|Pity the poor Roman curia.
They’ve not had the best of autumns. Indeed, it’s just as well the Vatican
does not observe the Thanksgiving holiday, because a few papal bureaucrats
might struggle to find something for which to give thanks.
First came the October
synod of bishops, where some 50 participants stressed the need for more
collegiality, a Catholic code word for taking power away from the curia
and spreading it around the local churches. Some even used the quasi-taboo
term “subsidiarity,” meaning that decisions should be made on the lowest
To be sure, the synod
heard polite expressions of gratitude for the curia (a couple of synod
fathers even thanked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for the document Dominus
Iesus), but it was nevertheless clear that many were far from happy.
Importantly, calls for reform came not just from the usual corners of Northern
Europe and the United States (where they are often dismissed as the gripes
of aging 60s-eras liberals), but from all over the world. Two of the strongest
interventions came on behalf of the Brazilian and the South African bishops’
I believe that this synod
will thus be remembered as the moment when the collegiality debate in the
Catholic church “went global.”
The refrain became so
insistent, in fact, that on Oct. 11 Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo
Sodano actually pleaded for mercy: “To the brothers who work in the dioceses,
allow me to ask that you not demand impossible things from us who work
in the curia,” Sodano said. “We all have our limits. The Apostle told us
counter-positions are not useful: Alter alterius onera portate!”
(That last bit is a Latin translation of a line
from St. Paul meaning “bear one another’s burdens” which is, coincidentally,
the motto of the New York State Insurance Department).
Last week in this space
I reported on a three-day summit of Catholic charismatics and curial figures,
where the charismatics complained of insensitivity within the curia to
the promptings of the Spirit and its overly legalistic approach to ministry.
Now this week another
constituency has hit town, and it too is full of reproaches for an overly
centralized papal power structure that lacks respect for local churches
and stifles democratic decision-making.
Again this time, the
argument comes not from progressives, but from a group that on the whole
is perhaps as conservative theologically as any in the Catholic fold: The
clergy and the hierarchies of the 21 Eastern rite churches in communion
with Rome. They are currently attending a Vatican-sponsored conference
on the 10th anniversary of the Code of Canon Law for Eastern Churches.
The Easterners are hoping
to use the conference to push Rome to be more respectful of their rites
These 21 churches have
long suffered from an inferiority complex, seeing themselves as neglected
and ignored by the overwhelming Latin majority in the Roman Catholic Church.
(See how many Eastern churches you can name without looking them up, and
you’ll grasp what I mean).
The Eastern Catholics
today, however, seem to be coming out of their shell. The top priority
in this stage of John Paul II’s pontificate is unity with the Orthodox,
and this has given the Eastern churches a front-burner status they have
not enjoyed since the 16th century.
For many Orthodox leaders,
these Eastern rite churches remain a troubling form of Catholic proselytism,
a “Trojan horse” designed to lure away their followers. For the Eastern
Catholics, they are the vanguard of reunion, a living example of what a
unified Christendom might look like. Either way, given John Paul’s dream
of a church breathing with both lungs, East and West, they matter.
I bumped into Cardinal
Raphael I Bidawid, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic church headquartered
in Baghdad, at the canon law conference, and he underscored this point.
“Our laws are important to us, obviously,” he told me. “But with the pope’s
desire for unity with the Orthodox, they’re important for the whole church.”
To hasten that unity,
Eastern rite Catholics say, they have to convince their Orthodox counterparts
that unity with Rome does not mean uniformity. They have to show one can
be in communion with the pope and yet fully respectful of Eastern traditions.
Which brings us back
again to the curia. One of the core values in the Orthodox world is unity
in diversity; local churches call their own shots on a wide variety of
matters, from liturgy to the election of bishops. Most Orthodox churches
take decisions through a “synod,” a quasi-democratic decision making structure
with real power. The patriarch of each Orthodox church is himself a sort
of mini-pope, with full authority over his church.
In these areas, Eastern
Catholic leaders believe the Roman curia too frequently doesn’t get it.
In May 1998, for example,
the Vatican told the Ukrainian church not to ordain married men in Poland,
despite the fact that a married clergy has always been their tradition.
Also in North America and Australia, the roadblocks Rome puts up to the
ordination of married men, ostensibly for fear of compromising the discipline
of celibacy in the Latin church, is a constant source of frustration.
Another example. During
a coffee break at the conference , I spoke to Patriarch Gregory III Laham
of the Greek-Melkite church in Damascus, who complained that the monastic
system in Lebanon and Syria is “essentially Latin.” Among other things,
this means that the monasteries and convents in his territory report more
or less directly to Rome, bypassing his oversight. This is not how things
work in the Orthodox world, where monasteries are closely tied to the patriarch.
Bottom line: In the Eastern
rite Catholics, we have yet another group asking Rome to relax its grip.
Of course, some frustration
with the home office is inevitable in any organization. Listening to bishops
on their ad limina visits, for example, I sometimes wonder what they would
talk about if they couldn’t complain about the curia.
Moreover, when one hears
laments about “the curia,” it should be understood that we’re talking about
the curia as a metaphor for centralized Roman power, not necessarily the
people in it. Sometimes curial officials themselves can be the best advocates
of local churches. Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, who runs the Congregation
for Eastern Churches, is certainly friendly to the case for this kind of
decentralization (he is himself from the Syrian Catholic rite).
Yet when one adds up
all the points of the compass from which calls for decentralization are
being heard today, from Cape Town to Kiev, from Brasilia to Bratislava,
it’s clear that in decentralization we have an issue that is likely to
cut teeth when a conclave rolls around.
* * *
One bit of trivia. We learned from
a talk on Nov. 19 that the Eastern code, issued in 1991, was the first
legal text of the Catholic church ever put into final form on a computer.
I tracked down the man who did the work, the legendary Jesuit scholar Fr.
Ivan Zuzek, to ask the key question: What kind of computer? Turns out,
to my great delusion, that it was an IBM. I tried in my broken Italian
to explain Umberto Eco’s famous theory that IBMs are Protestant while the
Macintosh embodies counter-reformation Catholicism, but I could tell I
had lost my audience.
Finally, a book tip.
For readers who would like a basic survey of the Eastern Christian scene,
both Catholic and Orthodox, I can recommend with enthusiasm The Eastern
Christian Churches by Paulist Fr. Ron Roberson. It’s easy to read,
yet informative and comprehensive. Roberson is on the staff of the U.S.
bishops secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, and helped
out during the pope’s June trip to Ukraine.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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