Who is afraid of the Laity Synod?
Was Jesus afraid, or reluctant to empower his disciples? Did he not rather say that anyone who believed in him would in fact “perform even greater works” (Jn 14:12) than himself?
Jesus empowered his disciples; he did not feel threatened by them. The explanation lies in the same farewell discourse, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me … it is the Father living in me who is doing his works” (Jn 14:10).
Thereby hangs a tale.
Why is the Indian Church hierarchy so afraid of a strong, enlightened and united laity? This has again become more evident in the opposition to the proposed Lay Synod being organized by the All India Catholic Union (AICU).
St John again provides the answer. “In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear … and whoever is afraid has not come to perfection in love” (1 Jn 4:18).
I have been actively involved in the lay apostolate for the last 43 years, and can say with certitude that the clergy and hierarchy are intrinsically afraid of empowering and enlightening the laity. They feel threatened. If they have nothing to hide then why are they afraid?
It is 47 years since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. There have been 47×52 = 2,444 Sunday sermons since then. I throw an open challenge. How many of these sermons referred to the role and rights of the laity in the Church?
Most lay organizations are under the direct control of the hierarchy. The AICU and its affiliated Catholic associations are the only autonomous lay organisations, as provided for in the Latin Code of Canon Law of 1983 (cf Can 323).
Unfortunately there is no such provision for “Private Associations of Christ’s Faithful’ in the Oriental Code of Canon Law of 1990. But self-seeking or spineless lay leaders tend to sacrifice their autonomy to curry favour with the all-powerful hierarchy.
Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” (LG) was a course correction for the Church. Chapter IV articulates the rights and role of the laity, both within and outside the Church (LG 30-38).
The Latin Code of Canon Law (LC) also has specific provisions for the laity to express its views and expectations (cf LC 212:3, 229, 231). Again, the Oriental Code does not have any such provisions.
Is this one of the reasons why the ancient, apostolic, Oriental Churches of Kerala have less autonomy for the laity than the Latin Church? Since bishops, priests and religious of Kerala origin are the vast majority in India, they are the de facto controllers of the Church. Could this be a contributory factor to the infantile and servile status of the laity?
As for the proposed Lay Synod, what is so threatening about it?
The word “synod” comes from the Greek “sunodos”, which etymologically means, “walking together.” According to the Collins dictionary it has the acquired meaning of “any council, especially for discussion.”
Significantly, the word is not found in the Bible, hence it is a mere man-made term. Nobody has a monopoly over such a word, or its usage. If a group of sadhus or university professors were to call a synod, could the Catholic hierarchy object to it? Ironically, here again the LC provides for a Synod of Bishops (342-346) and a Diocesan Synod (460-463), but there is no mention of a synod in the Oriental Code. These omissions are significant and should not be lost on us.
In the Christian context, a synod is not just of walking together, but of walking with the Lord, as on the road to Emmaus. The disciples were discussing current affairs (Lk 24:14), when Jesus joined them (Lk 24:16), explained the scriptures (Lk 24:27), opened their eyes (Lk 24:31) and their hearts burned with zeal (Lk 24:32). A significant sequence of events.
This is what the Lay Synod is supposed to be. It is meant to be an exercise in discernment to, to know “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 3:22).
It should contextualize our faith in the modern world. It should address genuine lay concerns like its autonomy in temporal affairs, participatory structures and accountability in the Church’s functioning, and the entire gamut of sexual ethics, family planning and other issues.
As I have said before, it is unfair for celibate old males in boardrooms to decide what young couples should do, or not do in their bedrooms.
The Church should welcome the Lay Synod. But it is afraid, because its priorities are not in consonance with God the Father, but from father parish priest, who usually dictates terms, and has his own concerns. Fear, as St John has shown us, is symptomatic of an absence of love, in this case pastoral love. Pastors have now become masters!
The laity has distinguished itself in temporal affairs. We even have a Catholic candidate for the president of India. We have had Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, Governors, Ambassadors and Supreme Court Judges. How many of these worthies have been found worthy of a position of authority in the Catholic Church? It is only when they are in office that bishops go to them seeking favours. After retirement, they fall out of favour!
Whether or not the AICU is able to pull off a real Lay Synod, it is incumbent on the laity of India and its leaders, to revolutionize, reform and renew the Catholic Church that we love.
For love casts out fear, even rejection. Else the laity, for fear of reprimand or rejection, will continue in its infantile and servile role of pray, pay and obey, Vatican II and Canon Law notwithstanding.
- Chhotebhai is a former National President of the AICU