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At synod, church leaders disagree on war


As the Synod of Bishops drew to a close in late October, two points were generating lively debate: What to say about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and whether to use the concept of “subsidiarity” to describe how power should be exercised in the church.

On the war, the synod’s final message, released Oct. 26, denounced terrorism in strong terms. An earlier draft had linked that condemnation with a plea to address the root causes of terrorism, especially poverty and injustice, but, in debate inside the synod hall, concerns emerged that this linkage could seem to justify the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The concerns, sources said, came especially, though not exclusively, from Americans. One who spoke strongly and at length on the point was Cardinal Edmund Szoka, formerly archbishop of Detroit and the current administrator of the Vatican city-state.

Sources also said that the final version of the document, which was being debated as NCR went to press, will call for efforts to combat injustice, but this passage has been clearly distinguished from the point on terrorism to make it clear that one thing does not excuse the other.

“The mystery of evil can’t be explained by poverty,” said Sydney, Australia, Archbishop George Pell Oct. 24, commenting on the message. “Often terrorists are educated middle-class people.”

Pell was the chief translator of the message into English.

The debate reflected tensions that have surfaced in the synod, and even more so in conversations, interviews and public events around the edges of the synod, between Catholic leaders critical of the conflict in Afghanistan and others who are more supportive.

Outside the synod hall, Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, India, told Asian church news agency UCAN Oct. 20 that “bombing and hurting other people” in order to pursue Osama bin Laden is unjust.

“Why do you take the whole of the country to task because of one individual or a group of people?” he asked. “The kind of anger and hatred this builds into people is very, very dangerous for the future.”

Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, struck a similar note in an Oct. 15 interview.

“The missiles used cost millions of dollars and are being hurled into the desert. The cost of just one of them could build 20 hospitals in Nigeria,” he said.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, in a press briefing Oct. 22, said military action is justified only if “it does not strike innocent civilians,” and stressed that “misery and international injustices in a certain sense constitute the roots of terrorism.”

Martini refused to offer a judgment on the U.S.-led attacks. He said the church is not a moral licensing agency that gives permission to governments for particular initiatives, but must promote deeper reflection on gospel values.

Others have been warmer to the U.S. campaign. Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, released a letter to President Bush Oct. 9 calling the military strikes a “necessary response.”

Virtually the same word was used Oct. 24 by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops’ conference and the pope’s delegate to administer the diocese of Rome. In a session with reporters, Ruini referred to the “necessity of the fight against terrorism,” while adding that a “clash between civilizations and religions” must be avoided.

A still more ringing endorsement came from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, an influential conservative thinker and unofficial advisor to the Bush administration. Neuhaus is not participating in the synod, but is offering a course on Catholic social doctrine at the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome while the synod meets.

From the point of view of traditional just war doctrine, Neuhaus said in a public lecture Oct. 23, the aims of the conflict in Afghanistan are “clearly just,” and to date the war is being waged with just means.

Neuhaus said the church must preserve space for dialogue, but “without suggesting there are nonviolent means for resolving a conflict when they do not exist, and without joining the chorus of those who say let’s go out and hug a terrorist because he feels unloved.”

Pell said the synod’s final message contains no explicit reference to the just war theory, but it is “presumed” that the principles of that theory should guide evaluation of the conflict.

On subsidiarity, it was still up in the air as NCR went to press whether a proposal for study of the idea, which implies decentralization of power in the church, would survive final balloting on Oct. 26. In official discourse, the term communion is now preferred.

The synod’s concluding act is always to approve a set of propositions for the pope, who is free to act on them as he sees fit. The propositions are not released to the public.

In debate over propositions this time around, subsidiarity has generated some of the sharpest clashes. When working groups met during the synod’s third week, they produced a total of 285 propositions, and subsidiarity had enough support to survive a cut down to 68 for floor debate.

As the final vote loomed, however, the drama was whether subsidiarity could withstand a challenge on the floor. Sources told NCR that advocates of a strong papal office were mounting a serious effort to scrub subsidiarity from the propositions.

As understood in Catholic social thought, subsidiarity implies that decisions should be taken on the lowest level possible, with higher authority intervening only when absolutely necessary. Opponents object that subsidiarity applies well to politics, where power is based on the consent of the governed, but not to the church, where power flows from apostolic succession.

The debate has ebbed and flowed over much of the last seventy years.

The development began with the 1931 social encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, in which the pope wrote: “It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater or higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

Referring to this passage, Pius XII said in an address to new cardinals in 1946: “Such words are indeed enlightening; they apply not only to society, but also to the life of the church within its hierarchical structure.”

Taking their cues from such statements, bishops and theologians from the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) have invoked subsidiarity as a tool for evaluating church structures. The synod of 1967, for example, voted to make subsidiarity one of 10 guiding principles for the revision of canon law, and the 1969 synod voted to apply subsidiarity to episcopal conferences.

The official preface to the revised 1983 Code of Canon Law says subsidiarity “must all the more be applied in the church since the office of the bishops and their powers are of divine law.”

“Without subsidiarity as a guiding principle, the 1983 code undoubtedly would have been more Roman-centered than it is,” Fr. John Huels, a canon law expert at St. Paul University in Ottawa, told NCR Oct. 24.

The high water mark of this development came at the 1985 Synod of Bishops, when a call for a study of subsidiarity was among the points in the final message (with an explicit reference to Pius XII’s 1946 address).

Since 1985, however, the tide has shifted, as Vatican officials and some theologians have become sharply critical of applying subsidiarity to the church, preferring to speak of “communion” as an organizational principle instead.

Efforts by participants at the 1998 Synod for Asia to invoke subsidiarity in defense of the rights of local churches, for example, were rebuffed by Vatican officials.

The tug-of-war over at this synod suggests that the fate of the principle of subsidiarity, and the decentralization it implies, is very much an unresolved tension.

In an Oct. 22 briefing with reporters, Bishop Raymond John Lahey of St. George’s in Canada said that synod participants agreed “the sociological applications should be avoided,” but that subsidiarity must “be looked at from a theological point of view.”

Pell was more sharply critical.

“The notion of subsidiarity is radically incompatible with the hierarchical and communitarian nature of the church,” he said. Its fundamental flaw, Pell said, is the assumption that “power comes from the people,” which is “not the case in the church.”

Other topics set to be treated in the propositions were a call for study of the theological status of bishops’ conferences, proposals for better formation and training of bishops, and suggestions concerning the relationship between bishops and priests.

The synod ended Oct. 27. Its final document will eventually be issued by the pope; experience suggests at least a year will be necessary for its preparation.

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

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001