Millstones amid Milestones

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By Jojo M. Fung, S.J.

Jojo Fung, S.J. is director of both the Skudai Catholic Center, Johore Baru, and of the Orang Asli (Indigenous Peoples), Malaysia. He holds a Ph.D in Theology from the Catholic Theological Union, Washington D.C. His recent publication, Ripples on the Water, was published by Majodi Publications, Johore, Malaysia. His earlier publication, Shoes-Off: Barefoot We Walk, was published by Longman Malaysia. His interests are in ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and the pluralistic context of Asian religions and the poor.

Globalization has failed to homogenize the world, much less erase the identity of the local cultures of the different regional ethnic communities. Instead, unforeseen processes like regionalization and localization are taking place around the world. The Church has much to learn from the unanticipated effects of globalization. No doubt the Church has already become global but its globality depends on the existence of the local churches. Instead of an authoritative centralization hampering the growth of the local churches, the process of globalization serves a timely reminder to Rome that strengthening the regional and local communities is the direction much sought after in the Third Millennium. The principles of collegiality and subsidiarity have to be enhanced to allow regional conferences, such as the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, the much desired and needed "ecclesial space" to guide the local churches in Asia.

Milestones of Orthodoxy?

The more critical theological circle receives the news of the reinstatement of renowned theologian, Jacque Dupuis, and the current investigation of Roger Haight, with noted ambivalence—on the one hand, rejoicing with Dupuis that he can put the investigation behind him and resume his academic life, yet on the other hand, alarmed that (metaphorically) a millstone has been tied around his neck.1 The notification is served to anchor him supposedly to the doctrinal orthodoxy of the church in his theological pursuit of interreligious dialogue. A closer examination of the doctrinal tenets to which he was asked to give his assent brings further questions: why is there a need, in the first place, for such a declaration of faith? Why are the other documents of the other curia offices ignored, documents such asProclamation and Dialogue? A case in point is the doctrinal tenet on the sole and universal salvific mediation of Jesus Christ.2 Should not the orthodoxy of this Christological statement be read in correlation with the 1991 document Dialogue and Proclamation of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples? In no. 29, the document states:

The mystery of salvation reaches out to them, in a way known to God, through the invisible action of the Spirit of Christ. Concretely it will be in the sincere practice of what is good in their own religious traditions and by following the dictates of their conscience that the members of other religions respond positively to God’s invitation and receive salvation in Jesus Christ, even while they do not recognize or acknowledge him as their Savior.3

Behind this drama, what is perhaps more worrisome to many critics is the emerging ecclesiastical trend: an increased control over the local churches through the inversion-subversion of their autonomy. Centralization has led to an emergent understanding that the universal Church is equated with Rome, i.e., the Petrine Ministry and the Roman Curia.

In his critique of the Roman document, John M. Prior alerts us:

Ecclesia in Asia identifies the Universal Church with Rome, that is, with the Petrine ministry and its Roman Curia (e.g. 26 and 43). They, and its western theology and discipline, are the norm. This ideology underpins the ever-increasing—and utterly untraditional—centralization of the Roman Rite which has accelerated rather alarmingly over the past 20 years. Asia has been seeking freedom to proclaim the Gospel in Asian ways, while Rome seems to be responding with ever close control! The many concrete recommendations by the bishops for re-distributing power in the Church are totally absent from the Exhortation—even the simple suggestion that Rome need not insist on approving liturgical translations in languages they do not know! (Prior 2000:265).

In his endnote, he illustrated his observation:

Recommendation 43 sought the authority and freedom to inculturate the liturgy, including a specific request that Episcopal and Regional Bishops’ Conferences have the competence to approve translations of liturgical texts in the vernacular. In the Exhortation, "greater freedom" has become "work more closely with the Holy See"! [cf. par. 22, p. 65] (Prior, 270; Amaladoss 1998:43).

Prior is not alone in his observation. Michael Curran, Superior General of the MSC, admits that "there is a fairly widespread feeling that growing centralization of authority in the Roman Curia is doing damage to the legitimate autonomy of the local churches and to the inculturation of the Gospel in a truly world-wide catholicity" (Prior, 266). Even Cardinal Carlo Martini added his voice to this polyphony: "It would surely be good and useful for the bishops of today and tomorrow, in a Church becoming ever more diverse in its languages, to repeat the experience of communion and collegiality and of the Holy" (267).

