Catholic bishops' synod reveals ideological divide

Some are lobbying pope for greater local control


ROME - A monthlong bishops conference has exposed an unexpectedly clear gap between two distinct Catholic worlds, divided along geographical as well as ideological lines.

A number of bishops from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe came to push for change, in the form of greater local control. They told Pope John Paul II that they wanted to make more decisions back home, rather than to wait for Rome.

Most bishops from Latin America, on the other hand, routinely emphasized a more traditional discussion of holiness and the bishop's role as a teacher and model.

"We are seeing a very important battle here, over the whole future of the church," said Marco Politi, author of a biography of the pope.

Yet the pope is letting it be known that he is surprisingly open to changing the way church business is done, in administrative, structural and pastoral matters though not doctrinal ones.

"The structure of the Curia is not mentioned in the Gospel, and can be changed with no problem at all," said a high-ranking Vatican official who is close to the pope.

"The Curia has been the same in structure since the 16th century, and of course some bishops from abroad get angry with the convoluted way it works, but this is Italy," he added, laughing, but serious, too.

The official said the pope was prepared to consider such specific changes as giving the local church more say in the way bishops are chosen.

Asked whether the pope were truly open to decentralizing the institutional church, the official said, "In many aspects, yes."

Not in doctrine or matters of faith and certainly not on the issues of most enduring controversy, such as church teaching on birth control or women's ordination - debates not even mentioned at this gathering, known as a synod, on the role of the bishop in the modern world.

But the fact that so many of the nearly 200 bishops here, most of them promoted under this pope, are advocating structural change and receiving encouraging signals in return represents a potentially big shift for the church.

This does not mean any change would come quickly. After the bishops agree on their recommendations this week, the pope will take about a year to respond in a document that might say, for example, "Yes, let's follow through on proposals 2 and 4."

The whole idea of shifting power to the local level seems suspect to many traditionalists.

"The places the church is in deep trouble - Canada, Western Europe, New Zealand - are obsessed by these structural questions," said papal biographer George Weigel.

Like every bishop here, the head of the U.S. Bishops Conference got exactly eight minutes to speak and to lobby the pope, who has sat listening hour after hour, day after day.

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Houston and Galveston, Texas, pressed for greater "collegiality" or democracy in the church. He said in an interview that he was heartened by what he has heard here, both from fellow bishops and the Curia. Asked in what specific ways control might shift to the local level, he ticked off a number of seemingly minor decisions, making it clear how hard any change is.

"For example, setting the age of confirmation in our country," he said. "We did it, but it had to be OK'd by the Holy See. Even to change the name of a parish we have to go to Rome."

He also raised the trickier issue of giving local leaders the authority to translate the liturgy into their own language: "People in Rome may not even be familiar with certain African dialects," he said. "Bishops from Asia and Africa were saying, "We know better.'"

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