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Bishop selection process blasted


Heading into the October Synod of Bishops, on the theme of the episcopacy, Vatican officials repeatedly emphasized that the focus should be the bishop in his diocese rather than controversial questions such as collegiality and the Roman curia.

At the halfway point, it’s obvious that lots of people either didn’t get the message or chose to ignore it.

Over the last two weeks, a bewildering variety of topics have bubbled up as speaker after speaker delivered eight-minute talks, or “interventions.” A few have been poetic, such as Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels’ plea that documents be “vaccinated” against modern “microbes of authoritarianism” before they leave the curia (a polite way of saying they should be less dictatorial). Several have been dry recitals of circumstances in different dioceses.

Few topics, however, have surfaced as often as the balance of power between Rome and local churches. The president of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, Jayme Henrique Chemello, delivered one of the more impassioned treatments Oct. 9.

Chemello called the way bishops are chosen, with papal ambassadors funneling secret recommendations to Rome, “a source of constant suffering.”

“It is a dark process, full of surprises and disappointments, in which those who are most interested are those who influence the process the least,” Chemello said. He complained that good candidates can be derailed for “circumstantial or ideological” reasons.

Chemello’s comments carry special significance given that Brazil, with 137 million Catholics, is the largest Catholic nation in the world.

Chemello pointed out that popes as far back as Pius XII have spoken about subsidiarity, that decisions should be made at lower levels of authority when possible. This principle “should produce a healthy and effective decentralization,” he said.

Chemello offered four other examples of matters in which local churches should have more authority: translations of liturgical texts; nominating witnesses for marriages; dispensations from ordained ministry; and annulment of marriages.

The question of liturgical translation surfaced several times as an example of over-centralization. Archbishop Henry D’Souza of Calcutta, India, pulled few punches.

“Translations from a dead language [Latin], belonging to a foreign dead culture [Roman], though seen as a vehicle of orthodoxy, fail to respond satisfactorily to the character and style of living Indian and tribal languages,” D’Souza said Oct. 5.

Bishop Anthony Kwami Adanuty of Ghana drew sympathetic laughter Oct. 9, telling how translations into the Ewe language of his people have been rejected in Rome.

“Sometimes this is done by a former missionary now out of touch with the living language, or by a seminarian who may not even have passed his exams,” he said.

Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg was emphatic on the translation issue Oct. 10.

“The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops takes very seriously the responsibility given us by the Second Vatican Council for implementing the translation and adaptation of liturgical texts,” he said. “Therefore we find it difficult to understand the position taken by Liturgiam Authenticam.”

That recent Vatican document asserted new Roman controls based on complaints that translations, especially in the English-speaking world, are insufficiently faithful to Latin originals.

Weisgerber saw translation as one instance of a larger problem.

“Today the Catholics of Canada think that official Catholic teaching comes from a centralized level of the church, and our responsibility as bishops is simply to apply it.” He asked that the Vatican recognize instead that each bishop is “the teacher, the leader, the unifier, the vicar and ambassador of Christ” in his diocese.

Calls for decentralization also came from Eastern Catholic leaders, who often feel suffocated by “Latinization.”

“Being exclusively Western means being insufficiently Catholic,” said Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of the Syro-Malabar Rite in India.

Another Eastern-rite leader threw down a theological challenge to exaggerated papal power, especially at the expense of Eastern patriarchs.

“With all due respect for the Petrine ministry,” said Gregory III Laham, the Greek Melkite patriarch of Syria, “the patriarchal ministry is equal to it … in Eastern ecclesiology.”

Laham said the office of patriarch “is not a Roman creation, it is not the fruit of privileges, conceded or granted by Rome,” and that treating it as such “cannot but ruin any possible understanding with Orthodoxy.”

As in the first week, a seemingly left-leaning criticism of centralization was balanced by strong demands from the right for bishops to defend the faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, delivered an intervention along these lines that was widely praised for its eloquence.

“The central problem of our time is the emptying-out of the historical figure of Jesus,” Ratzinger said Oct. 6. “It begins with denying the virgin birth, then the resurrection becomes a spiritual event, then Christ’s awareness of being the Son of God is denied, leaving him only the words of a rabbi. Then the Eucharist falls, and becomes just a farewell dinner.”

Ratzinger asked bishops to crack down on doctrinal error. “If at times it may be just to tolerate a lesser evil for the sake of peace in the church, let us not forget that a peace paid for with the loss of the truth would be a false peace, an empty peace,” he said.

When he finished, Ratzinger drew the most sustained applause of the synod.

Archbishop George Pell of Sydney, Australia, hit a similar note Oct. 10, complaining about neglect of fundamentals of the faith.

“Limbo seems to have disappeared, purgatory has slipped into limbo, hell is left unmentioned, except perhaps for terrorists and infamous criminals, while heaven is the final and universal human right, or perhaps just a consoling myth,” Pell said.

Another recurring theme was the need for bishops to live more simply, more humbly, and closer to the poor.

Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz Ossa of Santiago, Chile, asked bishops to “definitively abandon all that could be seen as clothed with the appearance of temporal power … that distances them from the people.”

Bishop David Walker from Broken Bay, Australia, suggested that bishops must be wary of the influence of a “clerical episcopal subculture.”

“Bishops who treat people without the normal respect, courtesies and rights that they have rightly come to expect in secular society often go unchecked. Bishops can blatantly ignore their accountability to their priests and people and not be challenged,” he said.

An intriguing suggestion came Oct. 5 from Bishop Víctor Corral Mantilla of Riobamba, Ecuador, and it caused the nearest thing to an uproar so far. Corral ended his intervention with a moving plea that bishops renounce titles such as “Eminence” and “Excellency” and be called simply “Father.”

Cardinal Bernard Agré of Ivory Coast, who happened to be presiding, obviously was not paying careful attention, for when Corral concluded, Agré plunged ahead with the traditional Latin formula of acknowledgment, which goes: “Thank you, Most Excellent Lord.”

Laughter was immediate and boisterous, especially when Corral shot back: “You’re welcome, Eminence.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001