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Competing visions: despair or hope?

NCR Staff

The Catholic church is in a worldwide wait.

That’s the sense one gets from this second European Synod of the 1990s. Outside the synod hall and in sidewalk cafes, among church leaders from different places and points of view, there seems a consensus that few new initiatives can be expected in the twilight of John Paul’s papacy. The church is in a holding pattern, anticipating the new energy that comes from a change at the top.

So far, observers say, this synod is quite different from the two that immediately preceded it - the gatherings for Asia and Oceania. Bishops from those regions, many unaccustomed to the global stage, had the audacity (or naiveté) to openly call for reforms such as relaxation of clerical celibacy or local flexibility on liturgy and language.

European prelates, veterans of the ways of Rome, have been more circumspect. Even those who support radical change say so only obliquely, using lofty language about vision and style rather than tackling concrete matters of ecclesial policy.

It’s not that the church leaders gathered in Rome Oct. 1-23 are simply marking time. From the relationship between church and world, to the way power is shared (or withheld) between Rome and the bishops, important questions are on the table.

The unspoken assumption, however, is that these discussions will not lead to dramatic action under present management.

In part, therefore, this synod functions as a dress rehearsal for the next papal election. Churchmen from Europe as well as the Roman curia have a forum to speak to the world, as Vatican-watchers strain to hear who sounds papabile - like a candidate for pope. Every speech on the synod floor is being read, at least in part, as a statement about where the church ought to head in its third millennium.

Close attention reveals some key differences. Perhaps the most elemental is one of mood.

The contrast appeared in the opening days in two much-discussed “interventions” (the technical term for a speech) by Cardinals María Rouco Varela of Madrid, Spain, and Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Belgium. Both men make many short lists of papal candidates.

Both began with the hard realities facing Catholicism in Europe: Low rates of Mass attendance, a severe priest shortage, a culture based more on the pleasure principle than Christian morality, and a welter of new religious and spiritual movements competing with - and often surpassing -- the church.

For the 63-year-old Rouco Varela, appointed the synod’s relator, or chairman, by John Paul, these trends add up to an “atmosphere of despair”; for the 66-year-old Danneels, they represent a chance for new life.

Rouco Varela delivered the opening address of the synod on Oct. 2. He referred to a “situation of hopelessness” in the developed world. Human beings have rejected God to construct a social order on their own terms, which he labeled an ideology of “immanent humanism.”

It has, he said, led to nihilism, relativism and cynical hedonism. Byproducts also include internal dissent and a tendency to confuse Christianity with a social movement, Rouco Varela said.

Though Rouco Varela did point to some positive signals for the church in Europe - such as strong sales of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church in the mid-1990s - most observers felt his assessment was quite pessimistic.

On the morning of Oct. 5, Danneels mentioned the same indicators of decline but gave them a brighter spin. What has happened to the church in Europe has been a shock, he said - but like a jolt to the heart, it can lead to revival.

For example, Danneels said, growing religious pluralism has forced the church to enter a new dialogue with other religions. Believers must re-think what it means to say that Christ is the only mediator of salvation. It is a new question requiring a new answer, he said.

Far from being a threat, Danneels argued that such questions are the ones that bring growth. They are “blessed questions,” he said, and Christians should “thank the epoch” for posing them.

Referring to Catholicism’s loss of prestige in Europe, Danneels suggested that God is trying to teach the church humility. “How can that be negative?” he asked.

Sifting through the dozens of interventions, three other themes have surfaced repeatedly: the question of whether the church’s post-Vatican II social engagement has come at the cost of spiritual depth; how the church can claim authority in a pluralistic culture; and the success of new ecclesial movements such as Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and the Neocatechumenate.

Some bishops believe that as the church has become more focused on the social and political quest for justice, it has forgotten how to offer people the things that nourish the inner life - prayer, asceticism, devotions and the doctrinal foundations upon which they are built.

Christianity has become for many merely a “strategy for better organizing the things of this world,” Rouco Varela said in his address. He rejected the development: “So-called ‘orthopraxy’ is not possible without true orthodoxy.”

The point was echoed by France’s Bishop André Fort, who warned that the church must not present a human condition “amputated of its eschatological dimension.” Both he and Rouco Varela called for more emphasis on preaching the resurrection and eternal life.

Italy’s Archbishop Ennio Antonelli added in a press conference that people need meaning more than food, and the church risks stressing the latter at the expense of the former.

Other prelates, however, have reaffirmed the social gospel. Several have argued that the church must urge compassion for immigrants. Coming just after one European nation (Austria) voted in historically large numbers for a far-right party running on an anti-immigrant platform, the appeal had a special resonance.

Archbishop Fernand Franck of Luxembourg devoted his intervention to this question, arguing that Europe must not turn itself into a fortress. He urged Christians to look to the Trinity as a model of diversity. Bishop William Kenney of Stockholm, Sweden, argued that the church will lack credibility if it does not intervene on behalf of Europe’s most vulnerable new residents.

Several speakers worried that the new Europe is being built on inadequate moral foundations, alluding to abortion, suicide and declining fertility rates. The last point has led some participants to suggest that “Europe is dying.”

The call to foster a moral sense in Europe has raised the question of how the church should evangelize. It has turned into a question of authority.

Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, head of Opus Dei, called for a “new Romanity” in the church -- which he defined as a clear and unreserved loyalty to the Holy Father. Rodríguez said that without unity, Catholicism will not be attractive.

Others, such as Ireland’s Bishop Joseph Walsh, put the accent elsewhere. Quoting Italy’s Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Walsh said effective evangelizers must be “men of the street” - close to the people.

Perhaps the most eloquent intervention along these lines came from Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, head of the Dominican order and rumored to be among the candidates to replace the deceased Cardinal Basil Hume as head of the English church.

“Just asserting the authority of the church ever more strongly,” Radcliffe said, is not the answer. “People will either resist or take no notice.” Instead, he called for the church to reason with people, to walk with them and to welcome them.

He mentioned women, the poor, immigrants, the divorced, those who have abortions, prisoners, people with AIDS, homosexuals and drug addicts as groups to whom the church should extend hospitality.

The final goal, Radcliffe said, is not for people to accept the authority of the church, but to become authorities themselves.

A third motif has been the “new movements” such as Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and the Neocatechumenate.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague in the Czech Republic devoted his intervention to this theme, arguing that “through these new forces, the Holy Spirit is giving the people of God a new face, new dynamism and new vitality.” Though applause is taboo in the synod hall, members of the movements who were present burst into cheers.

Other speakers echoed Vlk’s comments.

John Paul is well-known for his embrace of the movements. Chiara Lubich, head of Focolare, is among the papally appointed auditors of this event, as are Jesús and Juana Carrascosa of Communion and Liberation and Kiko Argüello, founder of the Neocatechumante.

No dissenting notes have been heard in public. Privately, however, some bishops worry that the movements - some seen as conservative, some as secretive and resistant to episcopal oversight - have been encouraged at the expense of pastoral initiatives aimed at the broad mass of Catholics.

The ice was broken Oct. 5 on a topic widely held to be among the top priorities for bishops around the world - collegiality, or the question of the proper distribution of power between Rome and the local churches.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Germany referred in his intervention to the “mounds of paper” that flow from the Roman curia. “We must ask,” he said, “does paper bear fruit?” He called for a new partnership between the curia and the local diocese.

Among Vatican-watchers, it is seen as significant that Meisner - among the most conservative bishops in the synod - raised the collegiality issue. It suggests the concern cuts across the usual ideological divisions.

For daily coverage of the European Synod, go to http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/eurosyndindex.htm

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999