Synodal talks meaningless without fundamental changes: theologian
In the following two-part interview, Indian theologian Father Felix Wilfred explains the serious structural changes that should be effected in the Catholic Church to make it truly owned by the “people of God.” Father Wilfred, a former secretary of the theological advisory committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), advocates that the Church become an inverted pyramid with the laity actively involved in its decision-making process. In the second part of the interview, the 74-year-old priest also speaks about the problems challenging the Asian Church, its leadership and ailments of Asian theology and the Asian bishops’ federation.
During a recent seminar, you said the upcoming synod on synodality will be meaningless unless the Church undergoes serious structural changes. What changes you are suggesting?
Primarily, a theological question needs to be addressed. It is about the transition of the Church from the Synod of Bishops to the Synod of the Church.
The idea of the Synod of Bishops was first expressed in 1965, after the Second Vatican Council, through the apostolic letter Apostolica Sollicitudo of Pope Paul VI. It meant a certain synod, or a permanent body of bishops, to assist the pope in exercising his authority. Until then collegiality was exercised only when the bishops came for the ecumenical councils. The Synod of Bishops was a whole new idea. The pope was in it to exercise the power and all bishops were part of that exercise of power.
The secretary of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal (Jan Pieter) Schotte, was present at the meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences in Tokyo in 1986. I asked him why we didn’t have a synod of laypeople and allow a lot more Christian faithful in the synod? His response was this: it is the Synod of Bishops. He was technically right.
There is indeed a theological problem of transition from this concept of the Synod of Bishops to the Synod of the Church. That’s what Pope Francis wants. It’s a big step, a huge thing. Pope Francis has opened Pandora’s box. He projects it as a program for the millennium of the Church. It is not a program for the next 10 or 100 years but another 1,000 years, and he is projecting a grand vision.
The vision envisages a real theological transition from a strongly hierarchical church to a synod of all Catholic people. Here is precisely where the structural changes are required. If no structural changes are effected, all efforts of the two years of preparations, the colossal exercises and rhetoric would be wasted. The talks should result in fundamental structural changes.
Can you elaborate on the structural changes you are suggesting?
We must understand that it was the Second Vatican Council that developed the concept of “people of God,” stressing the need to put people first. It was like a Copernican revolution. The “people of God” concept stressed the equality of all Christians based on the sacrament of baptism. It stressed that by baptism all Catholics — without any distinction of laity, clergy, religious or bishops — are equal, and they equally participate in the three roles of Christ: king, prophet and priest. But there has been a whole trend to eclipse this ecclesiology of the “people of God,” especially during the previous pontificates.
Despite the Church teaching that all Catholics are equal, the canon law (Canon 129) reserves the governing power of the Church only to those who are ordained. The Christian faithful, the so-called laity (I don’t like to use the word "laity" for its obvious degrading meaning) are only invited to cooperate. This law is a major hurdle, and it needs to be revised.
The governing power is exclusively reserved for ordained people. That is precisely why some of the participatory structures introduced by the Second Vatican Council — such as the parish council, pastoral council and finance council — didn’t work out as desired. Yes, they did some good. They made people aware of their rights to some extent. But the systems are limping and unable to deliver because of certain hurdles. The reservation of governing power to the clergy is one such hurdle that needs to be phased out.
Another legal anomaly is that church laws do not separate the power of the legislative, executive, and judiciary. All three are concentrated in the same office. Law has two purposes — defending and ensuring the common good. The law will not serve its purpose when the lawmaker becomes the enforcing authority of the law and the judge to decide on the injustice in its implementation. In church law, the same ordained person is the legislator, executive and judge. There is no separation of powers.
Nevertheless, there are some clauses in the canon law that could be expanded. For example, a bishop cannot alienate church property beyond certain amounts that the bishops’ conferences fix. To alienate, he has to get the mandatory consent of the council of priests or consulters. His failure would make his act null and void. There are also clauses that stress the consent of consultors. For example, mandatory consent of the consulters is a must to erect a parish. Church laws (Canon 1215) have established procedures making consultors’ consent a must for the building of churches and establishing parishes. My suggestion is to expand these areas to include wider sections in the various areas of administration so that the Church does not become autocratic or monarchical. It will help the faithful feel they are all part of the Church. Then there is the real Church of the people of God.
