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RELIGION: Now the Church May Rise Above the Pope

Elisa Marincola

ROME, Apr 4 2005 (IPS) - Pope John Paul II was a towering figure; but under his long shadow concern arose whether he could have stood too tall over the Church itself.

The dissenting voices on the sidelines seemed to have grown stronger towards the end of his 26-year reign. The Pope faced growing criticism over the concentration of the authority of the Catholic Church in his hands.

Disputes over the authority of the Pope are as old as the Church itself; and they are likely to rise again with the appointment of a new Pope. At the heart of this new debate are two models: the first Vatican Council, and Vatican Council II.

In the late 19th century, Pope Pius IX had promulgated the doctrine of the primacy of the Pope in what came to be known as Vatican Council I. That followed the loss of Church authority in temporal affairs in Italy.

Under this doctrine the Pontiff exercises full and direct authority over the entire Church. Every papal decision is considered infallible and immutable, and does not require the prior consent of the Church.

Almost a century later, Pope John XXIII sought to undo some of this through a reformist Vatican Council II set up in the early sixties. Vatican Council II did not aim to present any doctrine as infallible; it aimed only to offer guidance..

The Council also gave voice to members of the Church at all levels, from the College of Cardinals to the ‘last’ of the priests. It asked for national synods (church assemblies) and for the local faithful to be involved in taking up issues for the church and in appointing church officials.

Vatican Council II had come after a widespread reformist movement within the Church. Open-minded priests had begun to gather communities of the faithful in what took shape as a Catholic civil society.

Pope John Paul II quashed this movement when he became Pope in 1978. Since the beginning of his papacy he concentrated decisions in his hands. The reforms sought through Vatican Council II were given up for the return of the old ways of Vatican Council I.

"The figure of Pope (John Paul II) became a media phenomenon, it almost wiped out the autonomy of every other faithful reality, and it created the image of a Catholic Church totally identified with the Pontiff," Don Enzo Mazzi, leading spirit of the L’Isolotto community, an influential Catholic group in Florence told IPS.

Hundreds of such groups remained marginalised and silenced for long. But as the end of the papacy of Pope John Paul II neared, members of these groups became more insistent in their demands for democracy within the Church.

They are demanding a voice also for the ‘borderline priests’ who have dedicated their lives to working with the ‘last ones’ – drug addicts, prostitutes, the homeless, and unwanted immigrants. It is these priests who say they test the dogmas of the Roman Curia (the Vatican administration) in the life of struggling people. They want to build a church that returns to the Gospel and works more to help the poor.

"The only way is collegiality," the widely respected priest Don Andrea Gallo, founder of the Community of St. Benedetto al Porto in Genova told IPS. "The Church must consider people as experts for achieving the real spirit of the Gospels."

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan who has now returned to Biblical studies in Jerusalem has long sought a role for the local clergy in linking the faithful to the Roman Curia. The progressive group wants him to succeed John Paul II, but this is more a symbolic demand than actual likelihood.

Cardinal Martini revealed his "dream" in 1999 of a Vatican Council III for a synodal reform of Church governance. The struggle for ‘another possible Church’ is likely now at meetings to appoint a new Pope.

Followers of Giuseppe Dossetti, the inspiration behind Vatican Council II who died in 1996, have renewed reform proposals that had proved unsuccessful at the 1978 conclaves when Pope John Paul II was elected.

A recent book ‘The Bologna Workshop’ set out an agenda for reform of the Catholic church. Its publishers say the message of the book should be considered at the conclave to elect a new Pope. The agenda provides for a new Pope to move from a monarchical to a more collegiate form of management during the first 100 days of the papacy.

It asks the Pope to acknowledge the "legislative capacity of the synod of bishops" and for the Roman Curia to take on the subordinate role of "preparing and implementing the decisions of the synod." It also wants the Pope to "free himself from the fear" of socialism and the sexual revolution.

But the legacy of Pope John Paul II will not be easy to erase. His predecessor Paul VI had appointed 26 cardinals in 15 years; Pope john Paul II appointed 230, and most of them will have a say in choosing his successor. About 70 percent of all bishops today were appointed by John Paul II, 17 of them as he lay on his deathbed last week.

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