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Home > News > Report

Cardinal's call to empower bishops stirs Church

George Iype in Kochi | November 14, 2003 18:17 IST

An Indian cardinal's controversial comments that bishops in the country are forced "to run to Rome for everything" and that there is an urgent need "to decentralise the papal authority" has kicked off a debate in the Catholic church.

Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, who heads the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church, said the Vatican should modify the canon law to decentralise the pope's authority so that the local bishops' conferences can be empowered.

The cardinal's comments appeared in the edition of the Church-run English fortnightly Sathyadeepam (Light of Truth) that hit the stands this week.

In the interview, Cardinal Vithayathil said the Indian church is forced "to depend on the Roman curia for too many matters now".

The Catholic Church in India comprises the Latin, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara rites. The Latin church follows the Roman liturgy, introduced by European missionaries in the 15th century, while the other two, both based in Kerala, follow Oriental liturgies and customs and trace their origins to Saint Thomas the Apostle.

The Syro-Malabar Church accounts for some 3.5 million of India's 16 million Catholics.

Cardinal Vithayathil, one of the three serving Roman Catholic cardinals in India, is also among the select group of cardinals who elect the pope. In the interview, he said: "The local bishops' conferences have hardly any authority now. They should become powerful bodies."

The cardinal lamented that one of the greatest weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church today is the way papal authority is exercised without the participation of those concerned in the spirit that the participatory Church Vatican Synod II had envisaged.

"There needs to be greater collegiality and consultations among bishops and priests regarding church matters," he said. "Whether the rules demanded it or not, I have always made it a point to hold wide consultations beforetaking an important decision."

According to him, decentralisation of papal authority may, however, require modification of the canon law of the Latin Church on the model of the Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches.

Cardinal Vithayathil said the sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States have brought into focus the importance of celibacy in seminary functions. "A seminarian must be clear in his mind that he has no right for voluntary sex satisfaction once he becomes a priest," he said.

The cardinal said the Church should teach seminarians to guard against getting carried away by false theological theories about celibacy floated through periodicals and books.

Father Paul Thelakat, spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church and editor of Sathyadeepam, said Cardinal Vithayathil's comments are "not meant to challenge the authority of the pope. The cardinal has made some positive comments that is for the betterment of the Church. What he means is that the local bishops conferences should be given more powers."

But Bishop Varghese Chakkalakal of the Kannur diocese disagreed. "I do not think bishops from India are running to the Vatican for every single matter. That is not correct. There are certain matters for which decisions can come only from the pope."

Bishop Chakkalakal wondered what forced Cardinal Vithayathil to make such controversial comments. He said that every church leader knows that crucial decisions such as the appointment of bishops and creation of new dioceses have to come from the Vatican.

More reports from Kerala

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