Europe 2000
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European Synod II

Archbishop reveals that curial bishops blocked reforms

Archbishop Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien

photo by -- Tom Fox

Three times during the course of the European synod, individual bishops have appeared before journalists representing the different language groups: Italian, French, Spanish, German and English. These briefings are on-the-record affairs, but rarely do they generate much news - at most, they offer some insight into the views and priorities of the individual bishop who happens to be speaking.

On Oct. 20, however, when Archbishop Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien sat down with English-speaking journalists, something else happened - something remarkable, given the tightly-orchestrated and secretive nature of a synod of bishops. O’Brien spoke his mind. He told journalists about the fierce debates behind the scenes over issues such as celibacy and the use of general absolution, and he confirmed what many have long suspected - that curial bishops inside the synod frequently block movement on any proposals that contradict existing Vatican policy.

Of special interest to American readers, O’Brien said that in his small group, three Americans - Cardinals James Stafford, head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and Adam Maida of Detroit, along with Archbishop John Foley of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications - consistently sided with the curial position against the bishops from England, Scotland and Ireland.

Tape recorders were rolling and reporters were scribbling in notebooks as O’Brien spoke, so there is no question that what he said was meant for public discussion. Yet it is revealing that journalists reported the news with a tinge of regret, feeling certain that O’Brien would face repercussions for his candor in a church where this sort of honesty is often interpreted as disloyalty.

Less than 24 hours later, sources confirmed that complaints were circulating in the curia about O’Brien.

The following is NCR’s transcript of the interview. The questions were posed by a number of different journalists from the English-speaking world; they have frequently been condensed. O’Brien’s responses, however, are presented in full.

Are the bishops at this synod describing the European scenery to the pope, or providing a map for the way to go?

The propositions are by and large describing the way the bishops East and West see Europe at this present time without telling the pope what to do about it.

Why do they have to be secret?

Well, I don’t know. As you probably know, Cardinal Winning [also of Scotland] and I and a number of other bishops issued our full statements to our newspapers. We issued our interventions, and some others did as well. We didn’t see any reason to keep them secret. With the documents we get, the propositions, it is indicated that we should observe secrecy. If you ask me about it, I don’t see any reason why they should be secret at all. I can see why some should be secret, but not all.

What will the message of the synod be?

That’s not finalized yet. When I listened to the first draft of the message, I was very happy to see that it was a positive message rather than bemoaning the evils of the world and all that sort of thing. It was full of hope, which is after all the title of the synod.

Does that indicate the fathers of the synod do not really think the church is in a crisis?

No, the message acknowledges difficulties early on in all sorts of areas - particularly priestly vocations, religious life, and so on. But with all of these difficulties we’ve tried to be positive with regard to the way forward. I mentioned lay formation as one of the positive ways forward in many of our western European dioceses.

Are there different angles coming out of the different language groups?

We don’t really know what’s going on in all of the nine language groups. It’s just if you meet someone at lunch or supper, that sort of thing, as happened for me with regard to an Italian group, you pick up useful statements from them. But I think by and large they would be following the same sort of lines.

Have you heard anyone recommending caution about European unity?

The Irish bishops have said some things about it. There is phrasing in the statement on the European Union, about what sort of union will be called for… The Irish are especially worried because of their schools. Some say that Catholic schools should be a place where one would learn more about ecumenism and so on. Of course there is a very sensitive position in Northern Ireland with respect to the schools. The bishop of Gilbraltar also spoke here about schools, just stating that Catholic schools must be more open to other denominations. I made an intervention stating that if there are going to be large numbers of other denominations in Catholic schools, as happens in Scotland, then our own young people must be well and truly grounded in the faith. You have to know your own faith before you can share it with others. So there are sensitive areas like that.

Are you talking just about education in schools, or continuing formation as well?

One would hope that there’s always on-going formation, and that’s in the propositions as well - that there be a strong post-baptismal initiation, not just in the Catholic schools, but in our homes as well. Also that there be selected leaders in Catholic communities as needed in some cases to take the place of the priest. I’ve got priests now looking after not one, but two or three parishes. When I was first ordained as a priest in 1965, I was in a place where each parish had two or three priests … now there’s only one priest looking after those three parishes, and he is also chaplain to the school. That’s just one example. Multiply that, not just for the Edinburgh archdiocese but across England and Ireland.

With that in mind, what about this sense of crisis? You talk about lay formation, but that doesn’t address the problem of no Eucharist celebrants in these parishes, which is getting worse rather than better. Do we have to start thinking about the ordination of married men?

