Why Did the Catholic Bishops Have to Meet?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Italy
“THE [Vatican II] Council—Cause of the Crisis in the Church?” With this question the Jesuit publication La Civiltá Cattolica (October 5, 1985) pointed to “a radical and global crisis” affecting the Catholic Church. It highlighted four main aspects: a crisis of faith, of morals, of religious observance, and of church personnel. It further stated: “A considerable number of priests have abandoned the priesthood, some because of a crisis of faith, and more for personal reasons.”
In view of this acknowledged crisis, the 1985 synod (assembly of bishops) held in Rome certainly should have great significance for the 627 million Catholics in the world. It is also intriguing for others who have closely observed the transformation of the Catholic Church over the last few decades. But what other reasons motivated this special synod? What issues were faced? And how will the synod affect Catholics in the long run?
“Catholic Synod: Facing the Undeclared Schism”
Under that title Catholic journalist and historian Anne Roche, writing in The Toronto Star of Canada, explained that 20 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, “traditional Catholic doctrine and discipline are in ruins. We’ve all seen the amazing statistics: Fewer than 5 per cent of Catholics under 30 accept the church’s teaching on contraception; fewer than 10 per cent of the same group accept the Pope’s competence to teach infallibly in matters of faith and morals.”
This credibility gap has led to what Roche calls two Catholic churches, “the official church centered upon the papal magisterium [teaching authority] . . . and which now commands only a minority allegiance; and the unofficial church run by . . . the revolutionaries who have a stranglehold on every aspect of Catholic life in the increasingly autonomous national churches.” If this summation is correct, there is little wonder that the pope saw a need to call a special meeting for consultation with his bishops. But what events led up to the special synod?
A Cardinal’s Candid Opinion
The Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 raised great hopes within Catholic circles—but in different ways. Some hoped for and got a more liberal approach in certain matters. Others expected greater unity to be achieved. Many have been disappointed, including the Vatican’s most powerful prelate next to the pope, German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Vatican department that supervises the purity of Catholic doctrine).
In a recent interview the cardinal stated: “It is indisputable that the last twenty years have been decidedly unfavorable for the Catholic Church. The results that have followed the Council seem to be painfully opposite to everybody’s expectations, starting with those of Pope John XXIII and then of Paul VI.”
What had been expected? He continued: “What the Popes and the Council Fathers were expecting was a new Catholic unity. Instead, one has encountered a dissension which—in the words of Paul VI—seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction. One was expecting a new enthusiasm only to end up, too often, in boredom and discouragement. One was expecting a jump ahead, instead a progressive falling into decline had to be faced.”—Rapporto Sulla Fede, by Vittorio Messori, entitled in English The Ratzinger Report.
Therefore, on January 25, 1985, Pope John Paul II surprised the Catholic world by calling for a special synod to be held from November 24 to December 8 of the same year. He invited 165 bishops, 102 of whom were presidents of national bishops’ conferences around the world, as well as some nonvoting observers. The news media, like children expecting a fireworks fantasy, were also in attendance.
Issues That Divide
The synod was viewed by some as an arena for drawing up battle lines. As the French-Canadian writer Danièle Blain stated: “The behind-the-scenes struggle that has been going on for years between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’ in the very heart of the Church has broken out into open war.” (L’Actualité, November 1985) On the one side were the so-called progressive bishops who wanted to hang on to the changes and gains achieved since Vatican II. On the other side were the conservative bishops who yearned for a restoration of some of the ideals that were followed prior to Vatican II.
In this face-off, the progressives feared the “umpire”—Pope John Paul II—more than anybody. Why so? Because on many occasions, he had made clear his preference for a return to conservatism in Catholic teaching and practice. Writer Marco Tosatti noted in the Turin daily Stampa Sera: “It could prove to be difficult for the synodal fathers . . . to uphold any thesis disagreeing with the ‘reading’ that John Paul II is building up day after day.”
Many Catholics had hoped that issues such as birth control, celibacy, and women’s ordination would have been discussed at length. In fact, they got scant consideration, if any at all. Some bishops brought up the widespread problem of divorced Catholics who are banned from partaking of the Eucharist. One New Jersey, U.S.A., priest told The Toronto Star that “if he barred divorced and remarried people from the sacraments, his church would be almost empty.” But the bishops offered no solution, and the problem didn’t even get mentioned in the synod’s final report.
The main issue seemed to be unity—to bridge the gap that has arisen between the papacy and some national conferences of bishops. As Danièle Blain wrote: “The search for lost unity is, more than ever, the order of the day.” (L’Actualité) Related to unity was also the issue of the theology of liberation, which claims that the church should be involved in the political and social struggles of the oppressed. It has divided the Catholic clergy in recent years, and it came under attack from Colombian bishop Darío Castrillón Hoyos.
As it turned out, the synod did not produce any violent confrontation, and, at least publicly, the pope avoided any appearance of putting pressure on the bishops. Peter Nichols, a correspondent for The Times of London, reported: “The Pope attended all the plenary sessions of the synod, but he remained silent to the last day. He made a point also of getting up and leaving the hall when a vote was taking place. The voting was secret, but he wanted to avoid any impression of seeking to influence opinions.”
Thus the news media were disappointed—the theological fireworks turned out to be a damp squib. Although there were obvious differences of opinion, acrimonious debate was avoided. Perhaps the synod was optimistically summed up by the headline in the Italian Catholic workers’ magazine Azione Sociale, which stated, “United but Different.” Possibly indicating that a dangerous confrontation had been defused, The New York Times commented: “The Synod’s final report was at least as notable for what it avoided as for what it confronted.”
How Does It Affect Catholics?
Apparently the synod’s report to the faithful was not an easy document to compose. A committee of five cardinals drew it up twice, only to have it rejected because of excessive pessimism. Finally they got approval for a third and more positive version. And what does it have to offer to Catholics in general?
One subject of vital interest is covered under the heading “The Word of God.” It states: “Hearing the word of God with reverence, the church has the mission of proclaiming it with faith ([compare] Dei Verbum, 1). Consequently, the preaching of the Gospel is among the principal duties of the church, and especially of the bishops, and today it takes on the greatest importance ([compare] Lumen Gentium, 25).” Yet, in the Synod Report, God’s Word the Bible, which is available to most people, is only quoted seven times. In contrast, church encyclicals and documents, which are only available to a privileged few, are referred to at least 44 times, as the above quotation illustrates! If the Bible is used so seldom, how can a document of this nature reach the hearts of sincere Catholics who really want to know what is their Christian duty?
The document also states: “Evangelization is the first duty not only of bishops but also of priests and deacons, indeed, of all Christians.” It further clarifies the subject: “Evangelization takes place through witnesses. The witness gives his testimony not only with words, but also with his life.”
We appeal to sincere Catholics to reason on this matter. Who today are really acting as witnesses for God and Christ? Who today are evangelizing in every walk of life, both by word and by conduct? Who today, regardless of sacrifice, even of life and liberty, are proclaiming the Gospel, or good news, of God’s Kingdom rule by Christ? Who are regularly visiting your home to bring you this message? Your priest? Or Jehovah’s Witnesses? (Compare Isaiah 43:10, 12 and Acts 1:8.)
While the Catholic Church is torn by dissension and rebellion motivated by theology, politics, and social issues, true Christianity must follow the Bible’s guidelines: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” “Now I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.”—John 13:35; 1 Corinthians 1:10.
Evidently that unity does not exist in the divided ranks of the “progressive” and “conservative” bishops of the Catholic Church. The very need to convene a synod highlighted that division.
[Picture on page 12]
The synod in session in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome