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A World of Bishops at the Vatican : A Division in Direction

December 08, 1985|Francis X. Murphy | Francis X. Murphy, a Redemptorist priest, writes frequently about Vatican affairs

ROME — The extraordinary synod of Catholic Bishops--convoked through a surprise announcement by Pope John Paul II last January and concluded today in the Vatican--evolved into two weeks of rigorous discussion, arguments and ecclesiastical maneuvering by more than 160 cardinals and prelates under the Pope's auspices. It revealed that the church is still laboring with a 40% conservative, 60% progressive division; the church outside Rome is, for the most part, determined to move ahead with the evolution started by Vatican Council II in 1965.

Representatives from 106 national hierarchies all over the world sat down with cardinals and prelates of the Vatican bureaucracy to evaluate the results of Vatican II, 20 years later. They presented an honest and critical estimation of the church's progress in preparation for the year 2000. As such, the synod proved to be, in John Paul II's phrase, "a celebration of the council."

Pre-synodal concerns that the assembly would be used by the Roman bureaucracy were dispelled in the inaugural speech by Belgian Cardinal Godfried Daneels, acting as secretary of the synod. He presented the prelates with an overview of the church's current status, gathered from reports reflecting consultations with priests and people conducted by national conferences of bishops.

Daneels described the years since Vatican II as a time when conciliar decrees were accepted by a majority of Catholics despite pockets of resistance to liturgical changes, the loss of priests and nuns from the active ministry and an outburst of experimentation in teaching techniques, seminary training and pastoral practices.

He said the synod was not to be a reflection on a book--meaning German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's recent pessimistic evaluation of the church's current status. Nor was it to be the grounds for a boxing match between champions of diverse tendencies.

In the discussions that followed, with cardinals and bishops reflecting the fears and hopes of their respective churches in many nations, two distinct concerns surfaced. One was the Roman desire, expressed by cardinals of the Vatican bureaucracy, to safeguard a uniform interpretation of the council's decisions and to create an effective surveillance of teaching by both bishops and theologians. They had the support of a small number of prelates from the the Second and Third Worlds.

One supporter was the cardinal of Cordova in Argentina, Raul Primatesta. He cautioned against the audacity of many in the "church of the people," who, he maintained, lean toward Marxist positions and attack the hierarchical structure of the church as if it were of merely human creation.

Primatesta's attitudes were echoed by the Cardinal of Rio de Janerio, Eugenio Salas, who called for stricter surveillance by Rome, of doctrinal teachings and seminaries. He noted the failure of bishops and superiors of religious orders in controling priests and people engaged in pastoral practices not aligned with the church's positions.

These attacks on liberation theology were answered by a Brazilian archbishop, Ivo Lorscheider of Santa Maria. He insisted that the liberation theology movement was not Marxist, but was actually a spiritual experience, drawn from Christ's teachings in the Gospels, where the impoverished were inspired to achieve the social and economic status necessary to live their lives as truly human persons.

The second principal theme of the synod emerged as a question of local authority and governance. First World prelates, such as Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Cardinal Basil Hume of England and Bishop Bernard Hubert of Canada, speaking for their respective hierarchies, insisted on the collegial rules of the church, as bishops with and under the Pope empowered to settle policy at the top.

This notion had been revitalized by the Vatican Council. But it has sometimes been ignored by members of the papal bureaucracy, who, acting in the Pope's name, frequently interfered in local matters that should have been left to the authority of the national conferences of bishops.

African and Asian churchmen announced a similar but more immediate concern--the well-being of their people. Seeking to adapt the church's teachings to the cultures of their faithful, they frequently found that Rome suspected them of going too far in absorbing local customs for marriage rites, liturgical practices and pastoral activities.

Most of these younger Christian communities confront dictatorial governments and the chaotic conditions of civil and tribal wars. They need strong support from Rome. In their synodal interventions, these bishops asked for treatment as mature pastors, for total financial and political support.

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