That was certainly discussed, as it had been at the synod for Oceania. It didn’t get very far, as you know. I would say that at group level practical things like that have been discussed by the bishops and by our advisors. But there is also a lobby - maybe that is too strong a word - but opposition to any discussion about that.

A lobby from what quarter?

From the curial bishops. In this area, the bishops from the East have been a tremendous help. They’re able to talk with great wisdom and experience of a married Catholic priesthood. One of the Hungarian bishops talked about the married priests being not just a model of priestly service, but of Catholic married life. He spoke very, very positively about that. We have been discussing these things very openly among ourselves.

But no one put them into the form of a proposition?

In all honesty, there was disagreement amongst ourselves. On celibacy, some would have almost made it a divine law, while others were very much against that. So there’s tension that way - not between East and West, but between the Roman curia and the bishops who are working in the parishes. In England, we have lots of Anglican priests who converted to Catholicism and are now Catholic priests, and nobody at the synod has mentioned any sort of tension about them working next to celibate priests at all.

It seems that with all the numbers of bishops coming from all over, the Roman curia would represent a minority. Why are they able to keep a proposition such as that off the list?

There are four curial bishops out of ten voting members in our small group. The representatives from the other churches don’t vote on the propositions, the auditors don’t vote either. Some who do vote might be persuaded by the arguments put forward by the curial bishops.

Is there a sense among some of the bishops out in dioceses that the curial bishops are a bit disengaged from the real world, especially on the celibacy issue?

Yes, oh yeah. Another topic that’s cropped up is penance, the sacrament of penance, which is another concern for bishops who are short of priests. I think there was a proposition about the continued use of the third rite as a solution, namely general absolution. But the curial cardinals were citing their experience. There’s one - he was not a curial man but he was one of the pope’s nominees, an American - talking about the value of individual confession. It was Maida of Detroit. Then one of the curial cardinals, Stafford, spoke of his experiences as a diocesan bishop of the value of one-to-one confession. Another American, the head of the Redemptorist Fathers - James Tobin - spoke very positively on the issue. He actually used the phrase, he didn’t see why some people were trying to make the sinner jump through hoops to be reconciled. There are people for whatever reason, maybe psychological, who find it almost impossible to confess their sins individually to a priest, and this rite offers them a solution. So that does cause tension. It hasn’t quite come to blows, but views are put across very, very strongly.

How does it happen that only propositions in line with existing Vatican policy end up being approved?

They have to be voted on and get the support of their own group before they are submitted to the full synod. It’s at that level there’s a lot of confrontation.

You said only four voting members of your group were curial bishops. Shouldn’t you have had the votes to get what you wanted?

One of our last votes was five votes each. Typically one will get someone else siding with the curial point of view … Let me give another example. The bishops of Britain and Ireland are working together ever more closely and produced “One Bread, One Body,” that document on the Eucharist. We thought we should do something about reconciliation as three conferences - Ireland north and south is one conference, and Scotland and England and Wales. A working party was set up including Archbishop Patrick Kelly from Liverpool, who is a good theologian, and Bishop Donal Murray from Ireland, two from each of the hierarchies. The proposal was that Lent next year, in the Jubilee year, would begin with a pastoral letter from the bishops about reconciliation, with regard to the Jubilee year and all that. During Lent … on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, there would be general absolution in all of our parishes. On the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week, there would be opportunities for individual confession, fulfilling canon law because after general absolution you’re supposed to go again for individual confession. The Congregation for the Sacraments would not approve of that, despite the fact that it was approved by the hierarchies of our countries.

Roughly when did that disapproval happen?

Before the summer holidays. What we have come up with now is a modified plan that on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, there will be service of reconciliation according to rite two, without general absolution and with encouragement to go to individual confession….[the rejection came] when Cardinal Hume was still alive.

Did the modified plan require approval?

No, that doesn’t. That’s what we’ve been calling for, as background. We see this as a positive catechesis on reconciliation. What we wanted was the use of the third rite.

Why would you need approval for the administration of rite three, which is already an approved rite?

They have restricted the circumstances under which you can use it. It was said that if there was a disaster, like an earthquake or something, you can use rite three, but not in ordinary circumstances.

Why didn’t the bishops just go ahead and do it?

That’s a valid question. We felt it better to obey, if you want to put it that way.

Are bishops then just branch managers to take orders from the home office?

We know the theology, all right. We are, and I have used the phrase before, vicars of Christ in our own diocese. That’s the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. But some of the bishops here in Rome don’t think that way.

