Roman Synod set for power devolution ?

Synod’s division bell rings for the devolution of power
07 October 2015 by Christopher Lamb in Rome

The Synod on the Family is a truly international event, with participants from every corner of the globe.

This was pointed out today by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, who said that some participants felt the working document of the synod was too focussed on western concerns.

When asked by journalists today whether language used by the Church on gays was too harsh he replied that what European and North American ears hear is not the same as those in African or Asian countries.

The archbishop highlighted one of the major difficulties facing the synod and the Church as a global institution: that it is increasingly difficult to adopt a one size fits all pastoral model to diverse cultural contexts.

For many European Catholics a more merciful, flexible approach when it comes to welcoming gays and offering communion for remarried divorcees is fairly obvious. Whereas in a number of African countries and, for example, in India, where homosexuality is illegal, the idea of recognising same-sex relationships is anathema. For Africa a burning issue is polygamy while in Asia the family may be under pressure due to poverty and migration.


The definition of “synodal” is a walking together and an exercise of governance by local churches with Rome. At the same time Pope Francis has stressed the synod is not a parliament looking for agreement or compromises.

It seems likely, therefore, that an outcome of the process will be greater powers to local churches to work out how to respond to pastoral dilemmas.

Francis has indicated that he favours such an approach, outlined in a book by the former Archbishop of San Francisco, John Quinn, in a short book Ever Ancient, Ever New: Structures of Communion in the Church which explains how a decentralisation, based on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, could be achieved.

The book was sent to Pope Francis who told Quinn last year it was “very important”.

Polygamy is a major issue in Africa for the church, but not so much elsewherePolygamy is an issue in Africa for the church, but not so much elsewhere (PA)


In his intervention at the synod, the Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, put it this way: “it is important that the Synod could give to the local bishops the space and the responsibility to formulate appropriate responses to the pastoral questions that live in the portion of the People of God entrusted to their pastoral care.”

For more detailed analysis of the Synod on the Family read The Tablet newspaper –
out this Saturday 10 October

This approach is not going to be accepted by everyone.

Critics will say that the Catholic Church is heading down the route of the Anglican Communion which is struggling to maintain a semblance of unity over issues such as women bishops and gay priests while on Saturday Cardinal Vincent Nichols told me that a “Church shouldn’t get too close to a culture and absorb a culture”.

But the truth is that it is no longer feasible to expect Rome to decide pastoral questions for local churches. And unlike the Anglican Communion the Catholic Church has the Pope has its arbiter and guide.

Devolving power could also be a way round intractable disagreements on questions such as homosexuality and, without changing teaching, allow for the practical application of mercy in the form of communion to remarried divorcees.


Mentioned in my previous post on’ kiwianglo’; the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, seems to have quite a bit to say on matters of importance being addressed by the Bishops called together in Synod by Pope Francis, to discuss matters concerning The Family and The Church. Apart from his unwillingness to acknowledge the Church’s former dismissal of homosexcuals as ‘intrinisically disordered’, Chaput says that the Church is too focussed on Western problems – like divorce and homosexuality – matters that the rest of the Church cannot regard as negotiable or worthy of discussion.

However, the most important matter to emerge so far – at least for bishops in far-flung parts of the Roman Catholic Church – is how much authority might reasonably be expected to be ceded to individual national heirarchies, in order to oversee what might be regarded as urgent pastoral problems peculiar to their respective jurisdictions.

The fear, for some of those bishops concerned for a watertight oversight by the Vatican Curia, is that any relaxation of the present centralisation of authority vested in the Pope and the Curia, might lead to simliar problems seen by some of them in the admittedly counter-cultural diversity of the different provinces of the Anglican Communion.

Matters of gender and sexuality; areas of anthropological and moral interest to all religious communities – whether related to women’s leadership and ministerial function, serial monogamy, polygamy, marriage & divorce, or sexual-orientation – have assumed an importance previously unrecognised by the Churches,  but accepted to one degree or another by people in parts of the developed world; while still unrecognised by others.

There can be little doubt that opinions in the current Roman Synod will differ greatly on the matter of Church government. Rome has always been focussed on central juridical administration – from the Throne of Peter and the Vatican Curia – and any radical change from the established order of centralised authority must certainly affect those members of the powerful Curia whose whole lives have been bound by the minutiae of Vaticanal protocol and tradition. Less centralisation might mean a less concentrated emphasis on the importance of Rome as the geographical locus of power in the Church.

Pope Francis has already made inroads into this ‘closed-shop’ attitude by refusing to take up residence in the papal apartments, preferring to live in a small apartment in Saint Martha’s Guesthouse, the tradiional lodging for occasional guests of the Pope. Already, the trappings of the papacy have been reduced to a minimum by the modest requirements of the current Pontiff, whose way of life is more redolent of that of his illustrious name-sake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who embraced a leper; or Saint Martin of Tours, who gave his cloak to a beggar – signs of a given-upness to God in humility and service of others. Whatever of change is brought about by this Synod, one prays that the Holy Spirit will govern and faciliate an outcome beneficial to the Church at large.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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