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Issue Date:  November 4, 2005

At synod, hopeful signs of openness

It is a simple truth that the Catholic church often moves at the pace of an institution that thinks in terms of millennia. Save for rare moments such as Vatican II, the reform council of the 1960s, it doesn’t undertake rapid overhauls of the way it thinks and acts.

Against that measure, then, what does one make of the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome?

While Pope Benedict XVI will not issue his own conclusions based on the synod’s recommendations for some months, some early readings are possible, and they suggest that Benedict continues to be more a surprise than some (this page included) may have expected.

Of course, no one would reasonably expect much, if any, movement on hot-button culture war issues under this papacy. Don’t expect any changes in teaching on such matters as homosexuality, stem-cell research, abortion or other issues that can be categorized as matters of doctrine.

But on pastoral concerns -- the declining numbers of priests and ministry to divorced and remarried -- in the case of this synod, while the bishops gathered in Rome did not recommend alterations in current rules, the encouraging part is that candid discussion occurred.

In some ways, pointing to frank discussion as an encouraging development is merely a sign of how bottled up and restrictive the church had become during the pontificate of John Paul II. On the other hand, it may be just as much a sign that in the long trajectory of the church’s evolution, the need for self-correction will keep poking through the urge to cast everything in absolute terms.

Part of the difference has to be attributed to the circumstances, especially of John Paul’s later years when, because of his increasingly debilitating illness, those gathered for synods and the like respectfully refrained from raising issues that they feared the pope would have found disturbing or on which he had declared there would be no further discussion.

The difference is also due, in part, to the difference in personalities and backgrounds of John Paul and Benedict. Those close to the most recent proceedings gave the impression that they were dealing with a top-flight theologian who doesn’t mind engaging in debate. In one telling incident, in fact, Benedict intervened to essentially end a march from the right and pull the synod back from establishing a false dichotomy between the Eucharist as a sacrifice and the Eucharist as a communal meal, expressed by many as the “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions of the Eucharist. Using the weight of theological reasoning rather than blunt command to end discussion, he told the synod he saw no contradiction between the two aspects.

It is gratifying, too, that the synod essentially endorsed the conclusions of the task force led by Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick on the question of Catholic politicians. The synod, while calling politicians to “coherence,” also urged bishops to exercise prudence in light of local situations. In other words, the decision on how to deal with politicians who might not vote as the church would wish on all matters was left to the discretion of individual bishops. That position implicitly and rightly recognizes that responsible citizenship, while informed by faith and church teaching, cannot expect the political arena to conform to that faith and its teachings on all fronts. In other words, there are no politicians or parties that match up perfectly to the wishes of the church.

The synod also offered an opportunity to hear voices from different parts of the Catholic world, with many bishops from the global South stressing what they see as an inherent link between the Eucharist and concern for issues such as poverty, armed conflict, and HIV/AIDS. As the center of gravity in global Catholicism continues to shift to the developing world, it augurs for a more socially engaged church, realizing a central aspect of the vision of the Second Vatican Council.

Finally, it was pleasing to hear an endorsement of the “goodness and validity” of Vatican II liturgical reforms, much as those reforms have been battered, maligned and hijacked in the 40 years since.

Some of the discussions, particularly about the priest shortage, the possibility of married priests and about the status of divorced and remarried Catholics, will persist beyond this synod and may be taken up by individual bishops in particularly difficult circumstances. Already, three high-ranking prelates from different parts of the world, including Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, have said that the conversation on some points is not as closed as the synod’s conclusions may sound.

All in all, and mindful that this might sound like gratitude for small favors, it was heartening to see in the early days of Benedict’s papacy the movement toward more openness, toward frank discussion and toward expressions, limited as they were, of compassion regarding those caught in the rules and excluded from full participation.

National Catholic Reporter, November 4, 2005

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