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Cover story

Shadow synod targets hierarchy

NCR Staff

Any host knows that how a party goes depends on who gets invited. The same thing is true of a synod, where a small number of lay “auditors” are appointed each time to join the deliberations. What the bishops hear from laity is thus heavily influenced by the choice of who gets in the door.

At the European Synod, lay auditors have largely come from the new movements -- Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and the Neocatechumenate -- viewed by observers as conservative on church issues. On Oct. 11, however, a different lay voice spoke up in Rome, challenging the hierarchy of the Catholic church to radical change.

The event was a news conference sponsored by the Forum of European Catholics and the international movement We Are Church, two umbrella groups of progressive Catholics in Europe.

“The most urgent need facing the Catholic church is for a conversion within the hierarchy,” said Elfriede Harth, a German-born Catholic living in France and the spokesperson for We Are Church.

“They must embrace a more inclusive model of governance if they are to regain the trust and respect of Catholics in Europe who feel alienated by highhanded decisions from church leadership,” Harth said.

Over the weekend of Oct. 9 and 10 the groups staged a “shadow synod” at a retreat center 30 miles outside of Rome. More than 120 people from 11 nations participated. Final documents are available on-line: www.we-are-church.org/forum.

Early responses from bishops inside the synod were unenthusiastic.

“Sometimes these people claim to speak for all believers, but it is not so,” said German Bishop Reinhard Marx, auxiliary of the Paderborn diocese. “We find these are not issues in every community.”

Marx was speaking at a synod news conference just after the We Are Church event ended. “To say that the structure of the church is in conflict with what the church teaches is wrong,” he said.

Speakers at the alternative event emphasized the link between structural and substantive change.

“I want to know if I pray to a God who does not want women at his altar,” said Hubert Feichtlbauer, chair of the Austrian branch of We Are Church. Resolving this question, Feichtlbauer said, requires changes in church governance so that the people of God can cooperate in shaping church policy.

“The Catholic faithful are no longer little children, to be dismissed by bishops and cardinals with a wave of the hand or a papal pronouncement,” said Isaac Wüst, a former priest from the Netherlands. “We have grown into mature and responsible adults in the faith.”

Participants in the “shadow synod” produced a document they placed in a large yellow envelope and attempted to deliver to the pope. It wound up in the hands of a slightly mystified member of the Swiss Guards outside a Vatican gate in St. Peter’s square.

Titled “Give Hope to Europe!” it calls for debt relief and a more just distribution of resources; inter-religious dialogue; tolerance of contraception; a married priesthood; full equality of women and men within the church; allowing divorced and remarried persons to receive the sacraments; full regard for the rights of homosexual persons; and the use of positive language in presenting church teaching.

Feichtlbauer said the groups hoped for a cooperative relationship with the church’s leadership. He added, however, that they had a motto: “Not against the bishops, but if it is their desire, we will do it without them.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999