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In tug of war at synod, curia gets the last word


A moment midway through the Synod for Asia neatly encapsulated the clash of perspectives -- Asian leaders, pleading for the flexibility to meet local needs, versus Vatican officials, advancing a one-size-fits-all approach -- that seemed to be the subtext of the gathering.

It was Friday, April 24, and participating bishops had completed their second week of speeches. It was now time to hear from heads of missionary orders. The superior general of the Missionaries of the Holy Family, Fr. Wilhelmus van der Weiden, delivered what soon became one of the most talked about interventions.

“During these days we heard a number of interventions with inculturation as the central theme,” Weiden began, noting that a “really wide gap” had arisen between church principles and practice on the issue of inculturation.

Citing Rome’s refusal to grant experts in local churches the freedom to carry out liturgical inculturation, Weiden isolated the central matter -- trust -- around which all synodal issues seemed to revolve. From the point of view of the Asian bishops, curial officials appear unwilling to permit local bishops to carry out the work of the church as they see fit.

Weiden asked: “Are the Roman dicasteries [offices] so afraid for aberrations from that which is considered as the only true doctrine and the only true formulation of the liturgy? Must we not say that often the bishops’ conferences with 20, 30 or more bishops and a number of theologians and specialists can better estimate what in liturgical matters is best for their flock than Roman authorities who often don’t know the language and the culture of that country?”

The superior general then cited scripture passages to show that lack of trust is nothing new to God’s people. But the response required is the same, trusting the Holy Spirit. In this case, he argued, Rome needed to grant local churches more autonomy. He finished with a rousing plea to the Roman officials: “Be not afraid!”

In fact, fear on the part of Roman officials seemed to dictate the synod’s course from its outset. It was manifested in the need to maintain strict control over synod proceedings. These attitudes governed all aspects of the gathering, keeping it closed to the media, keeping synod documents secret, forbidding participants from receiving the texts of their fellow bishops’ interventions and even forbidding them from taking notes during the proceedings.

Unlike the Africans, the Asian bishops had not requested a synod. They came without specific goals and spoke simply about their visions of becoming a local church, being a communion of communities in dialogue with other Asian religions, cultures and with the poor.

The synod’s official theme, chosen by Pope John Paul II, was clear cut. It was to focus on Jesus Christ as Savior. The Vatican’s aim, repeated in documents before and during the month-long gathering, was to reassert the task of proclamation as the essence of the church’s evangelical mission.

To which the Asian bishops would respectfully say, “Yes, but how?” They suggested that dialogue and focus on areas of common concern with other faith traditions -- critical in cultures where Christianity remains a tiny minority -- would be a more effective mode of evangelization in their local circumstances.

It became the task of the general secretary of the synod, Belgian Cardinal Jan P. Schotte, to see that the meeting did not veer from the Vatican’s agenda. At every turn of the elaborately dictated process, after the Asian bishops had overwhelmingly reaffirmed the need to ground the local churches in Asian culture and context by breaking away from Catholicism’s Western and often colonial heritage, after repeated requests for greater local autonomy, Vatican officials would issue summaries or questions or propositions that left the Asian positions unrecognizable.

Through it all, the Asian bishops were persistent, always respectful, patient and resigned. Their interventions were often cut from theological statements carefully crafted during the past 25 years under the auspices of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, an organization of some 20 Far East and Southeast Asian bishops’ conferences.

If the Asian bishops never flinched, they also never sought conflict. As one of the Asian cardinal moderators reportedly said: “We should not become over excited by curial machinations. Yes, they have filtered out our contributions. When we return to our countries, we shall also be filtering their documents.”

Months of exchanges between the Asian bishops and curial officials, led by Cardinal Jozef Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, preceded the synod. Seemingly from the outset, the participants’ positions had been set.

Underscoring the basic dynamics, the story was told of a Filipino bishop who, dining one afternoon with the pope, asked him: “Your Holiness, do you see any difference between the American and the Asian synods?”

The pope replied: “No, I don’t. Each has the same secretary general.”

The Filipino bishop laughed and said: “Yes, Your Holiness, the same secretary general, the same methodology, the same pope.”

During the first part of the synod, the assembly heard eight-minute interventions by 191 bishops and auditors. Forty-three bishops spoke on interfaith issues, 41 on becoming autonomous Asian churches through inculturation and decentralization, 33 on becoming a church of the poor and the marginalized, 29 on the pivotal importance of the laity.

Only three bishops spoke directly on the synod’s official theme, and two of these were from the curia.

As the synod moved into its second phase, a committee appointed by Schotte published what was supposedly a summary of the episcopal interventions, bringing the centrality of Christ as savior back to center stage. The report, which included key questions the bishops were supposed to answer as they gathered into language groups, drew widespread criticism for not reflecting their concerns.

Most of the 11 language groups returned the emphases to what they referred to as the needed “triple-dialogue” with religions, cultures and the marginalized.

Asked how they would handle dissident theologians, most groups made strong statements of encouragement for their theologians as they attempt to express the faith in Asian terms, according to knowledgeable synod sources. Informed sources also said most language groups had harsh words to say about the arrogance and power of curial officials.

The groups drew up propositions to be passed on to the pope. Each group contained a mixt ure of Far East Asian bishops, Middle East bishops and members of the Roman curia. Each group also had a Vatican-appointed “court theologian.”

The groups came up with 52 propositions that were then edited by the secretariat’s office and read aloud to the assembly. Indonesian and Japanese bishops complained their propositions had not been included. Some bishops wanted propositions dealing with issues of “subsidiarity,” but were turned down, a synod source said.

The propositions, meanwhile, had become very general, only a few directly related to Asia, knowledgeable sources told NCR. One synod participant reportedly said of the propositions, “Most could have been written 20 to 30 years ago.” The groups then returned to work to draw up proposition amendments.

At this point several curial cardinals were seen rushing from group to group as their proposals were again being rejected, according to a synod insider.

As the synod drew to its bumpy conclusion, participants set out to draw up a “message for the People of God.” The original draft ignored Christology and concentrated on the Asian bishops’ interventions, a source told NCR. Again, in curial hands the point got lost -- the final message returned to the official topic.

The propositions will end up on the pope’s desk, and he will eventually issue an apostolic exhortation, probably next year and probably in Hong Kong, synod sources say. What relationship that exhortation will bear to the message carried to Rome by the bishops of Asia remains to be seen.

Tom Fox is NCR’s publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, May 29, 1998