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Dutch bishop calls for reform

NCR Staff

A Dutch bishop, prevented by the Vatican from holding a synod in his diocese, traveled to Rome in late January to propose a meeting of the world’s bishops aimed at reducing the power of the Roman curia.

After three days the bishop went home, where he said in a news conference that the possibility of such reform hangs on the outcome of the next papal election.

The bishop, M.P.M. Muskens of Holland’s Breda diocese, had announced plans last year to hold a diocesan synod in 2003. In Catholic canon law, a diocesan synod is a forum in which the priests, religious and laity of a diocese advise the bishop on affairs of the local church.

Muskens, 65, had specified in published materials that his proposed synod would discuss such themes as living the faith, the Eucharist, collaboration among priests and laity in response to the priest shortage and the role of the layperson in the church. The synod was to be held in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Breda diocese

According to Dutch media reports, the Vatican raised no objection initially. Later, however, Muskens received word that Archbishop Giovanni Battista Re, powerful head of the Vatican’s office for bishops, had vetoed the plan.

Re is set to become a cardinal in a consistory Feb. 21.

According to observers in the Netherlands, the Vatican seemed worried about a possible reassertion of the polarization that characterized the Dutch church in the 1970s. During those years, progressive Dutch Catholics clashed repeatedly with the Vatican. The upshot was a special synod in Rome on Holland in 1980, followed by a string of conservative bishops’ appointments.

After learning of Re’s decision, Muskens said he would come to Rome to propose a “world synod” where bishops could discuss ways to decentralize decision-making in the church. Muskens, bishop of Breda since 1994, asserted that the time is right for such a discussion in light of the pope’s declining health and what he sees as a scramble for authority among curial officials. “There are as many popes as there are cardinals these days,” he said before his visit.

During his three days in Rome, from Jan. 21-24, Muskens met personally with Re. Muskens later told reporters in Breda that no progress had been made on his proposals. Muskens said Re agreed that Catholics in Breda could meet in 2003, but not as a “synod.” Thus “the process of thinking about faith in this society can go on,” Muskens said at his Jan. 25 news conference, albeit in an unofficial way.

As for curial reforms, Muskens said that while he made no progress in Rome, he expects this will be the main issue facing the next conclave, the assembly of cardinals to elect a new pope. A reform-minded faction is likely to face a bloc of Vatican officials hoping to further consolidate their power, he said.

Muskens first made headlines in 1997, when he called on Holland’s 100,000 millionaires to give one-quarter of their wealth, estimated then at $127 billion, to the poor. He also said he saw no moral problem with a poor person stealing bread.

Synod as described in Canon Law

Canon 460:
A diocesan synod is a group of selected priests and other Christian faithful of a particular church which offers assistance to the diocesan bishop for the good of the entire diocesan community according to the norm of the following canons.

Canon 461:
A diocesan synod is to be celebrated in each of the particular churches when circumstances warrant it in the judgment of the diocesan bishop, after he has consulted the presbyteral council.

From 1985 Code of Canon Law

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001