VATICAN CITY — The Extraordinary Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops, which closes Sunday--20 years to the day after the end of the Second Vatican Council--has turned out to be neither the spur to further decentralization and radical social activism that some church liberals had hoped for nor the brake on church modernization that some conservatives had anticipated.
In fact, the worldwide synod appears to be more of a birthday lovefest than the power struggle between conservatives and liberals that some observers had predicted.
"What we have here is not a church in disarray, but a church that is united behind the Second Vatican Council," Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, said in an interview.
"There may have been a shootout at the OK Corral, but not at the synod."
Down the Middle
The advisory body, attended by 165 delegate cardinals, archbishops and bishops, is steering a middle course. It is recommending to Pope John Paul II that the church continue its efforts to address secular society in contemporary terms, while holding the line on theological innovations and calling the world's 825 million Catholics to a deeper spirituality.
Vatican II, held in four sessions between 1962 and 1965, recast the church's image from that of an immutable monolithic structure to an institution ready to modernize. Changes were made in religious life, liturgy, relations with other religious bodies, the training of priests and church governance.
The central theme of the current two-week synod has been "to celebrate, verify and promote" Vatican II. The synod meetings are closed to the press and public, but the Vatican issues excerpts of speeches and summaries of activities.
While such controversial issues as ordaining women and married men as priests, relaxing the church's ban on artificial birth control and giving communion to divorced Catholics who remarry, occasionally surfaced in discussion, they never stood a chance of receiving majority approval from the synod, let alone from Pope John Paul II.
Recurring themes at the synod have included the need for a worldwide catechism book for teaching the Catholic faith; the debilitating inroads of secularism and atheism upon the church; the importance of the continuing interfaith dialogue; the role of women in the church; seminary education; power-sharing between the Pope and the bishops; incorporation of national traditions and culture into the liturgy; peace and social-justice issues, and liberation theology.
While Vatican spokesmen have denied that liberation theology, which calls for radical measures to end oppression of the poor, has been a divisive issue at the synod, it has clearly generated lively discussion among the bishops.
Some bishops, such as Jose Ivo Lorscheiter of Santa Maria, Brazil, have strongly defended liberation theology against "false interpretations."
It is "not a theology of violence or one that pushes toward violence. It is not a theology that assumes or justifies Marxist ideology . . . nor does it break with Catholic theological tradition," asserted Lorscheiter, president of the Brazilian bishops' conference.
That analysis seems in conflict with papal criticism of forms of liberation theology that rely heavily on Marxist ideology and encourage class struggle.
Earlier at the synod, another Latin American bishop, Dario Castrillon Hoyas of Colombia, attacked forms of liberation theology that espouse hate and violence: "When I see a church with a machine gun, I cannot see the crucified Christ in that church," he said.
A new Vatican statement defining liberation theology is being prepared and it reportedly will look more favorably on the controversial doctrine.
Bishop after bishop reportedly rose during the plenary sessions to speak about how secularization had compromised the message of the church in the world, and how a perceived breakdown of traditional morality weakens the church's teaching, particularly in the areas of sexuality, marriage and the family.
"We are afraid of the media, the theologians and the progressives," Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Warsaw, Poland, was quoted as saying. "We must learn to be brave and courageous to speak of unpopular truth (about) chastity, marital continence and divorce."
However, while the bishops agreed that secularization appeared to be the cause of most problems faced by the worldwide Catholic Church since Vatican II, they were careful not to blame the council itself for creating the confusion and estrangement of many Catholics.
Stressing the need for "a universal call to holiness," evangelization and spiritual renewal, bishops from all parts of the world agreed that the uniqueness of local church traditions could be an asset--as long as they were in conformity with the universal church and the prime authority of the Pope.