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Choice at synod: confront or avoid


A synod of bishops, as it’s presently constituted, is something like open mike night at the local comedy club. You don’t know whether the show’s going to be any good until the lights come on.

Every synod, a month-long gathering of some 300 bishops and a handful of invited delegates from around the world to advise the pope, has a topic. It is sufficiently broad, however, that almost any subject can arise, and so the drama lies in watching who says what -- who uses the platform to address controversies, float innovative ideas, or dream great dreams, and who curries curial favor by staying on safe ground.

Likely topics at this fall’s gathering, scheduled to run Sept. 30 to Oct. 27 and devoted to the theme of the bishop’s role, are especially hard to predict.

If it goes according to Vatican plan, it will be largely a tame discussion about the bishop in his own diocese.

On the other hand, the raw materials in the synod’s instrumentum laboris, or working document, could lead to several noteworthy debates if speakers rise to the occasion.

Among key issues:

Centralization of power: Paragraph 70 of the instrumentum expresses a wish that “relations between the successor of Peter and the diocesan bishops, through the various departments of the Holy See and pontifical nuncios and representatives in various countries, always display mutual collaboration and fraternal esteem, in respect for each’s competence.”

Some bishops, frustrated with what they see as an imbalance of power between the Roman curia and the local churches, may argue that this wish is honored more in the breach than the observance. Recent controversies over the way the Vatican has intervened in local church affairs -- controversies over punishing theologians, renovating cathedrals and translating liturgical texts -- suggest that “fraternal esteem” and “mutual collaboration” may not always be the best way to characterize interactions between bishops and Rome.

Appointing new bishops: One of the hallmarks of the John Paul II papacy has been the appointment of strong conservatives to key bishops’ posts, in at least a few cases against the wishes of the local church. This has revived an old debate about the best way to determine who is to be named a bishop. Church history offers several models, ranging from quasi-democratic election to appointment by secular governments.

In the instrumentum laboris the issue is phrased in terms of whose advice counts. Paragraph 77 says that some bishops, in responding to an earlier draft of the document, urged discussion of “the subject of consultation as an assistance in choosing the most suitable candidate for the proposed episcopal mission.”

Spiritual movements: While some bishops embrace the so-called “new ecclesial movements,” such as the Legionaries of Christ, the Neocatechumenate, and Focolare, others worry about their potential to be elitist and divisive. Paragraph 99 of the instrumentum laboris candidly acknowledges that while many movements are “truly constructive,” others “risk undermining the communion of the entire particular church.”

A more oblique reference is made to similar concerns about the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, which has a special ecclesiastical category of “personal prelature.” This canonical provision means that priests and lay members, for whatever concerns Opus Dei, fall under the jurisdiction of the prelate who heads Opus Dei and not the local diocesan bishop.

Paragraph 74 says that some bishops “request clarification in situations where bishops have overlapping jurisdiction,” offering examples of Eastern churches, a military diocese, and a personal prelature -- the only possible referent of the last category being Opus Dei.

Laity: In recent years John Paul II has labored to reinforce a clear distinction between laity and ordained clergy, worrying that the border had been fuzzed by egalitarian enthusiasms following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Yet Paragraph 94 of the instrumentum laboris demands respect for the mission of the laity, both inside and outside the church.

Bishops and priests must have “major trust in the laity,” the document says, “who oftentimes do not feel appreciated as mature Christians and want to feel more like participants in church life and in diocesan projects, especially in evangelization.”

“Without such a laity,” the document admits, “there is the danger that the evangelizing mission of the church will end in certain areas, especially where there is a severe lack of priests.”

Academic Freedom: Above all in the United States, the kind of oversight bishops should exercise at Catholic universities has been a subject of great controversy in recent years. Paragraph 103 frames the terms of debate without attempting a resolution.

It calls on bishops “to defend the Word of God from everything which might compromise its purity and integrity,” but also asks them to respect “the just freedom to further investigate the faith.” Some speakers at the synod may wish to reflect on how that balance is to be struck.

Careerism: Eyebrows were raised in spring 1999 when three veteran curial cardinals, Bernardin Gantin, Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Medina Estévez, publicly lamented careerism in the bishops’ ranks. Despite their situation as bishops who left local dioceses to work in Rome, all three called for a return to the ancient discipline of the church, which considered a bishop “married” to his diocese. Under that discipline, a bishop was almost never transferred, since it would be tantamount to divorce.

The instrumentum laboris acknowledged that some bishops support a policy of staying put, so as to avoid, as much as possible, such problems as a passing outlook toward their dioceses, “the interruption of programs and pastoral initiatives and a desire to change or transfer to particular churches which might be more prestigious or might have fewer problems.”

Beyond these six points of controversy, the instrumentum laboris contains at least two surprises for people who follow church affairs closely.

One has already been pointed out by former San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, who noted in a July 30-Aug. 6 article in America that Paragraph 76 permits retired bishops to be elected to the Synod of Bishops. Quinn, known for moderate-to-liberal views on many issues, is well positioned to spot the irony, since his election to the 1997 Synod for America was annulled by the Vatican precisely on the grounds that he is retired.

The other surprise comes in Paragraph 122, which urges bishops to use diocesan synods, a meeting of clergy and laity to advise the bishop, as “the choice expression of the organic community of the particular church.” Yet when Bishop M.P.M. Muskens of Holland’s Breda diocese, also known as a progressive, recently announced plans to hold a diocesan synod in 2003, the Vatican told him not to -- reputedly because it feared the advice he might get from Holland’s notoriously rambunctious Catholics (NCR, Feb. 9).

Naturally enough, observers express different hopes for the synod depending upon their assessment of the church’s situation.

Alberto Melloni, a lay Italian historian who prepared the biographical materials for Pope John XXIII’s beatification, hopes the synod will address the over-centralization he believes has occurred under John Paul II.

“This pontificate demonstrates that to base everything on the charisma of the boss doesn’t always pay, and it won’t pay forever,” Melloni told NCR. “There is a need for the bishops to succeed in expressing themselves, not in order to democratize the church, but to save its catholicity.”

Yet Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver says debates over church politics would obstruct what he hopes will be the synod’s focus on evangelization.

“So many of the disagreements in the church amount to not much more than distractions and evasions from the task of bringing the church to the world and the world to Jesus Christ,” he told NCR. “We live most fruitfully as bishops when we live in the circumstances where God places us, as missionaries.”

While the official title of the synod is “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World,” most leadership positions will be occupied by cardinals. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York will hold the powerful post of relator, responsible for guiding and synthesizing the discussion. The three co-presidents, who will chair the daily sessions, will be Cardinals Giovanni Battista Re of Italy, Bernard Agré of the Ivory Coast, and Ivan Dias of India. All four men were made cardinals in John Paul’s most recent consistory, Feb. 22.

Cardinals William Keeler of Baltimore and Francis George of Chicago and Bishops Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston and Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., were elected by the U.S. bishops’ conference to participate.

Among 32 bishops the pope has thus far named to attend were four more Americans: Archbishop Justin F. Rigali of St. Louis; Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka, the former Detroit archbishop who now serves as governor of Vatican City; Ukrainian Archbishop Stefan Soroka of Philadelphia; and Auxiliary Bishop Robert P. Maginnis of Philadelphia.

The session on bishops will be the 20th meeting of the Synod of Bishops since the institution was created after the Second Vatican Council. It follows sessions on laity in 1987, priests in 1990 and religious life in 1994.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001