The Indonesian Conference of Bishops, in a 15-page response, dated Jakarta 10th August 1999 and signed by Bishop Johanes Hadiwikarta, Secretary General of the Conference, issued an unprecedented call to organize a forum aimed at the reordering of the relationship between local churches and between local/regional conferences and the See of Peter in Rome:

The more appropriate forum is not a purely consultative Synod but a decision-making General Council where the agenda and secretariat would be in the hands of the bishops, as the successors of the Apostles and as the closest collaborators of the Holy See. [The Council of Constance (1414-18) decreed that there ought to be a General Council every decade]. Would it not be splendid to open the new millennium with a new General Council of the Communion of Catholic Churches? (Prior, 267; FABC 1991 quoted in Amaladoss, 46).

At the same time, they urged the See of Peter to bring about the devolution of power for the sake of power-sharing with local churches:

In Council we would take up again the ecclesia-missionary vision of Second Vatican Council, and we could dismantle the necessary centralizing, power structures that were gradually built up after the Gregorian reform at the beginning of the second millennium…Experience shows that we need to revise the structures of governance of the Church, perhaps even—as proposed by Paul VI in 1965—to draw up a comprehensive Constitution (lex ecclesiae fundamentalis) according to the ancient principles of collegiality, subsidiarity, solidarity, and with a clear separation of powers at all levels (Prior, 267; FABC 1991 quoted in Amaladoss, 46).

The desired goal of this restructuring will be "a communion of local/autonomous churches, working in dynamic partnership with each other, through enhanced Metropolitan Sees, Regional Synods and a variety of Patriarchates, both old and new" (Prior, 267; FABC 1991 quoted in Amaladoss, 46).

Fortunately, these cries have not gone totally unheeded. A year and four months later, signs of hope dotted the pages of John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, dated January 6, 2001. In no. 44, speaking about the spirituality of communion, the Pope draws the attention of the Church universal to the principle of collegiality: "How can we forget in the first place those specific services to communion which are the Petrine ministry and, closely related to it, episcopal collegiality?" He disclosed that "much has also been done since the Second Vatican Council for the reform of the Roma Curia, the organization of Synods and the functioning of Episcopal Conferences" (Prior, 44). At the same time, he admitted that "there is certainly much more to be done, in order to realize all the potential of these instruments of communion, which are especially appropriate today in view of the need to respond promptly and effectively to the issues which the Church must face in these rapidly changing times" (Prior, 44).

Unfortunately, the Pope does not go far enough. Though the call on the local churches to foster a spirituality of communion through "a detailed pastoral plan" (no. 29) is in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, this spirituality of communion will not necessarily bring about a power-sharing communion. One of the obvious reasons is that there is no structural change in the first place. In other words, structural change is a conditio sine qua non to effectively foster a spirituality of collegial communion which honors the ecclesial practice of the principle of subsidiarity. Failing this, the effort to restructure the Church is like patching a new piece of cloth unto an old wine-skin. The intended result will not be fully attainable.

Milestones in Ecclesiology

A paradigm shift in the ecclesiology of communion occurs as a result of several factors. First, when the orthodoxy (right belief in communion) of the local churches is impacted by their orthopraxis (right practice of communion with the oppressed and powerless). This can happen when the local churches have achieved certain milestones in their critical reflection upon their existing ecclesial praxis in relation to the many poor people of the many religions and cultures. This shift involves reflecting on the question: what does it mean to be local churches that are in preferential communion with the oppressed and the powerless? Not a few of the federation of local churches (FABC is a case in point) have already articulated an ecclesiology of communion based on critical reflection on the experiences of "power-with" with the marginalized and the oppressed. In other words, it is an ecclesiology that is being impacted by the presence and agency of the marginalized and the oppressed.

Second, this shift in the ecclesiology of communion can take place when the Church recognizes that communion in the Church universal exists only insofar as it is inseparably linked to the local churches. According to Michael Amaladoss, the Church universal "is not a multinational that sets up branches and regional units under central control for better effectiveness and coordination" nor a "collection or an organization of local churches" (1998:43). The Church universal is a communion of the local churches and "each local church is the realization, the concretization of the universal Church in a particular place. Each church is at once local and universal…The Bishop or the Conference of Bishops in the local church and the Pope in the universal Church are the servants of unity. Such unity is not obviously imposed from a center, but emerges out of a conversion, an ongoing dialogue and communication, which can take the form of synods and councils when necessary" (44).

