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Cardinals debate church’s future


At the end of the largest gathering of cardinals in history, the Catholic church is no closer to knowing the name of its next pope, but at least his mandate seems clearer.

If signals this week mean anything, near the top of the next pope’s agenda will be sharing power with national bishops’ conferences and local churches, and above all taming the papal bureaucracy, the Roman curia.

Though not universal, the call for decentralization, for a curia that issues fewer edicts and a pope who works more in collaboration with the rest of the church, was nonetheless persistent at the May 21-24 gathering of 155 of the world’s 183 cardinals. It was the sixth “extraordinary consistory” of John Paul’s pontificate.

The session was convoked by the pope to solicit advice on the church’s future in the third millennium.

Given the sprawling nature of that agenda, cardinals made a wide variety of points. Some were familiar and largely tame, such as invocations of a “universal call to holiness” and exhortations to missionary work, defense of the family and better use of the mass media.

Others were more visionary, such as English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s idea for a council of all the Christian churches that could meet in Jerusalem, or the old pilgrim stop of San Juan Compostella in Spain -- or even, he added modestly, in England. If such a meeting were to occur, he said, the Vatican could not set the agenda by fiat, and the pope could preside only “in love” rather than as a kind of spiritual CEO.

The proposal was, indeed, a bit too visionary for some. Cardinal Christoph Schonbörn of Vienna told reporters after lunch with the pope on May 24 that Murphy-O’Connor’s idea is an “eschatological dream,” a fancy way of saying it will never happen.

But the most intriguing issue to surface regularly was “collegiality,” a term that in Catholic theological parlance means decentralization. At least nine cardinals argued that the balance of power in the church is currently out of alignment.

“The theme of collegiality in the church is, whether you like it or not, at the top of the agenda of public opinion in the church and in the media,” Godfried Danneels of Belgium told his brother cardinals.

The consistory took place behind closed doors, but many cardinals, like Danneels, either made their texts available or responded to questions from reporters.

Several cardinals urged changes in the organization of synods, when bishops from around the world gather in Rome to advise the pope, in order to make them better organized and more free from curial manipulation. Danneels went so far as to suggest that reports prepared after small group discussions at the synod are “frankly deceiving” because they tend to be heavily sanitized by Vatican officials. He said the church needs instead a “culture of debate.”

Other cardinals came at the collegiality issue in different ways. Thomas Winning of Scotland insisted that curial offices do a better job of consultation with bishops’ conferences and local churches before they put out documents. Without mentioning it by name, Winning alluded to recent Vatican norms for liturgical translation as an example (see accompanying article).

Winning did not release his text, but other sources confirmed his remarks.

Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa told NCR that Winning wasn’t speaking for himself alone. “A lot of what he said would have been the view not only of himself but also of other bishops’ conferences,” Napier said.

The drumbeat came at times from surprising quarters. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston -- certainly not a name associated with church progressives -- suggested that synods be held once a year with an open agenda.

At least two curial cardinals offered suggestions for reform.

One was Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda, head of the Apostolic Signatura, a church court. He argued that local churches should have a greater role in the selection of bishops.

The other was Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the office for Christian unity. According to sources, Kasper argued that the church must reform along the lines of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) if it expects to make ecumenical progress. He specifically mentioned the synods, the Roman curia and episcopal conferences.

Other cardinals stressing collegiality included Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Murphy-O’Connor, Syrian Ignace Moussa I Daoud (who heads the Congregation for Eastern Churches), and Italian Achille Silvestrini (former head of the same office).

Outside the consistory, Cardinal Aloísio Lorscheider of Brazil told a French newspaper that he thought the pope was “imprisoned” by the curia, “who seek to undermine him,” and that John Paul’s attempts to change the situation had not succeeded. “All of us suffer from a faraway bureaucracy that seems ever more deaf,” he said.

In the end, it was not clear what immediate difference any of this would make. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, for example, told reporters after the pope’s May 24 closing Mass that the cardinals expected changes in the synod structure before the next session begins Sept. 30.

Yet two hours later, Schönborn said changes in the synod are impossible in such a short time. “It will certainly function as it has in the last decades,” he said.

Moreover, not everyone was ready to join the decentralizing chorus. American Cardinal Avery Dulles defended a strong papacy, arguing that other Christian denominations sometimes miss such a unifying center.

Schönborn struck a similar note, saying Catholics should be grateful for the “bond of unity” offered by the successor of Peter.

Information about the consistory was hard to come by. Officially, the only channel was a daily press briefing delivered by papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls. However, the briefings for the first two days were largely useless, as Navarro delivered “impressions” of what cardinals had said and a few quotes without context. The session for the third day was cancelled without explanation.

The Vatican press office never even produced a list of the cardinals in attendance and after the first day stopped telling reporters who had spoken that day.

Some attempts at controlling information appeared unusually clumsy. On May 22, veteran Italian journalist Giancarlo Zizola asked Navarro if any cardinal had discussed curial reform.

A flustered Navarro said: “Not that I recall.”

His lapse of memory was difficult to take at face value in light of what emerged about what had been discussed, in many cases from the cardinals themselves.

As for the papal sweepstakes, no clear frontrunner emerged. Observers noted, however, Danneels’ smooth PR apparatus. On the afternoon of May 23, he moved from one language group of reporters to another at Rome’s Belgian College, handing out copies of his speech. Handlers kept the cardinal on task and on time.

If one didn’t know better, the 67-year-old Danneels would have seemed like a candidate on the stump -- and not a bad one.

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

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001