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Are tradition and growth mutually exclusive?

Laity are among key leaders in dioceses; why not the Vatican too?

Are tradition and growth mutually exclusive?
Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok

November 22, 2013

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The Catholic Church is changing again. And today, a meeting in Rome ends which has drawn together the leaders of the Eastern Catholic Church in communion with Rome that are legally independent except in faith and morals.

One of the topics discussed when these leaders of churches from the Middle East, India and Eastern Europe met with the pope has been their distinctive form of government – synods.

Front and center among Pope Francis’ issues for reform of the Catholic Church is Church governance. It is too early to say what the pope has in mind, since he hasn't said it clearly himself.

The gestures are there, but we are all engaged in wishful thinking about where these might lead. Does the synod announced for 2014 mean he will change the way the Church operates? Perhaps, but the fact is that he hasn’t said so.

He wants to decentralize government in the Church and downscale the control exercised by Vatican offices over dioceses and local churches without undermining the central role of the pope in the Church.

The pope’s favored method of developing participation in the government of the Church is something ancient, little used in the Catholic Church to its full potential but actually the ordinary instrument of governance in other Christian denominations, among the Orthodox churches and in rites and patriarchates still in union with Rome: synods. Will it deliver beneficial results in Roman Catholicism?

In Asia, there are the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites in India that are self-governing, in union with Rome (their leaders are cardinals) and have synods as the highest authority in Church governance. These governing entities are able to work at local levels to address pressing issues rather than having to wait to see what Rome might have to say.

But they are all male and clerical gatherings, effectively excluding any participation by the majority of their communities – lay people.

Pope Francis has scheduled an extraordinary (because it doesn’t fit the usual three-year cycle) synod of bishops on marriage, family and divorce for October 2014 and has been reported as wanting some kind of continuous executive of the synod for him to consult with regularly.

Preparing for this synod, its organizers have taken the unusual step of issuing a questionnaire on the hot topics around marriage: divorce, gay partnerships, contraception and the various civil contexts (welcoming and hostile) in which Catholic marriages operate.

The problem with the questionnaire is that it seems to be one of those instruments prepared by a committee of divergent views, seeking answers from different groups (bishops, married people, clergy, people working in marriage preparation and education, political analysts among them) without much clear focus to what the survey is to achieve. Still, many groups in the church - dioceses, publications and local parishes among them - have done their best to make something of the opportunity.

It is a major step forward that such consultation is occurring, albeit difficult to determine just who is being consulted and what expertise is required to provide helpful information. It has to include lay people - in traditional heterosexual married partnerships or not - and as such is a commendable and ambitious development.

But a fundamental problem remains with the process. What is to become of the information is unclear and, just as in India, so with the synod of bishops, these gatherings are exclusive affairs. You have to be male and clerical and actually a bishop to participate.

That problem is common in Church governance. For example, most Vatican offices have councils or “congregations” to advise them on their operations. But the only formal members of these bodies are Catholic bishops and Vatican officials.

How the Vatican operates is under review and will be the subject of a completely new approach being worked out right now, as reported by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, when he announced in October that the current operating rules for Vatican offices were being fully revised.

As well, consultations with lay groups, especially of women, have commenced, which aim to find ways for lay people and women among them to assume significant management positions in Vatican offices.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a bishop. But a system structured to provide leadership positions exclusively held by bishops becomes an aristocratic form of government that many countries, though not all (China and Vietnam for example), left behind a long time ago.

The paradox displayed in how the “head office” runs when compared with how many other parts of the Church operates is plain when you look at many local churches, including those in Asia.

What is plain for the eye to see in so many, perhaps most, parts of the world is that lay people and especially women actually deliver much of the life of the Church and its services from primary evangelization and catechesis to the management of large, well-resourced and complex health, welfare and education networks.

It seems pretty clear we are only at the beginning of a very long day. As Cardinal Newman observed so long ago: “To live is to change and to become perfect is to have changed often.” And, after all, growth in perfection is what the Church is about and when it or something closer to it is wanting, tension abounds.

Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of

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