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ROME, October 19, 2015 (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis is pushing for a "healthy decentralization" of the Church. In a speech given Saturday on the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, he told the gathering of Synod Fathers that "the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized."
"As I have asserted, in a synodal Church 'it is not opportune that the Pope replace the local episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that present themselves in their territories.' In this sense, I feel the necessity to proceed in a healthy 'decentralization.'"
Although Pope Francis failed to clarify which issues should be left to local dioceses to discern, some faithful have expressed concerns that his remarks reinforce similar calls from more progressive Synod Fathers, including Cdl. Reinhard Marx and others, to allow decisions on pastoral outreach to homosexuals or Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried to be relegated to the regional level.
At least one cardinal has condemned this approach. Cardinal Francis Arinze, former head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, said in an interview Wednesday when asked about devolving authority to local dioceses:
Are you going to tell me that we can have a national bishops' conference in one country that would approve something which, in another conference, would be seen as sin? Is sin going to change according to national borders? We'd become national churches. Have there not been other religious affiliations in the world that came dangerously near to that?
National bishops' conferences are important and should have a clear role, but I don't think it should include these areas. It looks dangerously like nationalizing right and wrong.
One of the actions that has been criticized in the run-up to last year's Synod as well as this year's involves the pre-Synod questionnaires sent to dioceses all over the world asking the faithful for feedback on fundamental dogma concerning marriage and human sexuality. A surprisingly high number of Catholics in some countries, including Germany, England and Wales, evidence an almost-wholesale rejection of Church teaching on issues concerning contraception, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, and same-sex unions. Some of the faithful wondered why such questionnaires were sent in the first place, as they give the impression that doctrine is something to be voted on and determined by popular consensus rather than eternal, unchangeable truths safeguarded by the Church.
Pope Francis, however, explained his reason for the questionnaires.
How would we ever be able to speak about the family without engaging families, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish? Through the answers to the two questionnaires sent to the particular Churches, we had the opportunity to hear at least some of them around issues that closely affect and which have much to say.
A synodal church is a church of listening, knowing that listening "is more than feeling." It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn.
Even so, the Holy Father reminded the bishops that this process of listening culminates in the Pope, who has final say in the synodal proceedings. "The Synod journey culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, called to speak authoritatively as 'the Pastor and Teacher of all Christians.'"
In spite of such language, it remains the case that Synods carry no magisterial weight insofar as Church doctrine is concerned. Synods may propose pastoral courses of action, but they have no authority to change Church doctrine in any respect. Thus the Pope's words on his duty "to speak authoritatively" at the Synod are only properly understood within this context.
The Holy Father ended his speech by emphasizing the role of collegiality among the bishops balanced by the understanding of the Petrine primacy.
I am convinced that, in a Church synod, also the exercise of the Petrine primacy will receive greater light. The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church, but inside it ... and within the College of Bishops as Bishop of Bishops, called at the same time — as Successor of Peter — to lead the Church of Rome which presides in all the Churches.
Read the English translation of Pope Francis' address here.