Here there are two points. Pope Paul VI himself in Apostolica Sollicitudo says something interesting, but it is often not noticed. The Synod of Bishops is consultative, it says. However, in one point it also says that the Synod of Bishops can be empowered to make decisions which can be ratified by the pope. Why don’t we use this mechanism to empower the people of God? We can extend this model to the entire Church to include all members of the Church in decision-making. Then the sense of belonging will improve. The synodal Church should be an inverted pyramid, as Pope Francis has suggested. The weighty masses of people should form the top decision-makers.
Is that possible?
I live in India and speak from here. Autonomous local churches already exist within Catholic Church, and I’m saying it should happen at a global level. Look at the canon law of the Eastern churches which allows them to have their own synodal structures. That means these sui juris (self-governing) churches are autonomous and have the freedom to decide on their liturgical and administrative matters. That includes even the election of their bishops, major archbishops and even patriarchs. Of course, these elections need to be ratified by the pope.
These local churches are autonomous and major decisions are taken fully in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Here in India, we have two Oriental churches — Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara — that enjoy such an autonomous system. We can critique how well they function, but then an established structure is there. We have the Latin Church in India, where such decisions are made in the Vatican. Why do we have two systems for Catholics in the same country who share the same socioeconomic and cultural situation? Why can’t the Latin Church also have a synodal structure? Is not the Latin Church, which is four times more populous than the Syro-Malabar Church, discriminated?
It is feasible and viable that the Latin Church adopt a synodal structure, not only in India or in Asia but in every part of the globe. We can empower the provincial council and regional council, and even the national council, to be able to perform in a synodal way. If you do not envisage these changes, people can be disappointed after all these exercises over two years for the synod on synodality.
But doesn't the Latin Church have similar bodies?
Yes, we do. We have provincial and regional councils of bishops, and also a national conference of bishops. But these bodies are generally inspirational in nature but have no implementing capacity or authority in dioceses. What happens very often is that when a decision is made in these bodies, a bishop could easily ignore implementing it in his diocese. This is a betrayal of the principle of collegiality and co-responsibility. When you decide on something together, it is your moral obligation to execute it in your diocese. These bishops’ bodies need to be strengthened. Of course, there is a larger problem with theological and juridical status of the bishops’ conferences because they have no juridical power in dioceses. It needs to be sorted out.
In countries with bigger geographical areas, such as India or Brazil, it is not possible to run the Church with one single bishops’ conference, so they can have several empowered regional bodies. This is doable. But we need a basic, fundamental law in the Church (lex ecclesiae fundamentalis) like nations having a constitution. It was Pope Paul VI who for the first time proposed that the Church should have a fundamental law. However, it was put in cold storage. We need to bring it back, especially in light of events such as clerical sexual abuse. We do not have a proper criminal law in the Church. Clerical offenses like sex abuse are not just sins but also crimes to be punished. Such crimes have serious social complications, and you cannot reduce them to a moral issue alone.
Does the modern generation care about the Church, with or without these changes?
Modernity demands synodal practices because it is a world of freedom. Modernity means autonomy, freedom, dignity and subjectivity. Modernity says people are not objects but subjects. These modern values belong to the core of the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium Et Spes (No. 17) clearly speaks about how people of our times value freedom, which is a core of the Gospel. Therefore, there must be sufficient freedom in the Church and attention should be paid to people as subjects, which means listening to their voices. The Church’s life and mission essentially require listening and respecting those in the margins.
I have heard many bishops say that the Church is not a democracy. Yes, that's right. But the Church is also not a monarchy. When saying that the Church is not a democracy, they mean the majority voice should not become the yardstick of making decisions. Precisely. But in the political world of democracy, we see a brute majority dominating decisions and putting down the thin voice of a minority, who may be closer to the truth.
