Nothing about us without us

George Weigel

The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA

COMING UP: Lay collaboration and episcopal authority

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The Vatican is a hotbed of rumor, gossip, and speculation at the best of times — and these times are not those times. The Roman atmosphere at the beginning of 2019 is typically fetid and sometimes poisonous, with a lot of misinformation and disinformation floating around. That smog of fallacy and fiction could damage February’s global gathering of bishops, called by the Pope to address the abuse crisis that is impeding the Church’s evangelical mission virtually everywhere.

Great expectations surround that meeting; those expectations should be lowered. In four days, the presidents of over 100 bishops conferences and the leaders of a dysfunctional Roman Curia are not going to devise a universal template for the reform of the priesthood and the episcopate. What the February meeting can do is set a broad agenda for reform, beginning with a ringing affirmation of the Church’s perennial teaching on chastity as the integrity of love. In a diverse world Church, that teaching applies in every ecclesial situation. And it is the baseline of any authentically Catholic response to the abuse crisis.

What the February meeting must not do is make matters worse by swallowing, and then propagating, some of the fairy tales circulating in Rome about the Church in the United States: like the noxious fiction that the U.S. bishops have overreacted to what is essentially a media-created crisis.

To be sure, inept or hostile journalists too often fail to report the significant reform measures the U.S. bishops have implemented since 2002 and the positive effects of those reforms. But there is still much reform work to be done in the American Church; most U.S. bishops know that; and for Rome to blame the Church’s current crisis of confidence on the media is a reflexive dodge and an obstacle to genuine reform.

Then there’s the “Protestantization” fairy tale. In Roman circles, it’s said that panicky U.S. bishops cobbled together reform proposals that would gravely diminish episcopal authority by handing great chunks of that authority to lay people — a “Protestantizing” move, as it’s called along the Tiber. To make matters worse, some in Rome blame this alleged “Protestantizing” on what are deemed “too many” converts in the U.S. Church today.

How to begin unraveling this nonsense?

First, it is beyond bizarre for anyone to complain about too many converts in a Church called by the Pope to live “permanently in mission,” radiating “the joy of the Gospel.” In real-world 2019, American adults are baptized or enter into full communion with the Catholic Church because they believe the Catholic Church knows what it is, teaches the truth, and offers them Christ himself in the sacraments. They don’t “convert” to change the Church’s self-understanding.

Second, how does it diminish their authority for bishops to collaborate with orthodox, capable lay people in addressing the current crisis in both its dimensions: clerical sexual abuse and episcopal failure in addressing that abuse? What the U.S. bishops were prepared to do in November, before an inappropriate Vatican intervention prevented it, was to create a national body of competent lay people to receive allegations of episcopal malfeasance, assess them by a carefully crafted set of standards and report credible allegations to the appropriate Church authorities. Period. Such a process would not only preserve the bishops’ authority; it would enhance it.

In any effective organization, the leader with ultimate responsibility engages the expertise of others in order to do what only he or she can do: make good final decisions. Not a jot or tittle of episcopal authority will be damaged by the American bishops collaborating with expert lay people who understand the boundaries of lay competence. On the contrary, that collaboration is essential if the bishops — and the Vatican — are going to recover the credibility necessary to do the jobs that only bishops and the Vatican can do in reforming the priesthood and the episcopate.

These points must be made forcefully in Rome in February. Fictions about American Catholic life and American attempts to impose a universal solution to the abuse crisis on the world Church must be firmly rejected. An appropriate pastoral response to a genuine crisis, well-suited to the ecclesial situation of the U.S., should be vigorously defended. And the Roman voices saying there are too many converts in the U.S. should be invited to read Matthew 28:19-20.

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano