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Understanding the Emerging Synodal Church. Leading Cardinal Says Reforming the Roman Curia Necessary for ‘Church to Rediscover its Nature as a Synodal Church’

Latest News January 30, 2024  CISA

By Pasch❤❤ al Norbert

NAIROBI, JANUARY 30, 2024 (CISA) – In a presentation entitled “Understanding the Emerging Synodal Church in the light of ‘Praedicate Evangelium’,” Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., the general rapporteur of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops tells a meeting of African and European bishops that the new Constitution reforming the Roman Curia was necessary for the Church to rediscover itself and respond to the needs of the time.

Cardinal Hollerich who was speaking at a three-day seminar from January 23 to 26, 2024, that brought together 20 bishops from the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) and the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), explained “With this text, which reforms the functioning and mission of the Roman Curia, the central administration of the Church, the Pope has a clear message: in order to proclaim the Gospel to the world, the Church must first proclaim it to itself by reforming itself from within. This reform is necessary if the Church is to rediscover its nature as a synodal Church.”

The triennial meeting of the bishops from SECAM and CCEE was to deliberate on their shared responsibilities in evangelization, mission, and pastoral care in light of the current developments in the universal Church; the Apostolic Constitution “Praedicate Evangelium” and the Synodality.

The Vice President of CCEE and the Archbishop of Luxembourg highlighted that in the reforms of the Roman Curia, the pope is guided by his vision of a “missionary conversion” of the Universal Church and that he is following in the footsteps of previous apostolic constitutions – with the last being the “Pastor bonus”, which was promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988 to “promote communion in the whole organism of the Church.”

He said the new constitution, which places the Dicastery for Evangelization at the fore, is for an evangelization-focused curia and “The guiding principles of this reform are the ‘mystery of communion that unites the Church and synodality, in order to allow mutual listening between the faithful, the College of Bishops and the Bishop of Rome.’”

The member of the Council of Cardinals, the advisory body to Pope Francis, intimated that the constitution was a result of a lengthy collegial work and responded to the concerns of the cardinals raised in the pre-conclave meetings of 2013. He advances that the reforms emphasize the “Curia’s duty to serve the communion between bishops.”

“It calls for the establishment of an “organic relationship” with the bishops and gives greater prominence to the “intermediate bodies” that are the national, regional and continental episcopal conferences, as well as the Eastern hierarchical structures. This service focuses in particular on the fight against abuses and the service of the poorest,” he details.

As an advocate for greater involvement of the laity and youth in the Universal Church, Hollerich noted that one of the strong points of the new constitution was the call for greater involvement of the laity in governance, especially in dicasteries as seen in the appointment of veteran journalist Dr Paolo Ruffini, the Prefect for the Dicastery for Communication.

“Evangelization is not just a matter for the bishops. ‘Every Christian, by virtue of baptism, is a missionary disciple’, the Pope emphasizes. By virtue of this conviction, lay people are called to occupy ‘roles of government and responsibility’ within the Curia,” He explains.

“The Pope emphasizes the ‘vicarial character of the Roman Curia’, which means that all those in charge of the Curia, whether clerics or lay people, act on a delegation from the Supreme Pontiff. ‘Any member of the faithful may preside over a dicastery or an organization’, in accordance with his or her competence and capacity for government, he adds.’”

On the Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19, 2022, Pope Francis promulgated the new Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, entitled “Praedicate Evangelium” – “Proclaim the Gospel”, which governs the Roman Curia. The new constitution replaced the Pastor Bonus promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1988.


Cardinal Grech on Synodality at the European Synodal Assembly, February 2023, Prague

by Luca Bandini

I’m perplexed by the contradictions in Cardinal Grech’s definition of “synodality”, which he repeated again in Prague.

1. On the one hand, he – in the wake of Pope Francis himself – has been emphasising that the church will have to be a church that listens to all its members, and that “The synodal process is entirely founded on the principle of [mutual] listening” (Card. Grech, speech “Continental Stage: A New Stage in the Synodal Process”, 06/02/2023, available here).

2. On the other hand, both he and the Pope have defended the current practice, which is that at every level – diocesan, national, or international – synods can only be called when the bishops or the Pope say so and, what is more, that it is they alone who can set the agenda for discussion and determine its limits.

Such is the essentially clerical nature of Catholic synods according to the canon law currently in force. Pope Francis inherited this clericalist model from his predecessors. But in 2018 he had the opportunity to disavow it when he promulgated a much-awaited reform of the canon law concerning precisely the procedure to be adopted by synods (Apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio).

And yet, while he softened the exclusively clerical model of synods by mandating the consultation of the laity, he did re-endorse its clericalist essence whereby only bishops and Pope can call a synod, control its agenda, and approve (or not) its decisions.

But in light of all the recent talk about “synodality” I was baffled to hear Cardinal Grech (in his speech in Prague linked above) first quoting approvingly Art. 5 of Episcopalis communio – which restricts to the Pope alone both the power both to call a synod and to determine and delimit its agenda; then reiterating the same idea by insisting that “There is no consultation unless the bishop summons the People of God in his care” (“non si dà consultazione se il Vescovo non convoca il Popolo di Dio a lui affidato”); and finally driving the point home by contending that that the “long list” of questions emerged from the worldwide consultation of Catholics and summarised in the DCS “does not and cannot constitute the agenda of the synod”, because the latter had been already determined by the Pope, namely “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission”. As the cherry on the cake, he immediately added: “This is in no way an imposition which constraints freedom of speech, but an act of respect towards the Church and those who devoted themselves to deepen that theme”. It’s yet another confirmation that whatever emerges from the synodal consultation can be ignored if bishops or the Pope regard it as going beyond the agenda they alone can set. Insisting that doing so does not constraint freedom of speech will sound like small consolation to most Catholics: I suspect “You are free to speak, and we’re free to ignore you” is not the winning message some may think it is.

In fact, only last month Pope Francis defended yet again the view that only the bishops or the Pope can call a synod and set its agenda, by approving a Vatican letter firmly rebuking the crucial proposal by the German “Synodal Way”: namely, to establish a permanent and representative “synodal council” over the Catholic Church in Germany.

3. Thirdly – and in line with their idea that “mutual listening” must only occur within the boundaries set by the bishops and Pope alone – both Cardinal Grech and Pope Francis have also made it clear that they do not want the synod to make recommendations or take decisions on doctrinal issues (see Card. Grech’s quote above about the “long list” of issues emerged in the DCS), and that in any case the ultimate decision-makers will be the bishops. So despite Cardinal Grech’ encouraging definition of synodality as “mutual listening” between bishops and laity, he’s been adamant that at the end of the day it is the bishops alone who will evaluate whether and how to take into account the voice of the laity.

In summary: according to Cardinal Grech, “synodality” means the laity can only listen to and debate when and what the Pope or bishops allow them to, and that in any case the laity can have no vote in the final decision-making process, which is still reserved to the bishops.

That’s still a firmly, unapologetically clericalist “synodal” process, and I fail to see how they plan to overcome it, and establish a truly synodal church of mutual listening. Action speak louder than words: if synodality is not to remain a fuzzy feel-good catchword, canon law must be amended to ensure that synodal bodies include representative laypeople and be deliberative, not merely consultative.

In any case, the bottom line is that despite Card. Grech insisting that the “long list” of issues summarised by the DCS will not set the agenda of the October synod of bishops in Rome, I very much suspect it will. To do otherwise would reveal “synodality” to be a mere PR exercise, and I suspect most bishops are aware of that.

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