International Church Reform network

priest and reform-movements working together

Welcome

Declaration on Church governance 2015

John Wijngaards (right) with Hans Küng and Bernhard Häring (left) discussing the Institute's earlier declaration on church governance in 2015. (Photo supplied)

Welcome to the International Church Reform Network website.
As an International network of reform groups we build alliances
as we confront issues of injustice within the Catholic Church.
We learn, reflect, and take action together.

The Synodal consultations hold the promise of meaningful reforms. In that context the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research has constructed a proposed Constitution for the Catholic Church. If accepted and implemented, it would thoroughly overhaul the way in which the Church operates.

Most modern States in our day and age are governed by a Constitution that underpins their secular laws. A Constitution lays down the fundamental rights and obligations of citizens and functionaries. A Catholic Constitution would do the same for canon law.

The question is: do the spiritual values enshrined in the Gospel not already form a kind of ‘constitution’ for the community of believers which Jesus ‘founded’?

The answer is: No! The Church is a completely human structure, just as Jesus imbued though he was by the divine presence of his Father, remained totally human.

To survive, Jesus needed to eat and drink. He got tired and needed to sleep. He would take shelter in the midday sun. He spoke Aramaic, but needed an interpreter when responding to a Greek-speaking Hellenist.

In the same way the structure of the Church is entirely human. It can suffer from faulty human management. It will benefit from incorporating the best human insights.

In fact, our present Church suffers heavily from institutional diseases incurred over the centuries: male-domination and excessive uniformity inherited from Roman law and class-divided top-down bureaucracy copied from feudal kingdoms to mention but a few.

The tragedy is that, on account of it, the billion-strong Catholic community, hamstrung by the Church’s faulty structures, cannot effectively fulfil Christ’s life-giving mission to our world’s marginalized and poverty-struck people.

The idea of creating a new Constitution for the Church is not new. Inspired by Vatican II, Pope Paul VI initiated in 1965 work on a Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis (“Fundamental Law of the Church”), a constitution which would have underpinned all canon law in the Catholic Church.

But that effort ceased in 1981 when, predictably perhaps, traditionalist John Paul II decided to shelve the already finished constitution.

The challenge was taken up again by the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Churchwhich published a Proposed Constitution for the Catholic Church in 1998. 

The new Proposed Constitution of the Wijngaards Institute drew from those two documents, but also from similar efforts in the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation.

Importantly it also incorporated elements from secular sources such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated by the United Nations in 1948.

In 2015 the Wijngaards Institute had already issued an academic declaration calling for reforms in the way authority is exercised in the Church. The declaration was signed by 216 professors from more than a hundred Catholic universities.

The new proposed Constitution is a drastic elaboration of it. Its basic text has been drawn up by an interdisciplinary and international Working Group of 24 scholars from 13 countries.

The Institute’s research coordinator, Dr Luca Badini Confalonieri, author of Democracy in the Christian Church (2012), provided competent leadership. Moreover, a number of other experts were contacted ad hoc, when their advice was needed on specific complex issues.

Principles of the proposed Constitution

After a lengthy theological introduction, the Constitution comprises 105 articles spread over 37 pages. It is impossible to describe these in detail in this short report. So, I will focus on the principles that underlie the document.

Equality. All baptised Christians are equal in dignity and before Canon Law, and enjoy the same fundamental rights in the Church, without distinctions based on race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, and economic or social condition.

This implies, for instance, that women like men can offer themselves for ordination if they possess the right qualifications for the ministry. It also abolishes the medieval notion that the clerical state, similar to secular nobility, enjoys inherent privileges not granted to down-the-ladder ‘lay folk’.

Co-responsibility. By virtue of their common baptism, every Christian shares responsibility for the whole community. With this responsibility comes the right to participate in decision making.

All adult Catholics, the Constitution states, have the fundamental right to participate and vote in all decisions on matters of doctrine, value, action, and any other issue concerning the common good of their community.

Here doctrines do not refer to central tenets of faith – the Constitution recognises the ‘deposit of faith’ held by the Bible and Tradition as its fundamental source (Art. 2).

Rather think of ‘inferred doctrines‘ such as the prohibition of taking interest on capital loans (Pope Benedict XIV, 1745), the assertion that slavery is in accord with natural and divine law (latest: Pope Pius IX, 1866), and recent church teachings on the use of contraceptives, the exclusion of women from sacred orders and so on.

