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India’s Syro-Malabar controversy has lessons for universal Church

Addressing the root causes of problems is imperative rather than merely treating their surface symptoms
Catholics of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese of the Eastern Rite Syro-Malabar Church burn an order from the pontifical delegate, Archbishop Cyril Vasil, calling on them to follow the Church synod-approved liturgy, on Aug. 17, 2023 in the southern Indian city of Kochi

Catholics of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese of the Eastern Rite Syro-Malabar Church burn an order from the pontifical delegate, Archbishop Cyril Vasil, calling on them to follow the Church synod-approved liturgy, on Aug. 17, 2023 in the southern Indian city of Kochi. (Photo: supplied)

Published: December 12, 2023 03:47 AM GMT
Updated: December 12, 2023 06:23 AM GMT

With a decisive move to remove two Syro-Malabar prelates from their positions, Pope Francis has created an atmosphere to bring a long-drawn-out controversy, involving even physical violence, to an apparent amicable conclusion without some feeling winners and others losers in the conflict.

But then, is it really a win-win situation, given that there is an obligation to end the liturgical dispute by Christmas 2023 following the directives of the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church?

Pope Francis, moved by the deep divisions and wounds within the Syro-Malabar Church, in his video message, emphasizes the critical need to restore communion, which is the heartbeat of the Church. “Resignation” in such cases, obviously, is a euphemism and a device for face-saving and facilitating a dignified exit.

In fact, the pope has thanked generously Cardinal George Alencherry for his “witness of fidelity to the Gospel,” and some may say even more than what he deserves as his tenure generated a string of controversies, including his startling comments on the issue of fishermen shot at sea by marines on an Italian vessel.

Synodality has emerged as the pivotal principle of the Church at all levels. If there is any doubt regarding the importance of Christ’s faithful participating in the governing role of the Church — despite the present code reserving it only for clerics — the synodal structure of the Oriental Churches serves as a case.

It calls for enlisting the participation and cooperation of the faithful, especially in decision-making.

"The tent serves as an image of the Church accepting plurality and inviting all to find shelter"

The Catholics who, through baptism, share in the priestly and prophetic mission of Christ should have also a share in his kingly — governing — mission. This is crucial if we are to realize the pope’s vision of a Church that is an inverted pyramid and a field hospital.

Comparing the Church to a tent, Pope Francis stresses the idea of the Church as a place of welcome, openness, diversity, and inclusivity. Tents are temporary, movable, and accessible, symbolizing the Church’s mobility and flexibility, contrary to the lifeless rigidity — rigor mortis — representing some of the traditions, which can often be a shibboleth of dead habits or indurated obstinacy.

The tent serves as an image of the Church accepting plurality and inviting all to find shelter, irrespective of their backgrounds or situations. This ecclesial orientation should also be reflected in the functioning of Oriental Synods.

At the very least, there should be what the great Cardinal John Henry Newman referred to as the "consulting of the faithful," in the profound sense of "consult" that he intended. This cannot be something optional but something to be woven into the structure and functioning of the Oriental Synods. This would require suitable canonical amendments.

Even from a pragmatic point of view what is discussed in a more inclusive forum is easier to implement and execute than what is decided upon in a restricted group of those who hold power.  Furthermore, to gain credibility it is important that the synod follows proper procedures in decision making.

The well-known sociologist Max Weber distinguished between three forms of authority: Inherited authority as it happens in royal successions or tribal leadership; authority based on legal entitlement such as election, appointment, and so on; and finally charismatic or moral authority.

What the Syro-Malabar vicissitudes show is the need in the Church, and for that matter in any other social body, for the authority derived by appointment to go hand in hand with moral authority.

People of our times — and that applies also in great part to Christ’s faithful in the Church — are not ready to abide by when something is commanded simply invoking the titles of position one holds. They are keen to see whether it also reflects moral probity and correctness. It would appear that there has been, in the Syro-Malabar case, a disconnect between the two.

"Resignations like the current ones might have taken place long ago, potentially preventing much pain and agony for the Church"

When some of the appointed authorities are perceived to have been part of several cases of improbity and even scandals or quite intransigent in their demands, then the temptation is to resist in which case the culpability of the resulting situation cannot be simply attributed solely to the subjects under authority. It falls also on those in authority. Hence the matter becomes more complex and may not be reduced by tout court to an issue of obedience and disobedience.

The just concluded synod on synodality in its final synthesis has suggested among its innovative proposals the importance of assessing the performance of the ministers in the Church, and that includes not only priests but also bishops.

In line with this spirit and by extension, we could also consider including the assessment of the synodal bodies within the Oriental Churches, as they wield significant power to enact and reverse decisions.  If such a thing had been suggested earlier, based on performance assessments, resignations like the current ones might have taken place long ago, potentially preventing much pain and agony for the Church.

The Oriental Synods do not possess any charism of infallibility. Therefore, they are liable to commit wrongs, even grave ones, in their functioning and decisions, which need to be identified, and corrective measures need to be taken. Canonical provisions to this end could be thought of.

The extraordinary intervention made now by the Holy See must be accompanied by such a process of evaluation of the Oriental Synods and the introduction of new measures so that they do not deviate from intended goals. Putting certain measures in place would ensure that in the future the same kind of problems do not crop up.

A stitch in time saves nine, so the saying goes. Addressing the Syro-Malabar issue becomes a clarion call to prevent exacerbating problems through delays. Timely dialogue and intervention become essential to avoid festering wounds and escalating tensions. The proposal to dialogue, when a crisis escalates beyond control, raises doubts about its effectiveness in producing desired outcomes. This is an important lesson this controversy teaches for the Church in India and the global Church.

Many dioceses of all the three rites in this country are plagued with problems. While they may not be as sensational as this one, they are nevertheless quite grave and require ongoing dialogue and timely intervention. The official Syro-Malabar Church probably acted based on another principle, namely that time would heal the problems. What the unfortunate controversy teaches us is that we can no longer rely on deferral as a cure.

"The debate surrounding the celebrant's physical position during the Eucharist has erupted into a tempest"

Speaking of time, we are led to think of the delays in the appointment of bishops, and that applies especially to the Latin rite. It is often said that the delay is because the Holy Spirit is slow to arrive! How true is this? It would appear that the human agents involved at the various stages of this process are not fast enough to keep pace with the Spirit and discern his ways by consulting with the people of God.

We are starting to observe that prolonged delays in appointing bishops and a lack of consultation with Christ’s faithful could often exacerbate problems to the extent that extricating the Church from the quagmire could become a costly endeavor. The vacuum can result in confusion, a decline in morale among the clergy and Christian faithful, and a sense of uncertainty regarding the direction of the diocese.

Consider how a seemingly trivial matter concerning liturgical rubrics has burgeoned into a profound crisis within the Church. The debate surrounding the celebrant's physical position during the Eucharist has erupted into a tempest, revealing a fault line that fractures the Church and exposes deep-seated conflicts over power.

This issue within the liturgy merely serves as a symptom of numerous underlying structural challenges and power dynamics, including regional diversity among the eparchies and theological disparities within the same sui iuris Church.

It becomes increasingly evident that addressing the root causes of these complexities is imperative rather than merely treating their surface symptoms. The Syro-Malabar Church faces the formidable task of grappling with these intricate issues in the years to come.

*Felix Wilfred, a Catholic theologian based in Chennai, is a former professor of State University of Madras, and a former member of the International Theological Commission of the Vatican. He also served as secretary of the theological advisory committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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