The Vatican undermines collegiality of the Bishops

Letter to THE TABLET by John Wijngaards, 6 November 1999, pp. 1506-1507

Sir, Archbishop Keith O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh deserves admiration for pointing out so frankly the lack of collegiality displayed during the second Synod of Bishops for Europe (Church in the World, 30 October, p.1480). If the “lobby” of curial bishops and cardinals successfully blocked real pastoral questions, it is clear that the very process of episcopal consultation has been undermined. Similar experiences during the Synods of bishops for Asia and Oceania would suggest a deliberate range of tactics, worked out by the Vatican, which aim at manipulating the bishops to accept the Vatican’s views in documents pretending to be collegial in nature.

Fr D.S. Amalorpavadass, founder of the National Biblical, Catechetical, Liturgical Centre in Bangalore

I remember as though it were yesterday the day Fr D. S. Amalorpavadass returned from Rome almost exactly 25 years ago, in November 1974. He had functioned as one of the two special general secretaries to the Synod of Bishops on Evangelisation. Amalorpavadass, who tragically died in a car crash eight years ago, was one of India’s best-known theologians, author of many books, founder of the National Biblical Catechetical Liturgical Centre in Bangalore, and brother of Cardinal D. S. Lourdusamy, one-time prefect of the Congregation for Evangelisation. He also happened to be a close friend of mine, someone whose words I had come to trust. That evening in Bangalore he poured out his heart to me. I had never seen him so frustrated and angry. I am sure, on reflection, that he will forgive me for revealing publicly what he confided to me – considering the continuing need of curial reform.
He told me that on arrival in Rome he found shelves upon shelves of consultation documents sent in by national bishops’ Conferences from all around the world. The extensive documentation we ourselves had complied in seminar after seminar through out the Indian subcontinent was included. Little of this original material had been used by the Vatican committee that prepared the basic discussion papers. The agenda reflected Rome’s interests, not the concern of the bishops in the field. Later, in their discussion groups, the participating bishops opened new avenues, Amalorpavadass told me. But when it came to compiling the final document, this material was largely dropped, and a document that had already substantially been prepared in advance was presented as the document that synthesised the bishops’ own suggestions. This was not difficult to do, as the members of the various groups were not well briefed on the conclusions of other groups.
As second special secretary-general – the other secretary general belonged to the Curia – Amalorpavadass was one of the few people who understood what had happened. He was appalled, and protested. At this he was summoned to the office of two curial cardinals responsible for the Synod. When he remonstrated that the supposed “synthesis” did not represent what the bishops themselves had said, he was told to comply “for the good of the Church”. He said he could not, in conscience. He was then told by the leading cardinal (Karol Józef Wojtyła, the later Pope John Paul II): “Do you realise this means that you will never be made a bishop?” Amalorpavadass told me that he left the presidential office in utter disgust. “I will tell the other bishops”, he thought. “Not all is lost.”
Although evening had fallen by now and the doctored document was to be presented to the Synod next morning, he set about preparing an alternative document based on the true interventions and conclusions of the working groups. He found that he was denied access to the official Synodal office and its staff. He then called on friends in various Roman convents and universities who came out to help him analyse the texts, type out the new document (no computers yet!) and make photocopies. This went on through most of the night. Then Amalorpavadass went to meet many of the leading bishops, archbishops and cardinals, giving copies of the alternative document and explaining what the Curia was planning to do. This is where he received his biggest shock.
Many prominent church leaders, whom he mentioned to me by name one by one, were upset to hear what the Vatican was doing, but were unwilling to challenge its shameful tactics. They were afraid to speak up. I still remember Amalorpavadass saying to me: “Most of our bishops have no backbone. Some do not think for themselves. Some hide behind ‘loyalty’. Others are simply cowards. What kind of Church do we belong to?”
A few bishops, however, did speak out at the plenary session next morning, spearheaded by Archbishop Zoa of Yaounde in the Cameroons. The result was that the session was suspended and the Synod did not adopt a document at all. The small rebellion by a core group of bishops at first seemed to have paid off. A new committee was appointed by Pope Paul VI which eventually produced Evangelii Nuntiandi two years later. This encyclical on evangelisation, I am happy to say, departed substantially from Rome’s prepared draft and incorporated more of what the bishops had really said. But it had become the Pope’s document.
The Curia was the real winner. It is now assumed that no Synod of bishops can produce its own document. All the bishops are allowed to do is to submit confidential suggestions “for public discussion might harm the Church” – leaving it to the Vatican to do with them what it wants. Are our bishops not to be trusted in responsible public discussion? Are they incapable, as a group, of producing their own publicly acknowledged document? We are talking, are we not, of a Synod of bishops, rather than of a private consultation advising the Vatican? Speaking out about corrupt practices in church structures is not “letting the side down”. Rather, it is giving the Holy Spirit a chance. Bishops are vicars of Christ and not vicars of the Pope, as the Second Vatican Council teaches (Lumen Gentium 27). They carry responsibility in their own right.
John Wijngaards