Synodal Pathway: Wijngaards Institute Proposes Constitution
The Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research has submitted revolutionary proposals to the Synod on Synodality, a worldwide consultation of Catholics kick-started by Pope Francis on the theme of a more participatory church. The Institute proposes that the Catholic Church adopt a Constitution that would underlie its ecclesiastical laws. The Constitution would revolutionise the present structure of the Church.
According to Prof. Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, now Chancellor, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland: “This proposed Constitution is the best idea the Catholic Church has had in centuries. It gives due respect to the God given dignity of every member, puts Christ front and centre, loosens the strangling, controlling grip of imperialism and clericalism and lets the Church breathe again, love again, include again. We need this Constitution. It is our bridge to the future”.
The constitutional text is the result of a year’s work by an international, interdisciplinary working group of 25 academics, coordinated by the Wijngaards Institute. The draft text was further scrutinised by a wider group of scholars resulting in the final text being signed by over 60 international experts.
The Catholic Church is currently structured around an unelected, self-selecting male-only priestly caste, which alone wields all legislative, executive, and judicial power. It inherited this structure from the centralised authority of the Roman Empire and feudal society in the Middle Ages. Laypeople, who account for more than 99% of church members, are excluded from church governance, and women and LGBTQ people doubly so on account of their gender or sexual orientation.
The new ground-breaking Constitution for the Catholic Church proposes to radically overturn that structure. It codifies democratic features which are consistent with precedents in the bible and church history, and the fundamental human rights which successive popes have encouraged states to respect, but which current church law is far from integrating.
The full text of the proposed constitution can be read here: Proposed Constitution – Wijngaards Institute. Its main aims are:
- To kick-start discussion of the need and possible shape of a church constitution;
- To build on the official Vatican precedent, the so-called “Lex ecclesiae fundamentalis” (“Fundamental law of the church”), whose final, finished draft was shelved in 1981;
- To establish a legal framework for agreed legal rights, principles, and standards which all church laws must abide by, and against which they must be assessed;
- To show how proposals for church reform can be brought together into a legal framework that is coherent, pragmatic, as well as compatible with biblical studies, theological research, and ecumenical dialogues.
The constitution was submitted to both the national episcopal conferences of the countries our co-signatories come from, and to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.
Issues that the Constitution embraces
- Universal right to participate in church governance. All Catholics have a right to participate in the government of the church, as required both by their fundamental human rights (UDHR Art. 21) and by their baptismal rights.
- Non-discrimination. The selection of candidates for any church office, including sacramental ministry, must be done without discrimination based on race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, and economic or social condition.
- Subsidiarity and decentralisation. “Every church and decisional level in the church has an inalienable right and responsibility to determine both what decisions and actions falls within their competence, and what instead should be decided by delegation to, or accomplished better in cooperation with, the higher level. Conversely, each higher decisional level may only undertake those decisions and actions which the lower level freely delegates to them, and may not impose restrictions on the lower levels as to matters for decision or action without their consent” (Art. 34, see Art. 30).
- Leaders must be elected and representative of their constituents. Church officials exercising legislative or executive functions must be representative of the church community they serve. Accordingly, at each level of church governance, candidates to those ministries should be elected through direct or indirect universal suffrage.
- Consent. “Official church laws and doctrines passed by church representatives must reflect the consent of the churches to which they apply, and they are to be regarded as valid for as long as they enjoy that consent” (Art. 31).
- Separation of powers. The power of governance shall be divided between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Each branch is separated from the others, as well as from the so-called “sacramental power”, so that “A person or body holding one of those powers […] shall not concomitantly hold any of the others”. In other words: priests and bishops can only exercise the sacramental power, and they can no longer exercise any of the powers of governance (legislative, executive, or judicial), and much less do so exclusively.
- Leaders are legally required to take into account specialist knowledge whenever required by the matter at hand: “Should a decision require specialist knowledge – e.g. in biblical studies, theology, canon law, medicine, psychology, economics, sociology, etc. – church representatives and leaders, both individually or in groups, have a legal duty to seek and take into account relevant and independent expert advice” (Art. 68). “Membership of […] independent expert advisory bodies shall be selected via an open and transparent peer review process, whose criteria for selection must include relevant expertise, lack of conflict of interests, independence from church representatives and church leaders, and good standing within the relevant scientific community” (Art. 70).
- Leaders must be accountable. Church officials exercising legislative or executive power must only serve for a limited term of office, recommended to be five years. They should report at least annually on their actions, including their financial management.
- There must be full freedom to join and leave the Church. “By virtue of the universal freedom of conscience and religion, acquiring as well as relinquishing juridical membership of the Catholic Church entailing the acceptance of ecclesiastical rights and responsibilities must be the result of a free choice. (Art. 5).