Representation. “What touches all should be discussed and approved by all.” All Catholics must be democratically represented in governing and decision-making bodies.

Decisions are prepared through open and respectful dialogue in order to achieve broad unanimity. This would apply especially to pastoral councils on all levels.

The role by persons with specialist knowledge is fully acknowledged.

  • “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 scientificcommunity” (Art. 70). These articles reject recent church practice of silencing experts who disagree with the official view and of choosing only yes-men on Vatican academic commissions. 

Separation of powers. The power of governance (itself divided between legislative, executive, and judicial), the power of order, and the power of teaching are separated

“(i) A person or body holding one of those powers, with the exception of the power of order, shall not concomitantly hold any of the others.

“(ii) Ministers holding any of the powers other than the power of order shall not ordinarily exercise the power of order save and except when strictly necessary for the fulfilment of their official duties.

“(iii) Ministers holding the power of order shall not ordinarily exercise any of the other powers save and except when strictly necessary for the fulfilment of their sacramental responsibilities” (Art. 39).

This has far-reaching consequences for the way diocesan offices are run and departments in the Vatican.

Participation. “The one who is to preside over all should be elected by all.”

Legitimate authority in the church must be based on the consent of the people. Co-responsibility implies that the church community has the right to elect its leaders.

Diocesan clergy, religious orders and parish councils should play their part in choosing their bishop.

Subsidiarity. Every decisional level in the church should have an inalienable right and responsibility to determine both what decisions and actions fall within their competence, and what instead should be decided by delegation to, or accomplished better in cooperation with, the higher level.

This reverses the present top-down exercise of authority by which the Vatican decides the responsibilities entrusted to dioceses or national bishops’ conferences.

Accountability. All leaders shall report to the church community regularly on their work, including presenting independently audited financial statements. Leaders at all levels of the church are elected for a limited term of office.

In the event of serious violations of Christian principles and laws, an appropriate ecclesiastical tribunal can order the removal of a minister from office.

Scholarly support for the proposed Constitution

The Constitution has been tested in academic communities. A positive response has been overwhelming.

Apart from the 23 specialists in the Work Group, the Constitution has, as of today, been endorsed by another 57 scholars from 17 countries: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Philippines, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, UK, USA.

I will print some of their endorsements:

  • “This draft constitution is a magnificent prophetic vision of a Catholic Church as it should be – and as it could become. Indeed, this is a different Catholic Church, and this is what we urgently need. Only in this way can we leave behind the church of child abuse, homophobia, clericalism and the repressive exercise of power.” Prof Thomas Hieke, Mainz, Germany.
  • “I am endorsing this proposal because I see it as a concrete step towards the church becoming a ‘discipleship of equals’ based on the inclusive table-fellowship we have seen Jesus realized during his ministry.” Prof Rachel Joyce Marie Sanchez, Manila, Philippines.
  • “Current canon law is blocking a synodal church that recognises the dignity of all the baptised. It must be avoided that faith and human rights continue to conflict with each other in the Catholic Church. The church urgently needs a renewed church constitution that respects the principles of faith and human rights in an uncompromising way.” Prof Toni Bernet-Strahm, Luzern, Switzerland.
  • CONGRATULATIONS!! CONGRATULATIONS!! This is a fantastic initiative. Thanks very much to Wijngaards Institute.” Prof José María Vigil, Managua, Nicaragua, and Salamanca, Spain.
  • “In these days, when the Catholic Church is engaged in rediscovering the ancient charism of synodality, the Proposed Constitution for the Catholic Church underscores ecclesial realities that are at the heart of synodality. All baptized Catholics, by the design of Christ and his Church, are equal and have the freedom and responsibility to pursue and enhance the mission of Christ and the Church. That mission is the service of all women and men and, in our grossly economically unbalanced world, as Jesus so often reminded us, particularly the poor. No one, no matter what authority she or he is thought to enjoy in the Church, is free to bar any of the baptized in Christ from actively propagating that mission.” Prof Michael Lawler, Creighton, USA.
  • “The proposed constitution aims at living together (convivenciaubuntu), in collaboration, contrary to any exclusion, subordination or destruction. The entire law is fulfilled in a single decree: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’, Paul, Galatians 5:14.” Prof Pedro Paolo A. Funari, Campinas, Brazil.
  • “This document is necessary for the urgent reform of the Catholic Church, it is very complete, very well founded and responds to what Catholic reform groups around the world have been asking for many years. Hopefully it will serve to generate a profound debate in the Synod of Synodality so that the Catholic Church can become credible in the 21st century.” Prof Raquel Mallavibarrena, Madrid, Spain.

