From the synod (7): The creative tension of local and universal

[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome] One of the effects of the Francis pontificate has been to allow a new discussion in the Church of the fruitful tension between the universal and the local.

The very nature of the reformed synod now unfolding in Rome has been to allow for what Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod’s general secretary, calls the “dynamic osmosis between centre and periphery”.

Cardinal Nichols

Cardinal Nichols

Cardinal Vincent Nichols yesterday added his voice to the many praising the synod for its freedom, energy and creativity, and for the way it allowed for a creative tension between local realities and universal teaching.

“I think it is this interplay between the proper responsibilities of bishops to listen and attend to the proper experiences of their Churches, and to bring it here; and the proper responsibility of the Bishop of Rome to give voice in a definitive way to what emerges to be the core and heart of the Church’s teaching and mission,” he told journalists. The synod, he said, was “a proper and very fruitful expression of collegiality and primacy.”

Collegiality is the doctrine that the bishops govern the Church “with and under the Pope” (cum et sub Petro), while primacy is the doctrine that the Pope, as the successor of Peter, is the one who unifies the Church.

The office of Peter, said Cardinal Nichols, was vital to prevent bishops from losing their critical detachment from the culture they ministered to.

“The universality of the Church holds the local Church to a critical distance, otherwise it gets too close to the prevailing culture and the light disappears — the critical light,” he said. “The wider Church, expressed in the synod, and the mission of the Holy Father, help us to be kept at a creative critical distance from our culture.”

Archbishop Aguiar Retes of Tlalnepantla

Archbishop Aguiar Retes of Tlalnepantla

One proposal in the synod, which was broadly welcomed, is for future synods to be preceded by regional or continental assemblies.

Carlos Aguiar Retes, the Archbishop of Tlalnepantla in Mexico, told the Assembly that prior to the synod on new evangelisation in 2012, the Latin-American episcopal council (CELAM) hosted a gathering of bishops from all the different countries on the continent, which greatly enriched the Latin-American contribution to the 2012 synod.

Cardinal Salazar of Bogotá with Pope Francis

Cardinal Salazar of Bogotá with Pope Francis

Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez, the Archbishop of Bogotá, Colombia, and the current president of CELAM, told me:

We have an enormous variety of situations, which perhaps means that it would help for us to meet prior to the synod, so that instead of each synod father speaking in a more particular capacity, they could so in a more continental way. But this is merely a proposal which is on the table and which only the Holy Father can decide to implement.

Cardinals Salazar and Nichols with Fr Lombardi

Cardinals Salazar and Nichols with Fr Lombardi

Cardinal Salazar also spoke in the briefing about the concern of the synod fathers to achieve a language in the final document that will be both universal and local.

“Let’s keep in mind that Church is both universal but is also made up of people many different local cultures,” he said, adding that it was “one of the concerns of the synod” to achieve “a language that despite being universal is however sufficiently adapted to people’s understanding that it can reach everyone.”

Another, frequent, theme of the synod interventions has been the question of whether some of the vexed questions the assembly is considering — such as sacraments for the remarried, or the language to be used in relation to homosexuality — may be incapable of a one-size-fits-all pastoral strategy, and may be better considered by devolving such questions to a local level.

Abbot Schröder

Abbot Schröder

On Monday one of the synod fathers, the German Benedictine abbot Jeremias Schröder, President of the Benedictine Congregation of St. Ottilia, said he had counted around 20 speeches in favour of this idea, with only two or three against. He told journalists:

Many of the speeches in the general discussions mentioned the possibility of dealing with questions on the basis of a given cultural context. I would say there were about twenty or so speeches and only two or three were against, claiming that for the sake of the Church’s unity handing over powers would have fatal consequences. I think that in this stage of the discussions, the idea is mostly shared. I, for example am German and it seems to me that the remarried divorces issue is very strongly and widely felt in Germany and much less so elsewhere. This is an area where there could be space for original pastoral ideas, also as far as the understanding of homosexuality goes, an issue that really varies from culture to culture. National Episcopal Conferences could be allowed to search for pastoral solutions that are in tune with their specific cultural context.

As long as the issues are genuinely pastoral — that is, dealing with the application to particular circumstances of universally agreed teaching — the synod appears to be overwhelmingly favourable. After all, what can Europeans or Latin-Americans contribute to the major pastoral issue of polygamy in Africa? And how can Africans contribute to a discussion of homosexuality, when the concept is culturally anathema to many?

But once doctrine is involved, as in any question to do with sacraments for remarried divorcees, there is a far greater reluctance to ‘devolve’ such matters locally.

The way the final document will seek to reconcile the local and the universal could be one of the most important outcomes of this synod.

The Archbishop of Brisbane, Australia, Mark Coleridge, addresses this in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter.

At this synod what’s become clear, too, is the vast cultural modulations of marriage and family. And that’s why in our group, and I think in other groups, there has been at times a tendency to say that some of these questions have to be addressed locally. Now that’s alarmed one or two of the bishops. They see this as a fragmentation of the church.

I don’t see it in those terms. I just think that marriage and the family are modulated so differently from continent to continent that certain questions or arguments should be addressed locally or regionally.

But at the same time, there are some fundamental truths about marriage in any time, in any place, in any culture. And the Catholic church needs to articulate those truths. But at the same time, those truths are modulated from time to time, place to place, culture to culture.

I don’t see this as one or the other. The unity in diversity of the Catholic church has always been a very complex arrangement. That’s putting it mildly. Some people tell me the Catholic church is monolithic. My God, it’s the least monolithic institution I know, like herding cats.

Whilst there have been voices expressing anxiety about referring certain to the local and regional level, I don’t share the anxiety. And I think a certain degree of healthy decentralization is almost essential, if we really want to come to grips with the reality of marriage and the family life around the world.

About catholicvoicesmedia

This blog offers comments on news stories as they relate to the Catholic Church. For more information on Catholic Voices visit
This entry was posted in Synod2015, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.