of a titular See nevertheless seems justified in the case where an office that brings some form of jurisdiction is entrusted as part of the whole. I’m thinking of nuncios who perform a ministry that is not only diplomatic but also ecclesial, in relationship with the local episcopate. Under Paul VI it was thought that the pontifical representatives could go without episcopal dignity, but it was then decided not to change.
John Paul II during the inauguration of the judicial year of the Court of the Roman Rota January 29 2004

John Paul II during the inauguration of the judicial year of the Court of the Roman Rota January 29 2004

Another case in which the episcopate cannot be considered honorary is certainly that of the Secretaries of the Roman Congregations, in that they participate in a direct way in the Petrine ministry.
In your speech to the extraordinary Consistory of May 2001 you also looked forward to “decentralization” in the administration of justice in the Church, peculiarly as regards cases of matrimonial nullity.
POMPEDDA: My concern was, and remains, that the administration of justice in the Church have no other purpose than the salus animarum, the salvation of souls, as laid down in the last canon, 1752, of the Code of Canon Law. As regards matrimonial pleas, I recall that today at local level there are courts of first and second appeal. Often the two appeals do not agree and then there’s need for a third level of judgment that is submitted to the Court of the Roman Rota, which is thus burdened with a great number of proceedings. To pare down the work of the Rota and to ensure that also the judging body isn’t perceived as far removed – not only geographically – by the faithful, it would be possible to allow the setting up of third level courts in every country whose episcopate requests it. Provided those who want can always address themselves to the Rota. The fact then that the local third level court is concurrent with the Rota would safeguard unity in jurisprudence, which thereby would not be harmed.
On that matter, in 2002 the Lateran University Press published the degree thesis of Dr. Christian Begus, The harmony of canonical jurisprudence, which questions the binding character of the jurisprudence of the Court of the Roman Rota...
POMPEDDA: Professor Luigi De Luca has already commented on the matter in L’Observatore Romano of 17 January last, reiterating the fact that, according to the current Code of Canon Law, the sentences of the Rota retain their binding character.
How do you explain the astonishing number of matrimonial nullifications decreed by the diocesan courts of the United States (where in 2001 the cases brought forward were as many as 34,087 out of the 55,935 brought forward worldwide), as well as the growing number in some countries such as Italy and Poland?
POMPEDDA: It depends in large part on the light-mindedness with which people now decide to contract marriage, and then from the pro-divorce mentality that has become deeply ingrained in society and in single individuals. It is not an accident that in Italy after the legalization of divorce the number of the cases for matrimonial nullity has grown notably. So it comes about that people marry thinking that if in married life they come across what they see as insuperable difficulties they’ll resolve them by applying for divorce...
...and thus they marry having mental reservation...
POMPEDDA: That’s not granted. We must be very careful in checking that the widespread pro-divorce mentality is a true and proper mental reservation, which already has well defined legal importance.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has stated that the question should be studied of «whether every marriage between two baptized people is truly ipso facto a sacramental matrimony», given the rampant dechristianization of today...
A moment from the conclave of August 1978; next to the end on the left is Cardinal Albino Luciani

A moment from the conclave of August 1978; next to the end on the left is Cardinal Albino Luciani

