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Synods offer a peek at future reforms, reformers

That the Synod of Bishops needs reform is beyond doubt. It lacks focus, the outcome is often pre-determined and the secrecy is excessive. This is not merely an external judgment. At last May’s consistory and at the current synod, these points were made repeatedly by prelates who are synod veterans.

Exasperating as critics might find the exercise, however, synods are not a total waste of time. Under the rules, the discussions are conducted behind closed doors, but numerous conventions have grown up around the synods -- including news conferences -- that allow the word to get out. The synod is the lone institution in the church for fostering public, quasi-democratic debate, and the results can shape consciousness in ways that prepare future reforms.

The Synod for Asia in 1998, for example, introduced the Asian bishops to the wider Catholic world. Those bishops had provocative things to say about Christology, evangelization and the relationship between Rome and the local churches.

The synod now underway in Rome, focusing on the bishop’s role, has likewise offered important contributions.

It has erased any lingering doubt that Catholic leaders have a problem with distribution of power. Time and again, from different points of view and different parts of the world, speakers have emphasized that the church is too centralized, that too many decisions are made in Rome.

A leading case in point, mentioned by several bishops on the synod floor and cited in the report of at least one discussion group, is the recent Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam. It asserted broad Vatican controls over liturgical translation, a process that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had entrusted to local bishops’ conferences, who presumably better know local cultures.

The synod is unlikely to call for the repeal of Liturgiam Authenticam® Vatican politics rarely work in so blunt a fashion. But the discontent suggests that discretion may be the better part of valor when it comes to implementing the document.

Of course, not all voices are in harmony. Some speakers stressed the need for a strong Petrine office, and the shift in the relatio, an official summary of the first two weeks of debate, from terms such as collegiality and subsidiarity to communion suggests an effort to water down the push for decentralization. (“Communion” in this sense often functions as a code word for acceptance of the status quo).

This is to be expected. On any question of vital importance to the future of the church there will be a range of opinion. What is important is that the synod has allowed the discussion to come into public view, always a healthy thing.

This synod is not Vatican II. Nevertheless, when a reform providing for greater collegiality is enacted under a future pontificate, a handful of interventions here may be remembered as key contributions. Prelates such as Jayme Henrique Chemello of Brazil, Anthony Kwami Adanuty of Ghana, James Weisgerber of Canada, Norbert Brunner of Switzerland, and Joseph Fiorenza of the United States, in different ways, have helped point the way.

The synod gave us a chance to hear their voices, and for that we should be glad.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001