Did the Vatican refer to the new ruling on bishops conferences, that your decisions must be unanimous?

I know in our own conference that it was certainly unanimous. What we were told is that it was unanimous. [when the disapproval came] Cardinal Hume phoned Cardinal Winning, who said he would come out to Rome, and he did come out to Rome. He said something to the effect that you won’t get any more loyal hierarchies than ours. You don’t. As you probably know, other hierarchies are far infamous than ours and take more chances. It wasn’t what you would call way-out bishops. It was Archbishop Kelly, he’s one of those on the short list for Westminster, and Bishop Des O’Connell, and Bishop Donal Murray - he’s an excellent theologian as well. It was excellent theologians who were doing this, with our own advisors. That’s what was the annoying thing. … But Medina would not budge, would not give permission for this use of rite three of reconciliation.

Do you think this was done with the knowledge of the pope?

As far as I know this came from the curia. I wouldn’t think the pope had anything to do with it.

After the refusal, did the bishops consider going forward with the absolution?

That was a specific use for the Holy Year. But in a number of our dioceses, we’re aware that priests use the third rite. What they do is let us know afterwards. If at Advent or Lent there’s a crowded church, you don’t just say go away, go home or whatever - you use the third rite. Again, they just phone us or write to us afterwards and say I had to use the third rite - fine, no problem. We won’t say your sins are unforgiven at the end of the day.

Given everything you’re saying about the tension between bishops and the curia, why wasn’t there more of an effort here to get language about collegiality into the propositions?

I just can’t answer that. There just wasn’t. The tension is there - there is tension. It’s intimidating in the small groups, when one realizes there’s not quite a phalanx but a number of curial cardinals. I don ‘t know just how much they’re noting of what each individual bishop says, but there is that too.

Shouldn’t a synod include representatives of all the people of God?

There are lay representatives in our working groups. There was a proposition, about a page and a half, about women. Our moderator said to the two ladies in our group - one is a religious sister, the other is a laywomen - look, you work on this overnight and come back to us tomorrow. That’s what we were doing this morning. I can’t remember how many changes those two women suggested to us, in that proposition on the role of women in the church. That’s a partial answer to your question. In Scotland, we have archdiocesan pastoral councils, as other dioceses do have, with the bishop together with lay women and lay men. That council works with me. The suggestion was in the year 2001, to have an ecumenical assembly with other churches in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Episcopalian church, and so on. Lay women and lay men are all involved in it. We’re working on that at the present time. I see no reason at all why the voice of the laity shouldn’t be heard with greater effect at the synods than it is at the moment.

Why do the women sit in the back in the synod hall?

I’d be far happier looking at three rows of women than three rows of cardinals! But yes, all those things matter. We have to look at the way the church is run at the present time with regard to that sort of sensitivity. I remember when we had one of our first national Catholic assemblies in Scotland. Just by chance, the bishops came in and sat down [in front]. It was one of the ladies present who said, the layout in the hall is all wrong. It just shouldn’t be like this. … that sort of sensitivity, we’re just not used to it yet - and we should be, of course, with all modern methods of communicating and so on. In terms of seating in the small groups, I know some groups are more strict than others in terms of following the pecking order.

Speaking of the voice of laity, in the synod many of the lay voices belong to the new movements, while the We Are Church group was not allowed in. Is there a problem with how representative the lay voice is here?

Yes. I think that at diocesan level, if one were having a gathering, one would tend to turn to one’s organizations, like to Knights of St. Columbine, or the Union of Catholic Mothers, and ask them to send a representative along. Nowadays it’s easier with parish pastoral councils to send representatives from these bodies along, which is what I do in my own diocese. I get representatives from these lay councils. In some ways, a group like We Are Church might see itself on the edge, on the fringe, and it might be difficult to get them along. But certainly there should be improvements with regards to the lay voice at future synods.

Is part of the reason that there isn’t more resistance to the curia because there aren’t the same kind of theological heavyweights among the bishops today as there were at Vatican II?

I would say that some of the heavyweight theologians …are right-wing, in terms of the appointment of bishops in many parts of the world. More diocesan bishops today are right-wing than previously, so there’s than to consider as well. Many are not as advanced theologically as at the time of Vatican II. You have more right-wing bishops in the curia who are going to ensure that right-wing bishops are put into some of these open positions in the years that lie ahead.

Has the curia stopped the council?

The movement for reform in the church in a very positive sense has slowed down, there is no doubt, because of the appointments, the way bishops have been appointed.

Speaking of the appointment of bishops, do you have any idea how much longer you’ll be running two dioceses?

