The Synod of Bishops—What Did It Accomplish?
WHAT was the purpose of the some 210 bishops and other Catholic dignitaries that met at the Vatican from September 30 to November 5 last year? It was to come to an agreement as to what to advise Pope Paul regarding the state of his ‘flock’ and what could be done about it. The subjects he chose to be advised on were “The Priesthood” and “World Justice and Peace.”
The underlying principle of the synod, a product of the Vatican II Council, was that of “collegiality.” That is, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were no longer to be mere agents of the pope but were to share authority with him.
It seems that the bishops accomplished little in that regard in their consideration of the first subject, “The Priesthood,” for they told Pope Paul nothing new. On the one hand, they reaffirmed his stand on celibacy and, on the other hand, were even more negative than the pope himself on the subject of ordaining married men as priests in special circumstances. As one Catholic weekly put it: “The Synod turned to the incongruous task of teaching the Pope some doctrinal principles he had never expressed the slightest doubt on.”—Commonweal, November 26, 1971.
This result is easily accounted for. Pope Paul chose the subject matter and its wording. He strongly influenced the membership of the synod. His appointees also manipulated the manner of deliberations. Further, at the opening of the synod he sternly warned the bishops against being influenced by outside pressures. As one Catholic reporter put it, “he pictured the bishops as surrounded by a horde of schemers seeking to stampede the bishops into decisions of doubtful conformity with the faith, contemptuous of tradition, tainted with secularism.”
Thus a cartoon in an American magazine showed the pope handing an aide a sheet of paper, saying: “Here are the conclusions the synod is going to reach.” And as one Jesuit observer put it, the attitude that prevailed was, “Don’t rock the boat; above all, don’t rock it publicly.” The pope’s statement at the close of the synod strongly reaffirming celibacy for Roman Catholic priests seems to bear out these conclusions.
“World Justice and Peace”
The bishops’ discussion of this, the second theme for consideration by the synod, dealt with various facets. There were those bishops who argued that the Roman Catholic Church should demonstrate its sincerity in speaking about justice by her own actions. Cardinal Heenan, primate of England, was one of these. He asked that “churches, monasteries and convents should see what treasures they could sell,” the proceeds to be used to help the poor. “With great respect,” he continued, “I suggest that Rome herself should give the lead. . . . There must be thousands of chalices, monstrances and other sacred objects which are rarely used.”
A Filipino bishop said: “He who would speak about justice must first be just.” According to him, when a church acquires great wealth it “causes identification of the church with the rich and powerful and reduces her credibility when she does speak out against injustice and to promote justice.” The Canadian delegation even went as far as to urge “financial openness on the part of the Vatican, national conferences, dioceses, religious orders and related institutions.”
The Vatican itself was criticized on three points. First, because it tended to accumulate wealth rather than administer its property as “the patrimony of the poor.” Secondly, because it underpaid its employees and subjected them to bad working conditions. And thirdly, the Vatican was charged with muzzling the speech of its members and convicting without adequate trial those it suspects of misconduct. “Physician, heal thyself,” is the way one delegate felt about it.
According to a Jesuit observer, a number of speaking prelates suffered a case of nerves when some of their listeners challenged them to quit speaking in generalities about unjust social conditions and actually name the guilty governments. While a number of bishops wanted the Church to get more involved in social issues, there were those who argued against this course, saying that Christ did not intend to “establish a purely human solidarity with the less privileged as though he were a revolutionary on the point of overturning existing social conditions.”
The Ukrainian delegation accused the Vatican of playing politics with the Communists at the cost of their particular rite. African delegates spoke out against both political and ecclesiastical colonialism and contempt for the black race. Delegates from Angola and Mozambique tried hard to present the policies of their Portuguese government in a favorable light, while others wanted to censure them strongly. And a bishop from Chile reportedly “sent older heads into a spin” when he expressed the idea that Christianity might mean socialism.
