Pope John Paul's upcoming extraordinary synod of bishops will have neither the authority nor the time to overturn the reforms in the Roman Catholic Church mandated by the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin told a standing-room-only audience at Catholic University here this week.

What the synod will do will be to "set a tone, establish themes and undoubtedly influence how we will move as a church in the last 15 years of this century," the Chicago prelate said.

In both his formal address and in response to questions afterward, Bernardin sought to quell the widespread speculation that the extraordinary synod, which the pope unexpectedly announced late last year, would overturn the reforms of Vatican II.

"There is a huge difference between an ecumenical Vatican council and the synod," he said. He explained that the synod is "a consultative body that the pope can call together to advise him." Vatican II, on the other hand, involved the entire hierarchy of the church worldwide, empowered to decide policy for the church.

"In no way can the synod, which is a consultative body, tamper with the teachings of the council," he said.

In the 20 years since the adjournment of the council, there have developed "major differences over what constitutes both the substance and the spirit of Vatican II," he said. These differences have engaged Catholics from the tiniest parish to the top levels of the Vatican.

But in the two weeks allotted for the synod, he said, "you really can't do a substantive evaluation of the past 20 years."

"It is my hope that the synod will give us certain guidelines of how we can continue this evaluation of Vatican II at every level" of the church.

Bernardin is not a delegate to the forthcoming synod, which will be made up of heads of national bishops' conferences, Vatican officials and up to 25 prelates appointed by the pope.

The latter category includes two Americans -- Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, who was named one of the synod presidents. Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, will represent the U.S. church.

A report on the schedule for the synod published in the Catholic Herald of London, weekly publication of British Catholicism, appears to confirm Bernardin's analysis of the synod. The paper said that of the 10 working days of the synod, roughly the first half will be allocated to addresses by the participating bishops. For most of the remainder of the time, the bishops will divide into small discussion groups, the Herald said.

In his address, Bernardin discussed briefly several issues emerging out of Vatican II reforms that he predicted "will undoubtedly arise in the synod."

The synod, he said, "will undoubtedly address the question of the role of theology and theologians in the life of the church" -- an area of particular sensitivity to the Catholic University community, where the orthodoxy of several theologians on the faculty has come under Vatican scrutiny.

Also, earlier this year, Washington Archbishop James A. Hickey, who is chancellor of the university, rejected the faculty's nomination of a theological scholar to be head of the university's School of Religious Studies and blocked the granting of tenure to a second widely respected scholar.

Noting that "the relationship between bishops and theologians has always been . . . somewhat problematic," Bernardin said that "the task before us today is to find a proper balance" between the scholar's need for academic freedom and the bishops' "concern for the public order of the church's life."

The church has tended to put order ahead of freedom, he continued, and drew knowing laughter from his theologically sophisticated audience when he said, "Too much freedom seems more risky than too much order."

The tendency, he said, "is understandable but it also needs to be tempered" to avoid creating barriers between faith and reason.

"The life of faith needs to be presented as an enhancement of all that we know, not in isolation from the frontiers of human knowledge and creativity," he said.

Bernardin defended the legacy of Vatican II in the developing and strengthening the "social ministry" in the church. "In the face of the nuclear threat to all life, the assault upon human life by abortion, or the impact on the lives of others which U.S. policy has in Central America, silence or passivity on the part of the church and its leadership comes very close to pastoral scandal," he said.

The cardinal, who has built his ministry on a conciliatory style, fielded some hard questions from the audience with candor and humor -- including one that questioned his issuing liturgical guidelines in Chicago that barred altar girls.

The rule on altar girls, one of seven "liturgical matters" dealt with in the guidelines, was issued in response to questions from priests, Bernardin said, shortly after he took over the Chicago archdiocese. All he did, he said, was "reflect what is the discipline of the universal church."

But he added that he was troubled by "the real contradiction, that we permit women to serve as lectors or as extraordinary ministers of the eucharist, but we don't let the young girls perform the lesser functions.

"It's a difficulty that has to be looked at one of these days."

On the wider question of women's role in church, he acknowledged that the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood was "a very neuralgic subject." Bernardin cited a 1976 review of the question by the Vatican that declared only males could be priests.

"I know it's a neuralgic question," he said, "but because of the ordination question, we sometimes seem to be paralyzed about other things that ought to be done" to expand the role of women.

The bishops' conference is currently at work on a pastoral letter on the role of women in church and society