10Sep The makeup of Synod of Bishops on the Family is disappointing

The list of those attending the Synod of Bishops on the Family is a disappointment to those hoping for reform of the curia and for those who hope that the laity will be heard at the synod.
The appointment of 25 curial officials to the Synod on the Family is a sign that Pope Francis still does not understand what real reform of the Roman Curia requires. It makes me fear that when all is said and done, he may close or merge some offices, rearrange some responsibilities, but not really shake things up.

According to current law, moto proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo, an extraordinary synod is made up of major episcopal leaders of the Eastern Catholic churches, presidents of episcopal conferences, and three religious chosen by the Union of Superiors General. It also states, “The cardinals who head offices of the Roman Curia will also attend.” The pope may also appoint additional bishops and clerical and lay observers.

Having curial officials as members of a synod fails to recognize that they should be staff not policymakers. They could attend the synod as staff but should not be voting members. For the most part, they should be observers and not speakers. They have all the other weeks of the year to advise the pope. This is the time for bishops from outside Rome to make their views known.

If Francis and the Council of Cardinals is not willing to change the makeup of the synod of bishops, it is hard to believe they will really fix the Roman Curia.

The American prelates at the synod will be Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Cardinals Timothy Dolan, Donald Wuerl, and Raymond Burke. Kurtz is attending because he is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan and Wuerl attend as members of the council of the ordinary synod. And Burke attends because he is prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

Besides the bishops who are members of the synod, there are collaborators (experts) and auditors. Half the experts are clerics, which seems strange at a synod on the family. None of the 16 experts is from the U.S., 10 are from Europe (including five from Italy), three from Asia, and one each from Mexico, the Lebanon, and Australia.

There are more lay people among the 38 observers or auditors, including 14 married couples, of whom two are from the United States. Many of the observers are employees of the Catholic Church or heads of Catholic organizations, including natural family planning organizations.

For example, one couple from the United States is Mr. Jeffrey Heinzen, director of Natural Family Planning in the diocese of La Crosse, and Mrs. Alice Heinzen, member of the Natural Family Planning Advisory Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The other U.S. couple is Steve and Claudia Schultz, members of the International Catholic Engaged Encounter.

We will have to wait and see whether the auditors will represent to the bishops the views of lay Catholics, but it is hard to argue that they are representative of Catholics at large. Certainly any who think natural family planning is the church’s great gift to the laity will not. And those who are church employees could fear losing their jobs if they spoke the truth.

At the 1980 Synod on the Family, the lay participants were remarkable for how totally out of touch they were with the views of average Catholics. I fear this is a rerun.

Most of the collaborators and auditors were chosen on the recommendation of episcopal conferences, and this is the fundamental contradiction of Francis’ papacy. He wants to change things, but he also wants to defer to local bishops on many things.

There is also some irony here. In the decades following Vatican II, Catholic progressives constantly called for decentralization in the church. Now that they like what the pope is doing, they want him to do things by executive order. Meanwhile, conservatives are beginning to see the advantages of subsidiarity in the church. God does have a sense of humor.

Thomas Reese

(Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.)

One Response

  1. Darlene Starrs

    Thank you again, to Father Thomas Reese, whom I wrote to, only the other day, and told him I read his material as he is a priest who still makes good sense! It is clear to me from the particular make-up of the synod, that the Vatican is continuing its control over the synod and its proceedings; well, continuing its control over the Church, magisterium and people. It is Dr Phil who says, “the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.”
    We see that the Vatican only knows how to control and do things their way and that means that so many, many Catholics are excluded from any real say. I know that it is tempting to assert that Pope Francis is leading the way for reform and renewal. He has demonstrated that he has change on his agenda. However we agree with certain changes he’s already instituted, they are, by and large, his changes. I am thinking that, Pope Francis is pretty much listening to his own ideas and agenda. I have to question whether he is listening to the voices of reform, that he cannot connect with. We have seen him do many things and very uniquely. Yet, we must remember that while he is refreshing, he is not necessarily doing anything extraordinary. Remember, the Lord says, “why should you be rewarded for what you are supposed to be doing?”.
    Pope Francis needs to listen profoundly to the whole situation in the Universal Church in order to create substantial change. I hope he doesn’t end up being a “flash in the pan”. I see far too many examples of where he needed to hear and understand. The CDF continues to be a nightmare for the religious sisters of the U.S.
    Why on earth is Pope Francis allowing for this? Yes, the synod will be an indicator of whether anything really changes. Pope Francis might only scratch the surface for change, and the real work for reform begs for more. So, listen, hear, and continue the conversation, as it is said, on another thread. It is needed.
    I was aghast to read that in Rochester New York, where there had been lay preaching, carefully orchestrated at Sunday services for 40 years, it was wiped out by the new and current bishop. Boom and it’s over. The lay people dismissed. Yet, the Vatican II documents say that “lay people are just as central to the Church as the hierarchy”. This is a untenable situation. If Pope Francis were doing the extra-ordinary, and being therefore prophetic, he might be doing due diligence with his claim that “clericalism” is a problem and bring balance and harmony to the situation. Yes, it is high time a Pope did his ordinary with energy, commitment, and joy, but, we also need the extra-ordinary.


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