Breaking down the decentralization debate at the 2015 Synod of Bishops

Breaking down the decentralization debate at the 2015 Synod of Bishops

Crux_Feature-14

ROME – Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war is the “continuation of politics by other means.” In similar fashion, one could say that a mounting debate at the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family over decentralization is the continuation of arguments over the “Kasper proposal”

ROME – Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war is the “continuation of politics by other means.” In similar fashion, one could say that a mounting debate at the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family over decentralization is the continuation of arguments over the “Kasper proposal” under another guise.

Named for German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the proposal would allow some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion. It generated both strong support and strong opposition at the synod last year, and although it’s really only coming into focus this week, those divisions appear to run through the current summit as well.

This year’s synod, which ends Sunday, is entering the home stretch, with bishops scheduled to take up the most contentious issues, including the Kasper proposal.

Perhaps despairing of finding consensus, some bishops have suggested allowing the question to be resolved at the level of national bishops’ conferences or local bishops.

That position may have gotten a boost over the weekend from a talk by Pope Francis on Saturday at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, in which he called for greater reflection on “intermediate types of collegiality” — basically, code for decentralization.

Here are four thoughts on how the politics of the decentralization debate may play out.

The Kasper proposal was always about decentralization. Its advocates never foresaw blanket authorization for all divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to the sacraments. Instead, they floated the idea of providing permission for local bishops to handle such requests on a case-by-case basis. The motto offered last time by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany was, “Not for everyone, and not for no one.”

If it’s left up to individual bishops, not everyone will handle it the same way. Some bishops would be more permissive than others, meaning that in effect, the Church would no longer have a universal policy. (In a sense that’s already the case, since some pastors quietly permit divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to take Communion anyway, but the Kasper proposal would formalize it.)

Phrasing the debate as a matter of decentralization, therefore, may not change a great deal, because both proponents and opponents of the Kasper proposal already saw it in those terms.

For some, there’s a lot at stake. It’s not clear that such reframing will convert many anti-Kasper votes for another reason: For opponents, the Communion ban isn’t just a disciplinary question or a matter of pastoral practice, but a doctrinal question tied to Church teaching both on marriage and on the Eucharist.

Most in that camp would therefore say that while many things might be better handled at the local level, doctrinal questions have to be resolved universally.

On the other hand, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, said in a Crux interview at the beginning of the synod that while he estimated opposition to the Kasper proposal to be a 65/35 majority inside the synod, framing it in terms of decentralization might bring some more people on board, perhaps resulting in a 50/50 split.

This week should provide greater clarity on whether that’s the case, or whether the break on decentralization would be roughly the same as on the Kasper proposal itself.

The debate over decentralization is a return to form. For most of the 50 years since the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the greatest champions of collegiality have been liberals who saw the Vatican and the papacy as bastions of conservatism.

For exactly the same reason, tradition-minded Catholics always favored a strong papacy.

Yet since the election of Francis 2 1/2 years ago, it’s often worked the other way: Fans of what’s perceived as his more progressive approach have encouraged him to forge ahead, and accused bishops who seem ambivalent of disloyalty.

As Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York put it the other day in a Crux interview, it was as if the Gallicans — a historical reference to advocates of a “national church” — had suddenly become Ultramontanists, champions of strong papal leadership.

Many Catholic conservatives, meanwhile, seemed to embrace the case for local control.

During the synod, however, the tables have turned again.

It’s generally the anti-Kasper bishops insisting that this decision has to be made at the universal level, while advocates of change are talking about decentralization. In other words, the pro- and anti-decentralization forces now once again roughly parallel the divide between liberals and conservatives.

This could end with a juicy Pope Francis irony. The pope could decide to opt for decentralization, but do so in a highly centralized fashion.

Many observers have already noted that while Francis favors collegiality, he’s hardly shy about using his authority when he believes the situation calls for it.

For instance, before the 2015 synod on the family began, many handicappers believed that one obvious compromise on the Kasper proposal was a reform in the system for granting annulments, a finding by a Church tribunal that a sacramental marriage never existed.

Francis, however, took that issue off the table by issuing his own annulment reform — simplifying and speeding up the process — before the synod even began.

Although it’s anyone’s guess as to how Francis ultimately will resolve the question of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, it’s theoretically possible that he could decide to allow local bishops or bishops’ conferences to handle it, even if a majority of bishops at this synod have reservations.

If that’s indeed the way things work out, theologians and ecclesiologists would have a new thought exercise for their graduate seminars: Would that be a breakthrough for collegiality, or a classic example of strong papal authority?

Perhaps, it could be both. In any event, the conundrum offers a reminder of a point that one dares not forget about the 2015 synod: Its drama doesn’t end next Sunday with the closing Mass.

It only begins, as the bishops go home and Francis starts to make decisions.

Latest Stories

Related Post