Third, this shift can occur when the Holy See and the Roman Curia create greater "ecclesial space" which accords greater regional and local autonomy for the respective articulation of the various contextual theologies which shape the local/regional understanding of Christology, missiology, and relations with the world religions. Such a move will generate an explanation of the unity of truth that even contradicts a unity of truth based on a cultural worldview in which the growth of doctrine proceeds in only a linear fashion, within a single cultural community (Amaladoss, 45). The unity of truth will be based on a common commitment to the same Lord, rooted in the same baptism and celebrated under the influence of the same Spirit. It will involve a communal discernment as a regional/local church to articulate that commitment at the level of regional/local conferences/ synods in a manner that resonates with the common faith in the one God, one Lord, and one Spirit. The theological truths of the different regional churches can be checked and counter-checked with other conferences/synods as to their rootedness in the common faith commitment. This is an inter-conference/inter-local churches dialogue that encourages each other to recognize and accept each other’s experiences, rather than try to harmonize them or apply a supposedly objective criterion to judge communion. Search for unity through the imposition of objective criteria may end up as exercise in control and domination, more political than religious in origin (Amaladoss, 46).

Finally, this shift in the ecclesiology of communion can take place when the Church universal realizes that faith in the Trinity (not just servile obedience to Rome) binds all the local churches together as the Church universal. This communion among the local churches constitutes a catholicity firmly rooted in the Trinity which is never static but dynamic and ever life-giving. Hence, John Paul II remarked:

The concrete dimension of catholicity, inscribed by Christ the Lord in the very make-up of the Church, is not something static, outside history and flatly uniform. In a certain sense, it wells up and develops everyday as something new from the unanimous faith of all who believe in God, one and three, revealed by Jesus Christ and preached by the power of the Holy Spirit. The dimension issues quite spontaneously from mutual respect—proper to fraternal love—for every nation, great nation, great and small, and from the honest acknowledgement of the qualities and rights of the brothers [sic] in faith.4

To avoid politics of control and domination by the center over the peripheral, the See of Peter and its curia offices need to respect and trust the active role of God’s Spirit in the Church and the world. According to the Theological Advisory Committee of the FABC, the Spirit is the principle of communion in the Church universal:

The Spirit, being the power behind the proclamation of the Word, becomes the principle of unity and difference, enabling the Church to take all cultures into its unity without canceling their differences and at the same time to keep a universality that is always concrete (FABC 1991:13 quoted in Amaladoss, 46).

Such dynamic beliefs in the Trinity and God’s Spirit have a profound impact on the ecclesiology of communion within the Church universal.


The crisis encountered by a renowned dialogue theologian based in Rome bespeaks of a deeper crisis of governance within the Church universal. Globalization has to be perceived as a sign of the times that admonishes the Church universal that homogenization by way of uniformity (rather than unity) of truth based an imposed ‘objective’ criteria only serves to undermine the vibrancy of local churches. The counter-trends of local/regionalization serve the Church universal a useful reminder that power must be shared by the center with the local churches to enhance their respective autonomy. Principles of collegiality and subsidiarity must be canonically constituted (part of the lex ecclesiae fundamentalis) ecclesial practice to empower the local churches. Such a change is structural in nature and it must be motivated and accompanied by a paradigm shift in the ecclesiology of communion within the Church universal. Even when a paradigm shift is gradually or already in place (as in some regional conferences of bishops), it takes a decision-making General Council to effect the desired changes in the global Church.

The moment of change is the kairos at hand. It is here and now in the Third Millennium.


  1. The reinstatement was issued on 24 January 2001, by the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Rome.
  2. This doctrine is explicated in two other statements.
  3. Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflections and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (May 19, 1991), 29.
  4. John Paul II, Slavorum Apostoli, 18.


Amaladoss, Michael S.J.
1998 "Beyond Enculturation: Can the Many be One? (Delhi: Vidyajyoti Education & Welfare Society/ISPCK).

Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC)
1991 Themes on the Local Church, FABC Papers 60.

Prior, John M., S.V.D.
2000 "Unfinished Encounter: A Note on the Voice and Tone of Ecclesia in Asia," East Asian Pastoral Review 37/3 (Quezon City, Phil.: East Asian Pastoral Institute).

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