POMPEDDA: The nullity of a marriage between two baptized people who no longer have the faith is a delicate problem. Losing the faith can mean so many things. And it’s a difficult question to assess. Certainly, if two Christians marry after having lost their faith in papal infallibility, I don’t believe it’s sufficient reason for the nullity of their union. But if losing the faith involves a rejection of the essential characteristics of matrimony, then the question is different. I don’t believe one can generalize on the problem but has to consider case by case.
Pastoral care for divorced and remarried Christians is a burning and much debated issue...
POMPEDDA: It’s a burning issue, and it’s spreading. The Church has expressed itself clearly on the matter. Such people cannot take the Eucharist, but that is no reason why they should be considered or consider themselves outside the ecclesial community. And that is why they can take part in the liturgy, in moments of prayer, in normal parish life.
But these people are not allowed to act as godparents...
POMPEDDA: Today the Church retains that such people are in an objectively disorderly situation and that hence they cannot serve as examples, as must those who are called to be godfather or godmother at baptism or at confirmation. For such people, however, the problem is a different one...
What is that?
POMPEDDA: It’s a matter of deciding at the deepest level whether there is a “radical” remedy to their situation. Of deciding, that is, whether in their case it is effectively possible to declare the nullity of their marriage. At times there are cases in which there is no evidence outside the couple in favor of nullity. Once that constituted an insuperable obstacle. Not any more. It’s well to remember, in fact, that the new Code of Canon Law allows the testimony of the two consorts in matrimonial cases to be taken into consideration, and, if confirmed by evidence, can lead to the sentence of nullity. That possibility was excluded by the instructions of the Congregation for the Sacraments of 1936, whereby the statements of the parties involved did not constitute evidence, even if in the ’fifties the Holy Office had allowed it in the then apostolic vicariate of Scandinavia, where there was already a strong pro-divorce mentality.
In the course of the last Synod of bishops, held in the autumn of 2001, your speech to the gathering – then given ample space in L’Osservatore Romano – was interpreted as a criticism of the new ecclesial movements...
POMPEDDA: My speech to the Synod was not in fact a criticism to the ecclesial movements. With some of them, such as the Community of Sant’Egidio, I’m in excellent relations. The movements are doubtless a treasure, a gift of the Spirit for the Church. It’s equally true, however, that they can’t operate in such a way as to be in opposition to the ordinary structures of the local Church. And it is also out of place for bishops to become identified in a sometimes even structured and publicized fashion with one or another of the new movements. The confusion or the misunderstanding between the ministry of unity of the bishop and his personal charismatic experience is a negative fact for the particular Church and, when well looked at, for the movement itself. Both argument and absorption are to be avoided.
Your Eminence, you recently took part in the episode of Enigma (Rai 3) devoted to the conclave. The program spoke of the rule introduced by the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici gregis of 1996, which stated that the Pope can be elected by an overall majority rather than the two-thirds in force for centuries...
POMPEDDA: First of all one has to remember that the possibility was already anticipated in the Romano Pontifici eligendo promulgated by Paul VI in 1975. Only that in that case it was a purely academic hypothesis because it required the approval of all the cardinals, no one excepted. Whereas with the Universi Dominici gregis the hypothesis was made less academic because it will be sufficient that the procedure have the backing of half the cardinals plus one. In this case also, however, it is a very hypothetical question. Because the two-thirds majority can be abandoned only after there have been 33 or 34 polls and hence after there will already have been 28-32 days with the See vacant.
If it is a purely hypothetical case why change a rule like that of the two-thirds which has lasted centuries?
POMPEDDA: The election rules are not a matter of faith and can change over history. At the beginning, in all cases where electoral procedures were required, as, for example, in the Councils, but also in papal elections, a unanimous vote was needed. Very soon, however, that was seen to be impossible. Remember that the two-thirds rule was introduced by the Lateran Council III, held in Rome under Pope Alexander III in 1179, for the following reason: «Since the enemy does not cease to stir up strife, if there is not unanimity among the cardinals in the choice of the pontiff, and, though two thirds agree, the other third does not intend to agree or presumes to elect another, let he be considered Roman pontiff who has been elected and acknowledged by two thirds».
One could jokingly say that the introduction of the simple majority in the Universi Dominici gregis is recognition of the fact that the “strife” in the Sacred College may be more than a third...
POMPEDDA: Joking apart, one could say that the rule has deterrent value, that it constitutes a fixed point for the electors, that it is a spur to finding an accord, to avoiding scandal among the faithful who would find it hard to understand why after a month of discussion and polls the Sacred College still hadn’t elected Peter’ successor.

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