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The makeup of Synod of Bishops on the family is disappointing

The list of those attending the Synod of Bishops on the family is a disappointment to those hoping for reform of the Curia and for those who hope that the laity will be heard at the synod.

The appointment of 25 curial officials to the synod on the family is a sign that Pope Francis still does not understand what real reform of the Roman Curia requires. It makes me fear that when all is said and done, he may close or merge some offices, rearrange some responsibilities, but not really shake things up.

According to current law, moto proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo, an extraordinary synod is made up of major episcopal leaders of the Eastern Catholic churches, presidents of episcopal conferences, and three religious chosen by the Union of Superiors General. It also states, "The cardinals who head offices of the Roman Curia will also attend." The pope may also appoint additional bishops and clerical and lay observers.

Having curial officials as members of a synod fails to recognize that they should be staff, not policymakers. They could attend the synod as staff but should not be voting members. For the most part, they should be observers and not speakers. They have all the other weeks of the year to advise the pope. This is the time for bishops from outside of Rome to make their views known.

If Francis and the Council of Cardinals is not willing to change the makeup of the Synod of Bishops, it is hard to believe they will really fix the Roman Curia.

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The American prelates at the synod will be Louisville, Ky., Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Cardinals Timothy Dolan, Donald Wuerl, and Raymond Burke. Kurtz is attending because he is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan and Wuerl will attend as members of the council of the ordinary synod. And Burke attends because he is prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

Besides the bishops who are members of the synod, there are collaborators (experts) and auditors (observers). Half the experts are clerics, which seems strange at a synod on the family. None of the 16 experts is from the United States; 10 are from Europe (including five from Italy), three from Asia, and one each from Mexico, Lebanon and Australia.

There are more laypeople among the 38 auditors, including 14 married couples, of whom two are from the United States. Many of the observers are employees of the Catholic church or heads of Catholic organizations, including natural family planning organizations.

For example, one couple from the United States is Jeffrey Heinzen, director of natural family planning in the diocese of La Crosse, Wis., and Alice Heinzen, member of the Natural Family Planning Advisory Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The other U.S. couple is Steve and Claudia Schultz, members of the International Catholic Engaged Encounter.

We will have to wait and see whether the auditors will represent to the bishops the views of lay Catholics, but it is hard to argue that they are representative of Catholics at large. Certainly any who think natural family planning is the church's great gift to the laity will not. And those who are church employees could fear losing their jobs if they spoke the truth.

At the 1980 synod on the family, the lay participants were remarkable for how totally out of touch they were with the views of average Catholics. I fear this is a rerun. 

Most of the collaborators and auditors were chosen on the recommendation of episcopal conferences, and this is the fundamental contradiction of Francis' papacy. He wants to change things, but he also wants to defer to local bishops on many things.

There is also some irony here. In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, Catholic progressives constantly called for decentralization in the church. Now that they like what the pope is doing, they want him to do things by executive order. Meanwhile, conservatives are beginning to see the advantages of subsidiarity in the church. God does have a sense of humor.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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