Nov 15, 2001

World’s bishops – inculturation

Online Edition

– Vol. VII, No. 8: November 2001

Synod 2001

World’s bishops address papal primacy, role of bishops, "inculturation"

(followed by Quotes from Synod General Congregations)

by James F. Hitchcock

Proposals to diminish papal authority in the Church in favor of semi-autonomous national episcopal conferences were a major feature of the World Synod of Bishops, entitled "The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World", held in Rome September 30 – October 27. New York Cardinal Edward Egan was the general relator (effectively chairman) of the Synod.

The Synod began with more than a week of interventions by about 250 bishops from around the world and several religious and lay participants.

Issues of "collegiality" (interaction between bishops and the Holy See), a focus of the papal letter Novo Millenio Ineuente, appeared be uppermost in many bishops’ minds.

For example, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the American bishops’ conference, asked rhetorically, "Is it not timely and appropriate for this synod to discuss again the question of subsidiarity within the Church?… If it is appropriate to the life of the Church, what are the practical ways it can be applied without prejudice to the right and freedom of the bishop of Rome to govern the Church…?"

Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Mechelen-Brussels, president of the Belgian bishops, said the times require both a strong papacy and strong national episcopal conferences. The synod model should be developed into an integral part of church governance, he suggested. Bishop Norbert Brunner of Sion, Switzerland, also proposed that the synodal structure, with delegates "freely chosen" to meet regularly with the Pope, should become the normal machinery of church governance, with few issues "resolved centrally".

A Colombian, Archbishop Ruben Salazar Gomez of Barranquila, called upon the Synod to "rethink the Petrine ministry", for purposes of greater collaboration with national episcopal bodies. The bishop, he asserted, must "listen to the Spirit Who lives in His people, confirming the people in that same Spirit and leading them to achieve what that Spirit has aroused and confirmed in His Church". He did not state that part of the bishop’s task is to scrutinize alleged manifestations of the Spirit in the light of the entire tradition of the Church.

Three categories of interventions

Interventions by synod delegates fell into three broad categories those who addressed specific needs of the Church in specific areas (poverty, persecution), those who called attention to problems facing the Church, and those who apparently saw the synod mainly as an occasion to demand greater autonomy and authority for national episcopal conferences.

Bishop Oswald Gomis, secretary general of the Sri Lankan bishops’ conference, perhaps articulated the essence of the third position when he declared that it is the duty of the hierarchy to "create a culture of empowerment", in which all persons, at every level of the Church, feel themselves "empowered".

A major difference among the three types of interventions was that those in the third group almost never explained the purpose of "empowerment", or how it might strengthen the life and work of the Church. Instead they treated it as merely self-evidently desirable, something to be achieved for its own sake. Although they sometimes referred to spiritual concerns, their vagueness made it seem as though their principal preoccupation was with power and structures, independent of their purposes.

From the East

Strong criticisms of papal authority came from Eastern rite Catholic prelates.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewiz of Russia cited Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology in calling for closer collaboration between the Holy See and regional episcopal conferences, an extension of "the sphere of competence of the Episcopal Conferences".

His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni of the Armenians warned that "an excessive centralization by Rome could suffocate the riches of the particular churches".

Bishop Louis Pelatre of Istanbul reminded the delegates that the episcopacy does not belong to the Roman Catholic Church alone and proposed that Eastern Orthodoxy could serve as a model for the West. The apostolic faith has been preserved in the East despite the absence of "a humanly powerful and organized structure", he claimed.

His Beatitude Gregoire III Laham, patriarch of Antioch, asserted boldly that "with all due respect to the Petrine ministry, the Patriarchal ministry is equal to it…. Until this is taken into account in Roman ecclesiology, no progress will be made in ecumenical dialogue". The Eastern patriarchates are qualified to discharge all the responsibilities currently discharged by the Papacy, according to Patriarch Gregoire.

Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, archbishop of the Syro-Malabars in India, recalled that Jesus did not choose only one apostle, Peter, leaving Peter to choose the others, but chose all the apostles himself. In the context of the synod, Cardinal Vithayathil’s remarks seemed designed to support the claim that all bishops are equal to the Pope in status and authority.

These Eastern rite interventions were examples of the tendency to deal in abstractions, without much attention to concrete reality. While the Second Vatican Council recognized the legitimacy of the Eastern Orthodox episcopacy, it also recognized serious differences between East and West, differences that have proven intractable to solution. Assuming that Eastern rite Catholic prelates recognize that Orthodoxy is, from a Catholic standpoint, deficient in some respects, they did not explain how the Catholic tradition could be maintained without a strong papacy. Indeed, by the logic of their remarks it was possible to conclude that Eastern Orthodoxy itself is the superior Church.

From the West

From within the West others who questioned the present system of Church governance often invoked the democratic principle.

Father David Fleming, superior general of the Marianists, pointed to the "collaborative model" of governance followed in religious orders since the Second Vatican Council. He suggested such a model might be relevant to the whole Church.

