SOME OF the bright halos of hope that have caused many to anticipate an updating of the Roman Catholic Church as called for by Pope John XXIII have been tarnished in the past ten years. In no case is this more evident than in what has happened with the Synod of Bishops.
Originally there was widespread satisfaction with the terms in which the synod was conceived. Designed by Pope Paul VI in 1967 as a means of snaring the governance of the Catholic Church with the world's bishops, the synod looked like an attempt to return to the tradition of the early church. The original idea of a synod was a "meeting of roads" where the administrators of the provinces of the Roman Empire gathered together to discuss problems and arrive at solutions in keeping with the emperor's instructions.
Early in its history the Christian church discovered the need of holding similar assemblies where representatives of a region or a nation met to iron out difficulties with regard to doctrine and church discipline.
What was most encouraging about Pope Paul's resurrection of the synod was that it was a return to the ancient practice of representative decision-making. Most of the synod's members, prelates and bishops, were to be selected by their peers in episcopal conferences and entrusted with a general overview of each particular hierarchy's attitude toward current problems.
Through such participation, it was anticipated that a consensus could be achieved that would be considered the official viewpoint of the episcopal and papal teaching office. This procedure would leave latitude for the expression of dis sent and counterpoint despite expected efforts on the part of Roman curial officials to curb what they might consider contentious interventions.
This step promised to be the culmination of Vatican II's rediscovery of collegiality. In the century since the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), famous for its definition of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction, there had been an acceleration of administrative centralization that made bishops look like mere representatives and instruments of a central office in Rome.
The Second Vatican Council opposed this interpretation by underlining that the Catholic ecclesiastical community consisted of the sum total of local churches. These, unquestionably, find their unity in communion with Rome, but, as the document on the church implied, are far more than Rome's branch offices. The Ecumenical Council specified that the bishops share with the Roman Pontiff a responsibility for the church as a whole.
In theory the plan seems all too obvious: the bishops with the pope would decide policy, the Curia, the Catholic Church's central administration, would see to its implementation. In practice it has not proved to be that simple. Within the Vatican itself a minor revolution has been in the making. The Curia has been undergoing change at a slow but incessant pace. After the scathing criticisms during Vatican Council II, it has been internationalized, modernized, and expanded, and is still a going concern.
Pope Paul has made it clear that he is not going to downgrade his updated Curia. His attitude toward the synod is not so clear, however. He seems to welcome it as a valuable organism but at the same time appears anxious lest it challenge his authority. The latest synodal experience was no exception.
It might be helpful at this juncture to keep in mind that unlike the Ecumenical Council the synod was established as an advisory body. It has no decision-making authority. "By its very nature it is the task of the Synod of Bishops to inform and give advice," said the motu proprio which established it. But the document promised that "it may also have deliberative power, when such power is conferred on it by the Sovereign Pontiff, who will in such cases confirm the decisions of the Synod."
Pope Sets the Agenda
Paul VI has not yet granted the synod deliberative power, but he has usually acted on the synod's recommendations. He also sets its agenda. The first synod, in 1967, tackled five topics comprising canon law, atheism, seminaries, liturgical reform, and mixed marriages. The second synod, which convened in 1969 in the aftermath of Paul Vl's Humanitae Vitae, was to mark a definite step in the decentralization of the Roman Catholic Church. The next synod, in 1971, narrowed the topics to two: the priesthood and world justice. The latest, a month-long gathering that assembled September 27, 1974, had only one item on the agenda, evangelization in the modern world.
It was not the anticipated topic. Most episcopal conferences consulted suggested the family as the synodal theme. But if this had been the topic it would have been almost impossible to avoid such issues as abortion, birth control, and world population. The pope, therefore, chose a "safe" theme.
Evangelization, however, can also be a thorny subject. It embraces fostering the faith of Christians as well as bringing the gospel to non-Christians, the more traditional understanding of the mission of the church. In any case, the more than 200 bishops from all over the world were soon airing their desires and discontents while debating evangelization in the contemporary world.
