Bishops must share power with the laity and give up taboos, things which cannot be spoken about, says German theologian

The theologian noted that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had wanted the College of Bishops to participate in church leadership together with the pope. But he said this has not yet been put into practice because curial officials at the Vatican claim to hold power over the bishops through the pope’s authority.

La Croix, May 2019

The German Catholic bishops’ recently announced that a commitment to initiating a “binding synodal procedure” will be a failure if the prelates do not give up some of their power to the laity, a young theologian has warned.

Michael Seewald, a 32-year-old professor of dogmatics at the University of Münster, said a successful synod procedure will depend on how the bishops will share power, foster participation and implement a system of checks-and-balances.

In an April 26 article in the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Seewald said this would require an act of courage on the part of the bishops who are “still tied to the apron strings of the Roman Curia.” 

Vatican II and shared episcopal authority

The theologian noted that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had wanted the College of Bishops to participate in church leadership together with the pope. But he said this has not yet been put into practice because curial officials at the Vatican claim to hold power over the bishops through the pope’s authority.

Theoretically, a bishop is all-powerful in his diocese, Seewald said. But he noted that, de facto, diocesan leadership is much more complex and many people are involved in a way that’s difficult to understand. He said it is this discrepancy that had contributed to the clergy sex abuse scandals of recent years.

On the one hand, a bishop holds all the decision-making power. But on the other hand, especially when failures became public knowledge, decision-making power is rendered anonymous so that the bishop is freed from any direct responsibility.

The abuse crisis and a new option for power-sharing

Professor Seewald said the present crisis could be overcome, but it will require the bishops to make a fundamental decision.

The first option is to create structures that distribute power in a straightforward and easily understandable way and where decision-makers are held accountable.

But this will be possible, he said, only if bishops renounced some of their power, allow themselves to be monitored and permit the laity to be more greatly involved.

Seewald said the other option is to allow everything to remain as it is. But he said this is risky because when the next scandal arises bishops will face justified demands to step down if serious mistakes occurred in their dioceses.

The theologian said another aspect of power is that those who possess it not only decide what can be done but also what is allowed to be said.

He claimed the bishops’ promise to do everything to clear up abuse has been of little value up to now since this is only possible in an open-minded culture in which grievances could be openly stated.

Open-mindedness and the end of taboos

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is still a long way from being culturally open-minded, Professor Seewald said.

He said in a Church where it is officially forbidden to discuss certain subjects, it took outside pressure to break the taboo on discussing criminal clerical sexual abuse. And he lamented that there are still other issues that are taboo and whoever dares to discuss them must reckon with inner-church sanctions.

“The synodal procedure will only succeed if the bishops renounce all taboos and put the Curia, which has gone wild, in its place,” Seewald said.

He said this will require great courage because renouncing power is not for weaklings. Up to now diocesan bishops have always pointed out what is not possible because of considerations for the global Church. But Seewald said they must start stating clearly what is unacceptable at the local level.

“The synodal procedure can succeed only if the bishops are able to muster up enough courage to take this approach,” he said.

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