Father Joseph W. Tobin, superior general of the Redemptorists, spoke of the "essential role of consecrated life in the Church" and warned against "a real risk of a type of reductionism that would identify the local Church exclusively with diocesan structures". What is required is a "constant dialogue between superiors and bishops", he said.

Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, general of the Jesuits, made "dialogue" the center of Church activity, the duty of the hierarchy being to foster it at all levels. Ecumenical activity should be given the highest priority, he insisted.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, prefect of the Holy See’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity, also asserted that ecumenical activity has the highest priority. Therefore "we must create a better balance between the particular Churches and the universal Church", he announced.

None of the heads of religious orders who spoke chose to address the fact that, under the "collaborative model" that they extolled, religious life has all but collapsed in much of the Western world, nor that religious orders are often centers of dissent against Church teaching. In practice bishops rarely oppose dissenting religious, so that the warnings of the religious superiors against "improper" use of authority seemed clearly directed at the Holy See.

Nor did those who extolled ecumenism take note of the complexities of the issue, for example, of whether ecumenical promise lies in the direction of the increasingly liberal, increasingly secular "mainline" churches or with the more conservative groups that abound in the United States but are largely unknown in Europe.

To date the ecumenical establishment has been endlessly sensitive to the former, while ignoring the latter or treating it with disdain. But ecumenical "progress" with liberal groups seems to require that the Catholic Church repudiate many of its teachings, including on such crucial moral issues as abortion and homosexuality.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Holy See’s Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, acknowledged that such dialogue is no longer a choice but is obligatory. However, "Orthodox practice has to be based on orthodoxy. The bishop is above all the teacher of the doctrine of the faith … he has to feed his people with rich doctrine".

Archbishop Tadeusz Goclowski of Gdansk, Poland, recalled that "the bishop must be the spiritual authority for his brethren" and warned that "we must consider the danger of today’s democratic mentality".

Prelates claiming to speak on behalf of the "third world" also joined in questioning papal authority.

Bishop Anthony Peiris of Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, exhorted the bishops to recognize that "the small Christian communities are the training ground for participation in both the life and mission of the Church. We must be liberally open to the voice of the laity". Bishop Peiris did not address the fact that there are many "small communities" in the Church, some of them at cross purposes with one another, and he offered no criteria for distinguishing authentic from inauthentic voices.

Archbishop Henry D’Souza of Calcutta dismissed both the Latin language and "Roman culture" as "dead" and insisted that they have no relevance to India, which needs "a free version" of the Bible and the liturgical books, reflective of "dynamic creativity".

Bishop Paul Yoshinao Otsuka of Kyoto, Japan, told the Synod that the Japanese bishops have issued a document titled Reverence for Life, but that "the various themes in the book are not written in a manner that insists that the only correct answer and resolution for problems comes from a Catholic point of view". Instead the Church presents a message intended to stimulate the reader to "think". (To date, the Japanese bishops have not issued a translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nor have they promulgated Liturgiam authenticam, the Holy See’s recent document concerning liturgy and translation.)

In some ways Archbishop D’Souza’s intervention crystallized the issue, although he did not address it how is substantial unity to be maintained if each local or national Church practices "dynamic creativity" and perceives the tradition of the Roman Church as merely an imposition on its own culture? Bishop Otsuka’s intervention unintentionally pointed to another problem Catholics are few in number in Japan and have little influence. According to his report, the Japanese bishops apparently see no prophetic role for the Church in national life, merely a task of ratifying the culture.

Other prelates supported papal authority in addressing the synod, and some made remarkably candid interventions recognizing the grave problems that the Church faces all over the world.

Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara, Mexico, raised questions that were otherwise generally overlooked. The cardinal, who is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II, recalled that preaching the faith is the bishops’ highest duty and that "the bishop is the custodian of healthy doctrine, attentive to the correction of errors, and warning against dangers". (In contrast to Cardinal Sandoval, prelates calling for decentralization of Church authority showed little concern for the question of doctrinal orthodoxy.)

The address by Cardinal Sandoval was especially significant because much of the dissatisfaction with an allegedly overcentralized form of Church governance is in reaction to the strong role of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Defenders of the CDF point out that the Roman congregation is forced to be active because of the seeming inability of the various episcopal conferences, and of most individual bishops, to deal with theological dissent. In his own intervention at the synod, Cardinal Ratzinger made this point subtly but unmistakably: "If the bishops have the courage to judge and to decide with authority about this battle for the Gospel, the so hoped for decentralization is automatically achieved".

Bishop Franc Kramberger of Maribor, Slovenia, told the delegates that under Communism bishops in Eastern Europe were often separated from the Holy See and that they regard the reestablishment of such relations as a great gift from God.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Holy See’s Council for the Family, also reminded the delegates that "bearing witness to the truth is essential to the courage to be a bishop". (While Cardinal Trujillo was archbishop of Medellin, Colombia, his life was threatened by drug dealers.)

Another Colombian, Archbishop Pedro Rubiano Saenz of Bogota, reminded the delegates that the bishops’ vocation has often required martyrdom. In Colombia a bishop was murdered by terrorists, he reported, and another was kidnapped twice.

In a surprisingly candid intervention, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy, warned that "the bishop dominated by fear will be neither a man of the Gospel nor a man of hope. Fearful in the face of public opinion, he will not preserve the faith with appropriate correction". Further, he urged that in identifying candidates for the episcopacy, attention should be paid to the necessity of courage and boldness.

Cardinal William W. Baum, head of the Holy See’s Major Penitentiary and former archbishop of Washington, was also remarkably blunt in reminding the bishops of their vocation "of exercising the office of teaching and of correcting error", an obligation that he said has sometimes been avoided out of fear of criticism and other motives. "How often", he asked, "out of sloth or timidity, have we failed to proclaim the truth about Christ?… For us bishops, as well as for those we serve, confession is good for the soul".

In another unusually blunt speech, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne suggested that in some cases episcopal conferences are dysfunctional, because of contradictory ideas about the episcopal office. Some bishops, for example, underestimate the destructive force of secularization. The result is that the pastoral ministry of bishops "becomes minimized, reduced simply to human care of the faithful". Bishops find it difficult to accept the fact that the charism of their office includes "the right to govern", Cardinal Meisner remarked. (Cardinal Meisner’s October 1 talk was warmly applauded by his fellow bishops.)

The Synod, still in progress at this writing, will consider the issues raised in the plenary sessions in circole minores (small groups), which will then submit suggestions to the pope for the Apostolic exhortation that will follow the Synod.


James Hitchcock, professor of history at Saint Louis University, writes and lectures frequently on contemporary Church issues, and has just completed a book on religion and the US Supreme Court. More of his writing can be read online on the Women for Faith & Family web site by clicking here.

Copyright © 2001-2006 Adoremus: Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy. All rights reserved.


Quotes from Synod General Congregations

Cardinal William Baum (Major Penitentiary, Vatican) "For many reasons and because of the pressures put on him, a bishop may hesitate or become faint-hearted in exercising the office of teaching and in correcting error. If he is faithful to his responsibilities he will inevitably become the target of much criticism and, even at times, ridicule from people both within and outside the Church. We must be prepared to follow in the footsteps of Peter, Paul, the Apostles, and the great bishops who have preceded us…. How often, because of sloth or timidity, have we failed to proclaim the truth about Christ and the truth about the human condition? This synodal assembly is, in itself, a God-given opportunity a moment of grace to examine ourselves anew. For us bishops, as well as for those we serve, confession is good for the soul".

October 1, 2001


Bishop Oswald Thomas Colman Gomis (Anurandhapura, Sri Lanka, Secretary General of the Federation of Asian bishops’ conferences) "A participatory Church does not simply have ‘helpers’ but has ‘responsible co-workers’ for the mission. Leadership is exercised by the bishop by creating a culture for empowering, and readjusting structures to allow participation".

Cardinal Angelo Sodano (Secretary of State, Vatican) "The twenty-five bishops who are the heads of dicasteries of the Roman Curia are constantly committed to inspiring [a] spirit of fraternal collaboration with all the bishops of the entire world, following the directives [in] Pastor Bonus. To the brothers who work in the dioceses, I permit myself to ask them not to ask impossible things of us who work in the Curia. We are all limited".

October 11, 2001


Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos (Prefect, Congregation for the Clergy) "The bishop dominated by fear will be neither a man of the gospel nor a man of hope. Fearful in the face of public opinion, he will not preserve the faith with the appropriate correction. Perhaps we could present to the Holy Father [a proposition] which permits the request, in the choice of candidates to the episcopate, those gifts which assure the Church, placed in confrontation with secularism, practical apostasy and the degradation of customs, bishops who guide them with courage part of the spiritual make-up of Ignatius, Iraneaus, Athanasius and those who, behind the Iron Curtain, defended and maintained the faith".

Cardinal Karl Lehmann (Mainz, president of the German bishops’ conference) "[T]he bishop’s mission towards all men that comes from `communio’ must be perceived in a new and re-evaluated way. This also holds true for the relationship with ecumenism, with non-Christian religions and with non believers. This task [affects] the way the bishop understands his service, especially today in this secularized world. He must proclaim the Christian message in a convincing way, with arguments and open to dialogue and full of zeal without going on the defensive with regard to modern challenges. This has many practical consequences pertaining to the bishop’s activities, the way of presenting himself, and the criteria for the nomination of suitable candidates [for bishop]".

October 8, 2001


Archbishop Henry Sebastian D’Souza (Archbishop of Calcutta, India) "The traditions of a dead language, Latin, which are part of a dead foreign culture, Roman, even if seen as a vehicle of orthodoxy, do not respond in a satisfactory way to the character and lifestyle of Indian life and tribal languages. The Indians and tribal populations express themselves with languages which are very picturesque, full of symbolism, poetry and emotion. As a consequence, we need a free version, and one in the vernacular idiom, of the original books of the Latin rite. Sacrosanctum Concilium wished only to keep the substantial unity of the Roman Rite. There should be space for the cultural differences of various peoples and races and for a dynamic creativity within the new Churches".

October 5, 2001



James F. Hitchcock