National Catholic Reporter ®

November 23, 2001 
Vol. 1, No. 13

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Collegiality, as in sharing power:
The anti-Curia cause that’s gone global

. . . 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.

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 level possible.

     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’ conferences.

     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 and traditions.

     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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