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Idea that synods are for consultation is only pretense


It’s time to retire bishops’ synods, to cease what some consider episcopal humiliation and to spare our churches the false hope of a deliberative process. Synods are time-consuming and expensive, and function as little more than showcases organized to produce results determined before the bishops arrive in Rome.

We’ve had 19 synods since Vatican II. One is scheduled for next year. Its subject is the role of bishops, an important topic. All the more reason to delay it -- until a synod can be held as originally intended, in a manner that would allow effective collaboration between the bishops of the world and the bishop of Rome.

I was at the European Synod last month and at three other synods in the past decade. Each seems to get worse. Without question, synods have their good purposes and strong defenders. But as episcopal experience mounts, even supportive bishops’ voices grow quieter. One hears the defense that the virtue of a synod is found at the coffee bars and over late evening dinners. So let’s have a party and open it up to the rest of the church. Just don’t pretend what’s happening in the synod hall has anything to do with consultation.

Off the record, many bishops speak of their struggles to stay awake during a synod, and of their frustrations in not having the chance to tackle serious issues in a serious way. Some go further, saying synods are rigged to solidify church teachings and disciplines.

All the more remarkable that a brave -- or foolish -- Scottish archbishop, Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien, in a moment of candor, told a group of English-speaking journalists last month that he was tired of curial bishops’ efforts to block meaningful proposals in his discussion group. He painted a picture of internal conflict between “residential” and “curial” bishops (for full text, see NCR Web site, www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm and then click on the Documents button for European Synod coverage).

When reports of his interview hit the papers the next day, he appeared to be in trouble. Meanwhile, a Vatican-appointed press liaison, Mary Curtain, was reprimanded by Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, for allowing O’Brien to speak as he did. Curtain was said to have responded with a question for Schotte: “Was I supposed to censor an archbishop?”

Synods in their 20th-century form grew out of the Second Vatican Council’s determination to break the Roman curia’s grip on church operations. The fathers wanted to extend the council’s collegial experience. Synods were viewed as fitting initiatives that recognized the need for decentralization, the emerging importance of local culture and the desire to walk with the rest of humanity out of a colonial era.

As they have come to be used, though, synods have been ineffective as collaborative bodies. A synod’s purpose is to advise the pope, but one has to seriously question if the pope is getting any real advice beyond what those attending think he wants to hear. At the core is the question of process. At every step of the way, from the first input from the local church many months before the synod takes place, to the last secret propositions offered to the pope, the process weeds out original thought and views that challenge the status quo. This happened during the synods on Asia and Oceania last year. It happened yet again, though somewhat less dramatically, at the European Synod last month.

The Asia and Oceania bishops repeatedly expressed alarm at Rome’s overextended arm. They were especially concerned that they lacked final authority to translate their own liturgical texts. They told of how ludicrous it was to find that their work was being vetoed by students they had months earlier sent to Rome for study and who were now under the employ of curial officials.

Some bishops talk about the stifling atmosphere within the synod chamber, caused in part by the presence of the pope, whose parameters for acceptable thought are well known. Some topics are addressed candidly, such as immigration, secularization, labor practices, the development of new church movements. Other topics, among them priestly celibacy, divorce and re-marriage, artificial birth control, women’s roles in the church and the practice of authority, are among suspect subjects that receive little frank discussion.

Bishops who want to address such issues approach them obliquely. The late Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster was known for soliloquies -- he would include forbidden topics by talking about his dreams for the church. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini last month left the world wondering what he had meant when he called for more “collegial and authoritative consultation among all the bishops” and said church issues “probably require a more universal and authoritative collegial instrument … ” Was he calling for another ecumenical council?

Since the press is not allowed to hear the bishops speak or hear them discuss any issues -- and since Martini’s remarks were heavily edited by synod organizers -- one could only wonder. (In fact, the full text of Martini’s speech reached journalists’ hands fairly quickly, but against the explicit rules of the event.)

Given the importance of what Martini said, his remarks certainly were deserving of more attention by the body of bishops attending the synod. But they knew, as did he, there would be no discussion. Martini’s thoughts never made the list of 17 topics distilled by the synod’s relator and offered to the language groups as topics for further discussion.

It is time to end the sham. Put synods on hold and wait for another day.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher and can be reached at tcfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999