A number of African prelates argued for "indigenization," i.e., adapting expressions of the Catholic faith and worship to local circumstances. Others, notably from Latin America, urged "conscientization," a greater commitment by the church to the struggle for social, economic, and political liberation. An impressive number of bishops pressed for a change in the relationship between the particular churches and the Roman See, for greater freedom for local dioceses to decide more matters without asking Rome's approval.
In the end, however, Paul VI had the last word. He accepted some proposals made during the synod but rejected others, some times very strongly. In an unprecedented measure he harshly criticized the assembly for what he felt were threats to his authority. Quoting a statement from Vatican II, which says that the pope "has full, supreme and universal power in the church," he insisted repeatedly on the importance of his primacy. "We could not remain silent," said he; "we could not allow false directions to be followed."
To many critics in and out of the Catholic Church, the fourth synod amounted to little more than window dressing. Like its predecessors in 1967, 1969, and 1971 it has taken the place of the genuine dialog Vatican II called for. In all likelihood it will have little impact on those Catholics entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel.
Why a Disappointment?
Why has the synod been a disappointment? Created by the Pope to make it possible for Catholic bishops to play a larger role in shaping church policy and extricate the governance of the Roman Catholic Church from the control of the Curia, the synod, like others of the present pontiff's plans for ecclesiastical reform, has run into grave difficulties. These difficulties, as Fr. Francis X. Murphy has underlined in another of his penetrating analyses (see The New York Times, September 29, 1974), stem from the concept and exercise of authority in a Catholic Church whose structure has be come monolithic and eminently centralized, but whose roots and past were communal. There are obvious reasons why little power has been transferred to the bishops so far.
To begin with, and for the past four hundred years, the Curia has been entrusted with the day-by-day administration of the Catholic Church. Designed to help the pope in his administration of the Catholic Church, it is approximately 2,500 members strong and consists of a number of administrative, legislative, and judiciary bodies that handle the decisions on doctrinal, political, and disciplinary issues submitted to Rome. In matters of importance their solutions are submitted to the pope for confirmation.
The synod, too, has a definite responsibility for the well-being of and policy making in the Catholic Church. But it is not a continuing presence in Rome. When day-to-day decisions are made, when Vatican policy is laid down, the synod, which meets every two or three years, has no representative on hand. It is true that since 1969 a synodal secretariat, twelve members elected by the synod itself and three nominated by the pope, represents it between sessions, but usually it meets only yearly.
The synod's secretary, Polish Archbishop Wladyslaw Rubin, 57, is likeable and competent, but he has not been given the prestige of a cardinalate. Therefore he has no clout in conflicts of interests between synodal recommendations and curial prerogatives. The conflict extends even to the formulation of the agenda for the forth coming meetings of the synod, right now recognized as belonging to the world's hierarchies in collaboration with the pope, but at the same time a task that up un til now has been a function jealously guarded by curial officials with the intention of preserving the pope's supremacy in the church.
Only Consultative Status
Probably even more basic is the fact that, as mentioned earlier, the synod has only consultative status. The four synods Paul VI has convened since Vatican II have had no legislative powers. A group of bishops meets to debate for about a month on an agenda set by the Pope, who reserves the right to judge which of its recommendations should be put into practice. At this point the mechanism of the synod has run up against the monolithic structure of the Catholic Church.
Vatican II's declaration that the governance of the Catholic Church should be collegial, that the bishops with and under the Roman pontiff should share responsibility, has collided with papal supremacy. This, speaking at the final session for the fourth Synod of Bishops, and referring to the proposals that the relationship between the particular churches and the Roman See be modified, Pope Paul affirmed: "No. We say with trepidation, by reason of the responsibility that falls upon us, that the successor of Peter is and remains the ordinary pastor of the Church in her unity and entirety."
In creating the synod, Pope Paul VI evidently hoped to find a way to solve the dilemma posed by coresponsibility and collegial authority, but so far it hasn't worked that way. And Paul VI, for all his good will in implementing Vatican II's teaching, has shown no inclination to surrender even a part of his traditional supremacy: The fourth Synod of Bishops has not settled the issue of authority in the Roman Catholic Church, and has set the church back on an increasingly conservative path after an era of updating. The chances that a coming synod might change this picture are slim.