National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Indian cardinal calls for increased local authority

Colleagues echo desire for decentralization, power to bishops' conferences

Kochi, India

An Indian cardinal’s call for episcopal conferences to have more power and for papal authority to be decentralized has elicited agreement from other church leaders in India.

Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly stated in a published interview that the Indian church has been forced “to depend on the Roman curia for too many matters.” He also asserted that bishops should not have “to run to Rome for everything” and that canon law should be modified to help decentralize the pope’s authority.

The interview with Vithayathil appeared in the first issue of the English biweekly Sathyadeepam (lamp of truth), published by his archdiocese in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The 76-year-old prelate is based in Kochi, Kerala’s commercial capital.

He is the major archbishop of India’s Syro-Malabar church, one of three Catholic rites in the country. The other two are Latin and Syro-Malankara. The Latin rite follows the Roman liturgy introduced by European missioners in the 15th century, while the other two follow Syrian church traditions and trace their origins to St. Thomas the Apostle.

The interview received wide coverage in India’s national press after Sathyadeepam appeared Nov. 10. The biweekly later clarified, however, that the cardinal’s remarks did not mean to “challenge papal authority.”

Fr. Paul Thelakat, editor of Sathyadeepam, described the interview as “frank and positive.” However, he warned that it not be seen as a challenge to papal authority and church rules. He explained to UCA News Nov. 14 that the cardinal meant the decentralization of the pope’s authority is essential to empower local bishops’ conferences. The cardinal said bishops’ conferences have “hardly any authority now,” but “they should become powerful bodies.”

According to Vithayathil, the greatest weakness of the Catholic church is the way papal authority is exercised without the participation of those concerned, in contrast to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). There is need, he said, for “greater collegiality and consultations among bishops and priests regarding church matters.”

The cardinal said that decentralizing papal authority may require changes in canon law, but “whether the rules demanded it or not, I always made it a point to hold wide consultations before taking an important decision.”

He also spoke of the qualities a pope needs. The pontiff “should be a man of God who lives in Christ,” he said, and be someone “who stands boldly for the proclamation of the Gospel” and “works for peace and interreligious harmony.”

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India was established in 1944 as a consultative body to oversee various movements, study legislative measures in the states of India, link together the conference’s various sections, and give information and guidance whenever required. The conference president, Archbishop Cyril Baselios of Triv-andrum, told UCA News Nov. 13 that the cardinal’s comments should not be interpreted “out of context.”

Baselios, who heads the Syro-Malankara church, said he agrees with the cardinal’s suggestion that bishops’ conferences be given more power to strengthen the local church. He also noted that decentralization does not mean division, but a more united, participatory church.

However, Bishop Varghese Chakkalakal of Kannur, a Latin-rite prelate in Kerala, said he disagrees that the Indian church runs to the Vatican for every matter. “That is not true,” he told UCA News Nov. 13. “There are many issues on which bishops are empowered to take decisions in the dioceses and in church leadership.” Still, he said he agrees there is “an urgent need” to empower local bishops’ conferences. “Local bishops know church realities here,” Chakkalakal noted, “so it would be important if the bishops are given more authority for the growth of church.”

Chakkalakal said he is unsure if canon law must be modified to give more power to bishops’ conferences. In his view, however, only the Vatican can make certain decisions. For example, “the appointment of bishops and creation of new dioceses have to come from Vatican,” he observed.

For some lay people, the cardinal’s call creates confusion. Kurian Thomas, a retired schoolteacher in Kochi, told UCA News Nov. 14 that many lay people do not know the current power of bishops and episcopal organizations. “The cardinal and other church leaders should explain what powers they have and how dependent they are on the Vatican concerning various matters,” Thomas said.

Jose Mathew, a Catholic engineer, says he does not understand why the Vatican has to appoint a local bishop in India. “Why can’t the [Indian bishops’ conference] or similar bodies take such decisions?” he said Nov. 14.

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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