As Prof Felix Wilfred of the Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies already stated in April this year: “We need a basic, fundamental law in the Church (lex ecclesiae fundamentalis) like nations having a constitution. It was Pope Paul VI who for the first time proposed that the Church should have such a fundamental law. It was put in cold storage. We urgently need to bring it back.”

Publicising the proposed Constitution

The enthusiastic response from religious sisters and all levels of Catholic leadership who have endorsed our work, some publicly, some privately, is a positive sign for Catholics everywhere.

The warm reception received at the Synodal office in Rome is another strong indication our work is being read at the heart of the Vatican body examining the governance of the Church.

We sense a groundswell of support for change at the fundamental level of how the Catholic Church is run and offer this draft constitution as a seed from which real change can grow and help reform our global church in ways that will make a material difference to the lives of millions of Catholics.

At the same time, we realise that the proposed Constitution will cause alarm among traditionalist Catholics. It will also need to be carefully explained to a majority of church-going Catholics who are open to change, but who may think these proposals go too far.

As a first step we have submitted the draft Constitution to all the bishops’ conferences of the countries our scholars come from, both the academics who worked in the text and those who co-signed it.

Moreover, Miriam Duignan, the Wijngaards Institute’s communication director, has personally handed over the document to Sr Nathalie Becquart at the synodal office in the Vatican.

We will publish the full text of the proposed Constitution with other explanatory documentation on the www.wijngaards.com website on the 13th of September, feast day of that great theologian Saint John Chrysostom with further publicity to follow. 

As Jesus urges us: “Shout it from the rooftops!”

1 February 2022 For Immediate Release

ICRN Supports Sister X in India and Full Inclusion in the Synodal Process

Contacts: 

Deborah Rose,           USA                 +1 513.673.1401         debrose@futurechurch.org

Martha Heizer,           Austria             +43.650.4168500        martha@heizer.at

Virginia Saldanha,     India               +91 98196 26197        womynvs@gmail.com

The International Catholic Reform Network (ICRN) with representatives from 5 continents, met on 28-29 January 2022 online. 

Seven speakers from India spoke of the strong patriarchal structures in society and in church which impact adversely on the lives of women, LGBTQ+ and Dalits. ICRN supports the appeal against the acquittal of Bishop Franko Mulakkal on multiple rape charges of Sister X. ICRN calls on Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferao, president of Conference of Catholic Bishops of India to meet with Sister X and investigate the behaviour of Bishop Mulakkal.

Reports from all continents showed a mixed response to the synodal process leading to the Bishops Synod in 2023. In some regions, such as South Africa and East Africa, it appears there is good co-operation from the bishops.  In many other regions, the picture is more dismal.  We heard disappointing reports from Australia where 17,500 submissions were effectively disregarded at the Plenary Council and from Mexico where the assembly in November 2021 had very few women and a clear sign that the clergy wants to keep their power.  Yet, the German Synodal Path may be a good possibility for addressing the important reform issues with clergy and laity working together.

The abuse of power and clerical sex abuse and cover up in many countries has led to a lack of trust in the monarchical hierarchical structures. Yet, many Catholic Reform groups are actively involved in preparing submissions and encouraging participation in the 2023 Synod process. The reservation of all power and authority to clerics, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+, divorced and remarried are critical issues that need to be changed.

There were many voices who favoured giving less time and energy to seeking reforms through the hierarchy and instead devote most of their time and energy to focus on developing a New Way of Being Church by creating Small Christian Communities (SCC), Base Ecclesial Communities (BEC), and grassroots communities for greater participation, communion & meaningful mission: “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there”. 

ICRN Steering Committee:                                                                ICRN Website: https://icrn.info/

Martha Heizer (Austria); Colm Holmes (Ireland); Rasto Kocan (Slovakia);

Deborah Rose (USA); Virginia Saldanha (India); Max Stetter (Germany);

ICRN was founded in 2012 for the purpose of drawing together the best practices of communities around the world to bring about a Church that is welcoming and  inclusive, reflecting and living the Gospel message so as to bring about the reign of God in our troubled world.