Still another bishop warned: “Sometimes the people who live close to terror and torture will tell you it is best not to interfere from the outside. Also, we must all remember that looking at a situation from far away it is easy for the Church to make a condemnation but often difficult to find a solution.” After these discussions, and others on justice for women, ecology, population control, and so forth, the synod adjourned without producing a final text on “World Justice and Peace.”
Reporting on this discussion, an American newsweekly stated: “‘Justice in the World’ consisted largely of bland generalities on such topics as economics and ecology, and was sent to the Pope without public release. It protested ‘injustices deprived of a voice,’ but stopped short of citing specific situations such as those in Brazil and South Africa.”—Time, November 15, 1971.
In brief, here again, the synod took great care not to put forth anything that would have embarrassed the pope.
How the Bishops Felt
How did the individual bishops feel about the way things were being done at the synod? On one occasion, when the bishops were handed what was supposed to be a revised statement but which had ignored the hundreds of amendments that had been offered, African bishop Ndayen exclaimed: “I didn’t travel thousands of kilometers from home to dance the tarantella. Where are the amendments?”
According to Jesuit weekly America, “the world at large, and those of us who tried to follow the Synod’s process more closely shared Bishop Ndayen’s sentiments.” Said the same weekly in a later issue: “The Roman Synod ended, first of all for the delegates themselves, as a lesson in procedural chaos and substantive frustration.”
The English-born bishop of Malaysia lamented: “The bishops here completely lack trust in one another. And if you don’t have trust, you may as well as hang it up.” And Cardinal Suenens of Belgium told reporters that the procedures of the synod were “both boring and inefficient. . . . Priests, at least those whom I know in Belgium, expected something else. . . . I really do not know what to tell them. . . . Now Pope Paul can say that, after ample debate, the whole church, as represented in the synod approves his stand in maintaining the discipline of celibacy as it existed for centuries.”
What Was Accomplished?
Regarding what was accomplished by the synod the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal editorialized: “The third synod has ended in utter confusion and bitter frustration. The bishops have left empty-handed. . . . On the last day they were told they were not supposed to address themselves to the priests or to the world . . . but only to the Pope as his private advisers. . . .”
Continuing, it went on to say: “What went wrong with the Synod? Just about everything that could go wrong. An absolute lack of discussion technique, and absurd order of procedure, two topics too vast for the available time, but most of all the bishops themselves, chosen for all sorts of qualities, except for being the natural leaders of their people.”—November 26, 1971.
Concerning this third synod Newsweek’s religious editor, Kenneth L. Woodward, wrote: “The third world synod of bishops stumbled to a halt at the Vatican last week with the delegates as confused at the end as they were in the beginning. . . . [It was] a synod that somehow managed to do almost nothing right. When the 211 bishops, patriarchs and heads of religious orders arrived in Rome late in September, they discovered that the working papers prepared by the Vatican officials were not quite the same documents they had received earlier in the year. . . .
“Most of the synod fathers assiduously tried not to tell Pope Paul VI what he palpably did not want to hear. Since the Pope had already expressed his firm disapproval of optional celibacy for priests, this alternative was soundly rejected without serious consideration. . . . When the synod turned to the Pope’s principal personal concern, justice and peace in the world, the delegates again told him essentially what he wanted to hear. Bishops who had never dared speak out at home . . . suddenly found their voices in Rome. But the test of the bishop’s courage, admitted one delegate, ‘is not what we say to governments, but what we do to achieve justice in the church.’”
In a similar vein wrote Mayo Mohs in Time, November 15, 1971: “Perhaps the real question this autumn is not so much what the bishops have or have not done as whether the Catholics of the world seriously care about what they do at all. Most bishops may still listen to the Pope, but fewer and fewer priests listen to either the Pope or their bishops—and many of the laity are beginning to listen to no one.”
And why is this so? Mohs goes on to say: “It is not so much the beliefs of the church that have come into question . . . as the structure itself. . . . The mystical body of Christ [the Church of Rome] seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown.”