The Church is not a democracy and should not become one if it means that what we believe is to be decided by the majority. However, it has an obligation to listen to everybody, including the last and the least because even the weakest voice can be sensible and closer to the truth. This is what we call the process of discernment. This is precisely what the early Church did when there was a complaint about Hellenistic widows being neglected in food distribution. They got together and instituted a ministry — the ministry of deacons. The crisis brought out the solution.
Therefore, the Church should be in line with modern times, with the aspirations of the people. People want to express themselves through social media. They want to share immediately. They want to say “I am here” and “I think like this.” In this world, the Church cannot act in a pre-modern fashion, and its actions must correspond to the signs of times.
What holds back the Church from changing to a truly inclusive or synodal church that Pope Francis envisions?
The Church is a huge apparatus. There can be many reasons for the Church being still centralized and not wanting to change. These need to be contextualized. We can look at some broad things.
If we look at it in the context of the Church in Asia, and also in some other places, there has been a lot of focus on devotionality, pietism and sacramentalism. There is a failure to cultivate mature and adult faith. Mature faith does not mean developing intellectual Catholics but even a simple lady can have deep faith without being a victim of ritualism and popular piety. The three theological virtues of faith, hope and love are the foundations of the Christian life. But we have placed sacraments at the center of Catholic life and made them the expressions of the three realities. We forgot the primary realities. Even sacraments, or whatever the priest officiates, need to become expressions of these primary realities.
There has been so much cultivation of infantile faith — lots of devotionalism and charismatic movements. I am not completely against them because we need emotions. Nevertheless, the attempts for proper catechesis, inserting people in the real deep faith, what I call adult faith, are required.
Then there is a whole lot of triumphalism. Although we are a minority in Asia, we want to show off as being part of a bigger, richer entity. We want to build a big Church and show various kinds of external marks. The pope has been invited to India. We will be happy if Pope Francis comes to India. It is not desirable that our triumphalist celebrations forget important issues challenging the Church and society.
Thirdly, the Church in our region is more middle-class and upper-class oriented and is not sufficiently rooted in the pain and sufferings of ordinary people. It came out clearly when the pandemic started. The priests and bishops didn’t know what to do when Covid-19 hit us. They are used to celebrating Eucharist in the churches, and they were clueless as to what to do when the churches were closed. It was a time for soul searching, and we should pursue this search. We should not get back to the old models of developing infantile faith again. It is time for us to think about what is wrong with us and make amends.
The diocesan phase for the 2023 synod on synodality is underway. What blocks Asian bishops from listening to the laity and including their concerns for a synodal church?
I have been to some of the dioceses to facilitate the synodal process. I found a lot of enthusiasm. But I doubt if the laity will be able to play their role properly. One reason is the clericalism that Pope Francis denounces time and again. Another thing, about which I wish I was wrong, is a doubt if our leaders are convinced about the process. Of course, there are very good bishops and priests, but generally speaking, the conviction seems to be lacking. The pope is saying all must follow his directions on the synod, but our leaders, by and large, are not doing it.
They are not convinced this is the future of the Church. But we have a dissonance between the views of the pope and church leadership in our countries. We see fewer and fewer leaders telling us to follow the pope. Maybe the pope has become a threat! Some of his reforms as the recent one on the Roman Curia have unsettled many people and they seem to be praying for the quick end of his papacy. Not a few in the Roman Curia think he is like the pharaoh who did not know Joseph! They would like to consider him as a transitory pope and wait for things to get back as before. He unsettles with his words and actions.
Those who observe the spirit of Pope Francis will definitely be convinced about this move to involve all Catholics in the life of the Church. The laity are enthusiastic to see their bishops move, convinced about the collaboration of all in the Church. It gives them a sense of hope, and they want to cooperate. But when they see the ritual meetings and celebrations in the name of the synod, they feel discouraged. So, the real point is the conviction of the leadership.
One more reason that might block the bishops and clergy from listening adequately to the faithful is a sense of threat. They feel the clerical control of the Church will be reduced. This fear is also linked to the fear of Catholics seeking accountability from clergy.
To be continued
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