[O’Brien is currently administering the diocese of Argyll and The Isles in Scotland. The see has been vacant since September 1996, when Bishop Roddy Wright disappeared and later revealed that he was in a relationship with one woman and had fathered a child 17 years earlier by another.]

I’m in my fourth year. There are some problems which are explicable. One problem is the whole background of the case, which is very difficult because the bishop ran off with a married woman, and so that is one problem. Secondly, our nuncio changed. Thirdly, the cardinal in charge of the congregation of bishops retired, Cardinal Gantin retired, and Cardinal Moreira Neves took over. So those things did not help with the problem. Plus, it’s a small diocese. I mean, producing a pope only takes 15 days or so. I mean, you’ve got 120 fellows or so in the hall, and you know it’s gonna be one of them. In a small diocese, there are all sorts of difficulties. A third of the people are Gallic-speaking, among the islanders. There’s a strong lobby that says we should have a Gallic-speaking bishop. There are just 24 priests, and only 8 speak Gallic. A couple are over age, a couple are too young, so it’s likely to be an outsider as often happens. So we’re waiting patiently.

It seems that the bishops are just going along with a situation in which millions of Catholics are not able to go the sacraments.

This is particularly true in Oceania, and it came out at the synod. I didn’t realize before that there are some islands where a priest gets out every few years. All those things were publicly aired [at the Oceania synod], and you know what happened at the end. The archbishops were brought in and more or less told to keep the troops in order….

[Near the end of theOceania synod, several Australian bishops met with a special delegation of curial officials and produced a document calling for greater discipline in view of a “crisis of faith” in Australia]

Were you at the Oceania synod?

No. I read about it in the Tablet … it was very good on that.

What will it take to change all this?

Maybe Cardinal Martini was right is his submission, that we need a gathering of bishops from all over the world coming together again, talking about the issues to see if together we can see the way forward. Not just bishops from all over the world, but also with representation for religious congregations and from lay women and men.

Is it correct to say that nothing will change until we get a new pope?

You can see that in the way he asks older cardinals to stay on past the retirement age - Cardinal Hume, for example, Cardinal O’Connor. He obviously doesn’t want change, and if he gets a new cardinal in Scotland or wherever, there might be greater pressure for change from the diocese.

So keeping the older cardinals on keeps the status quo?

Yes. The cardinal who’s in charge of appointing bishops [Neves] used to work in Rome, then went to his diocese and was brought back, and he’s 72 or 73 [Neves is 74]. He was brought back when Cardinal Gantin retired at 75. So it’s certainly an older church.

Wouldn’t a new council or a new gathering of bishops be dangerous in light of the right-wing appointments you have spoken about?

One would hope for a young set of bishops in the early years of the next pontificate. I would personally see no reason for not having representatives of religious orders and lay faithful there as well.

How common is it that bishops would be talking about potential successors to this pope?

It certainly does happen. Bishops gossip just as much as everyone else. I would say to Cardinal Winning, who’s so and so, who’s that guy down there? I’m not good at the names. I saw Tettamanzi, and I said, “Who’s the wee fat guy?” I know the famous ones, like Martini and so forth. Who’s that Spaniard? Rouco Varela. Boy, I wouldn’t want him. He talks and talks. But yes, bishops do talk about it, just as we talk about Westminster. Obviously we’ll talk about the position.

Do you have any favorites for Westminster?

You're not going to tell anyone, are you?

Just our thousands of readers.

The Times now has their own list of favorites, I saw. All the usual ones are on it -- Archbishop Kelly, Vincent Nichols, and so on. As far as my own favorite, I’ll just say that he wears the same color robes as the pope. [the reference is to Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, master general of the Dominican order]. He has traveled the world … you know, it’s in his job to meet every Dominican in the world at least once during his nine-year term. He makes the rest of us pale into insignificance in terms of the kinds of experiences we had had before being appointed bishops …

He has not been a pastor, has he?

Yes, but the kind of administrative work the Archbishop of Westminster is called on to do, dealing with people in difficult situations, Timothy Radcliffe has certainly done that. He was appointed as master of the British province before he became master general. I think he has had tremendous experience, and he has impressed lots of people at the synod with his interventions.

Are you in touch, is Cardinal Winning in touch, with Roddy Wright these days?

I’m more in touch because I’m his metropolitan. We’re in touch, yes. Not every week, but Christmas cards, that sort of thing…we exchange letters.

Is he happy?

Yes, I think so. As far as one can tell - I can’t know about his internal state, but he seems happy.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999