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Synod ingredients include dose of spice


The jumble of ideas that surfaces in the early stages of a synod can, at its best, resemble a hearty stew, with lots of delightfully unpredictable ingredients. However, the desire to reach consensus usually means the mix gets so watered down that it ends up more like gruel.

The watering down process is underway at the synod on the role of the bishop, where concepts such as collegiality and subsidiarity, implying taking power away from Rome and spreading it around to the local churches, are being replaced with the more bland principle of communion. That idea, as understood in official usage, accents unity and thereby minimizes the diversity favored by advocates of decentralization.

In ongoing debate among participants, however, some of the spicier notions are proving surprisingly resilient.

The synod, finishing its third week, runs until Oct. 27. After two weeks of speeches, small groups organized by language are now debating the points they wish to recommend to the pope. Eventually a set of propositions will be adopted and consigned to John Paul II for his consideration. The synod will also release a brief final message.

A key moment in the process always comes in the relatio post disceptationem, or “report after the discussion,” in which a relator appointed by the pope sums up the points made by speakers in the first two weeks and then recommends topics to the small groups. It is the first clear hint of what spin the papal appointees intend to put on the synod’s content.

The relator this time is Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, but because he returned to the United States for an Oct. 11 day of prayer, the relatio was presented Oct. 12 by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. Both men signed the document.

Communion was its dominant theme.

“The bishop’s need to increase and nurture communion, in the first place, with the vicar of Christ and with the close collaborators that form the Roman curia was rightly pointed out,” the document said. “We would like to thank the heads of the dicasteries and their collaborators who, in the service of the Holy See, work in favor of all the particular churches.”

Bergoglio and Egan rejected appeals to subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should be made at the lowest appropriate level of authority. Recent examples where the principle has been usurped include Vatican moves to take control of how liturgical texts are translated into English, Vatican intervention in U.S. bishops’ efforts to develop a non-juridical approach to relationships with theology professors and Vatican rejection of Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s plans for remodeling the Milwaukee cathedral.

“Pius XII, Paul VI and lastly John Paul II, referring to the singular hierarchical structure of the church, existing by the will of Christ, exclude an application of the principle of subsidiarity to the church [that would be] univocal with the way this principle is intended and applied in sociology,” the address read.

Subsidiarity has proved perhaps the most serious flash point of the synod. Some bishops see it as a valid theological principle, while others reject it as a concept drawn from secular political theory. The latter believe subsidiarity makes sense in a democracy, where authority is granted by the people, but not in the church, where power flows from sacramental ordination.

Egan and Bergoglio offered 10 questions around which small groups were to structure their discussions. When it came to subsidiarity and collegiality, it was obvious some participants aren’t ready to play follow the leader.

The strongest language came from the three English-speaking groups.

A third English group, led by Canadian Archbishop James Weisgerber, asked that the rights of Eastern Catholic churches and national episcopal conferences be more fully respected.

“The bishop’s role in his diocese is strengthened when the offices of the Roman curia show in their communications and in their actions that they understand the variety of local conditions,” the group’s report said. “Otherwise they risk becoming obstacles to communion.”

The group discussed the need for greater consultation on documents from the Roman curia. Members complained that sometimes documents appear without sufficient time for bishops to study them.

In an Oct. 17 interview with NCR, Weisgerber said that Liturgiam Authenticam, a recent document asserting broad Vatican controls over liturgical translation, is an example of a text that has generated “great dissatisfaction.”

“Communion means listening and speaking, and also consulting,” he said. “There has to be a real trust on both sides, and that was not the case with Liturgiam Authenticam.”

One English group, under Bishop Orlando B. Quevedo of the Philippines, requested “a relationship of co-responsibility, consultation, mutual trust and charity” with the Roman curia.

The group pressed for clarity on the nature of episcopal conferences, asking if they “can exercise any collegial act, even if analogously and partial” -- that is, whether or not a national conference of bishops, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, can make authoritative decisions. The question is prompted by Vatican documents such as Christus Dominus and Apostolos Suos that declare episcopal conferences exclusively consultative, with no decision-making power.

The group noted that the relatio asks bishops to be in communion with the Roman curia, and insisted this must be a two-way street -- the curia must also seek communion with the bishops. The group cited Liturgiam Authenticam as a negative case in point.

Another English group, headed by Nigerian Archbishop John Onaiyekan, struck a similar note.

“The Roman curia will serve collegiality better if decentralized,” the report said. “Reflection on the nature of national conferences of bishops should continue in the line of greater autonomy and freedom of action.”

The group suggested a review of the offices of the Roman curia to be sure they meet real needs, implying that a few might be unnecessary.

Other groups offered similar ideas.

A Spanish group under Colombian Archbishop Hector Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte parted company with Egan and Bergoglio by implying that subsidiarity has a legitimate application to the church.

“The principle of subsidiarity,” the group said, “has been fruitfully developed in the social doctrine of the church and has regulated much of the new Code of Canon Law.”

A French group under Canadian Bishop Gilles Cazabon said that while “affective collegiality,” meaning the feeling of common purpose at various levels of the church, is “of great value,” there remains a need for more “effective collegiality,” meaning actual sharing of power.

Perhaps the strongest statement on subsidiarity came outside of the small groups, in an Oct. 16 written intervention by Bishop Buti Joseph Tlhagale, in the name of the South African Bishops.

“The members [of the South African conference] propose that subsidiarity be recognized as a divinely instituted principle for designing the cooperation between the various levels of the government of the church,” Tlhagale wrote.

“Subsidiarity should be seen as the principle which God’s wisdom has willed for all relationships. It therefore should also be seen as the principle governing the relationship between the bishop and the college of bishops, between the college of bishops and the bishop of Rome, between the episcopal conferences and the individual bishop, and between the episcopal conferences and the Roman curia.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001