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Secret proposals go from synod to pope


In secret proposals to the pope, the Synod of Bishops has called for regular dialogue between representatives of bishops’ conferences and the Roman curia, greater respect for the conferences and a special synod to discuss reform of the synod itself.

The assembly stopped short of endorsing the much-debated concept of subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should be made at lower levels of authority where possible. In the end, the synod called subsidiarity an “ambiguous” idea that may be in conflict with the powers of the pope as outlined by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

These propositions have no legal force, since the synod is an advisory body. They are supposed to remain confidential in order to protect the pope’s freedom of action. The Italian news agency Adista, however, obtained the propositions.

The synod did release a final public message before it ended Oct. 27. As expected, it condemned terrorism. It called on world leaders to address pressing problems of poverty and injustice.

“A drastic moral change is required,” the bishops said. “Some endemic evils, when they are too long ignored, can produce despair in entire populations.”

This language had been the object of debate, with several American bishops pressing to make sure that the call for justice did not appear to excuse the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

As the synod closed, however, it was the final list of propositions that generated the most interest. Under the rules of procedure, propositions originate in working groups organized by language. From 285 suggestions, synod officials compiled a list of 69 propositions, cut to 67 in further debate.

The propositions are long and often complex. They are written in Latin, and participants have only a short time to study them before being asked to vote. When final balloting comes, participants are often confused as to what the issue is. The results thus tend to be overwhelmingly positive, with only a handful voting non placet, meaning not in favor, on any given point.

The final vote was held the evening of Oct. 26. The synod closed Oct. 27 with a papal Mass.

The 67 propositions cover a variety of themes. Some are spiritual; some are directed to the world outside the church. Others concern church discipline. For example, bishops are exhorted to ensure that theologians defend the teaching of the church, while still “observing a just liberty of investigation.”

Given the sharp debate within the synod over how power is allocated and exercised in the church, however, 10 propositions dealing with the relationship between Rome and the local churches aroused the greatest curiosity among synod observers.

They call for:

  • “More profound theological consideration” of the principle of communion, referring to the relation between the bishops and the pope.
  • Greater respect for the rights of Eastern Catholic churches, including a discussion of pastoral care for Eastern rite Catholics who live abroad.
  • Meetings between bishops and representatives of bishops’ conferences and members of the Roman curia. The proposition was born amid complaints in the synod that the curia is sometimes ill-informed or insensitive to local problems, though the language was amended to make it clear that these discussions could focus on matters that “concern either side.”
  • Regional bishops to be consulted on appointment of new bishops in their area, “as it is stated in canon law.”
  • Decisions of bishops’ conferences to be used to greater advantage -- a polite way, according to synod sources, of asking that Rome give the decisions of those conferences more consistent respect.

Another proposition asks for the same sort of respect for regional and continental groupings of bishops. Though the text does not cite examples, they would include groups such as CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ conference, and FABC, a similar group for Asian bishops.

Still another proposition recognizes that some synod fathers “are dissatisfied with the way synods currently work,” and want to talk about how “they might be better instruments of collegiality.” The proposition “reverently suggests” to the pope that he convoke an extraordinary synod to discuss this theme.

That proposition received the least number of votes, 197 out of 236, pointing up its controversial nature. During the synod, several speakers complained that the meetings lacked focus. Some suggested that the synod might have decision-making authority in carefully defined matters, a possibility envisioned by Pope Paul VI when he created the synod in 1965.

One synod source told NCR that tough language inside the hall on decentralization of church power -- that is, more power to local bishops, less to Rome -- had been weakened in the final propositions.

“Still, 250 bishops have heard more than 50 of their members talking about the need for redressing the exaggerated centralization of the church’s style today, and that will have some effect,” the source said.

Ecumenical concerns surfaced in a proposition recommending re-examination of the papal office. The proposition notes that many non-Catholic Christians see the papacy as an obstacle to unity, and recommends meetings with other Christians to address the problem.

Though the propositions do not respond directly to concerns about the sexual abuse of religious women first reported in NCR, one proposition does ask bishops to exercise greater care for diocesan religious communities. Members of such groups, which are common in the Third World and almost entirely dependent on local clergy, were special targets of abuse according to documents that formed the basis of NCR’s report.

A proposition dealing with how bishops live calls on them to embrace a lifestyle of poverty in solidarity with the poor. In a little-noticed irony, the day before the bishops adopted this proposition, the pope bestowed on each of them a 25-ounce silver pectoral cross and chain designed by the prestigious Italian firm of F.lli Savi. It came in a red, velvet-covered box with a silver medallion of the coat-of-arms of John Paul II on the lid.

Despite complaints in the synod about the recent Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam re-centralizing control of liturgical translation, there is no reference to the document in the propositions.

In other matters, the propositions call on bishops to:

  • Promote the doctrine of the church in the legislative arena, especially defense of life.
  • Crack down on general absolution, a communal form of the sacrament of penance.
  • Promote the dignity of women in the church and the world.
  • Pursue ecumenical dialogue.

On this last point, however, bishops are cautioned to avoid “ambiguous or ill-considered gestures born of impatience.” Most observers took this as a reference to joint communion services with non-Catholics.

Proposals made by an Oct. 4-8 counter-synod, called the Shadow Synod of the People of God, appear to have found little echo in the propositions. There is no reference to their suggestions in the synod’s final documents.

The group had called for greater shared responsibility in the church, optional clerical celibacy, more inclusion of women in leadership roles and repeal of the Vatican document Dominus Iesus. The group had also called for papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls to be dismissed for statements supportive of America’s strike against terrorism.

Documentation on the shadow synod may be found at www.shadow-synod.net. A synod official told NCR that the shadow synod’s proposals have been “delivered” to the Vatican.

At the close of each synod, a “post-synodal council” is elected to advise the pope on implementation. The votes are closely watched for indications of which prelates have impressed their peers.

Among the winners were Cardinals Francis Arinze of Nigeria, head of the Vatican office for interreligious dialogue; Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cláudio Hummes of São Paolo, Brazil; Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Belgium; Dionigi Tettamanzi of Genoa, Italy; and Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican office for ecumenism. The results reinforced the reputations of these men as papabile, candidates to be the next pope.

The lone U.S. prelate elected was Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Many observers believe that George might be a viable papabile if he were not American, but election of a superpower pope seems a distant prospect, as it would compromise the Vatican’s diplomatic neutrality.

Another potential papabile, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine, was nominated to the post-synodal council by the pope in order to ensure representation for Eastern-rite Catholics.

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

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001