In the face of a year-long build-up of apprehensions over what might come out of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which concluded last week in Rome, American Catholic leaders generally appeared satisfied with what the synod actually produced.
"I'm very pleased with the outcome," said Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. "I think the deliberations and the ultimate outcome made it very, very clear that Vatican II, its traditions and its spirit, are in place, and those who were somehow afraid that there would be a turning backward . . . that didn't come to pass."
"It went surprisingly well. The forebodings and misgivings were all chased away," said Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, dean of Catholic historians. "No one was victorious and no one was vanquished."
"I was very pleased with it," said Notre Dame Professor Ralph McInerny, editor of the conservative journal, Catholicism in Crisis. "The emphasis by the synod on the nature of the church as communion" will provide "a good basis for less contention" in the next 20 years, he said.
The extraordinary Synod of Bishops from around the world was called to evaluate how the church has assimilated the massive changes of the Second Vatican Council, which ended 20 years ago.
After two weeks of deliberation behind closed doors, the prelates resoundingly reaffirmed the reforms of Vatican II. At the same time, they called for specific steps to remedy what the pontiff, in his concluding address, called "any false interpretations" of the council.
In their final report of the synod, the bishops called for a new catechism or compendium of church doctrine and endorsed ecumenism and the church's struggle for social justice, particularly the need for the church to take up the cause of the poor.
They reaffirmed the growing importance of national organizations of bishops and called for further study of such bishops' conferences and their relationship to the pope.
Some veteran Vatican-watchers saw special significance in the fact that Pope John Paul II made public the recommendations of the bishops to him at the close of the synod, which he has never done at previous bishops' synods.
Synods of bishops are advisory to the pope, who may accept or reject the advice offered.
Bernardin, who has participated in several synods and serves on the Vatican committee that plans synods, said it was "a significant step" that the pontiff acceded to the requests of the bishops and made public their report. In other synods, he said, though participating bishops had urged that their recommendations be disclosed publicly, "It was never done.
"I was pleased to see it made public this time."
The Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of Notre Dame's department of theology, also found significance in the fact that the pope, after addressing the synod at its opening session, remained in the hall to hear what the bishops had to say.
"Even good Pope John XXIII and Paul VI watched sessions of Vatican II over TV. That was the custom in those days," he said. John Paul II, in contrast, "sat with the bishops and listened and he got an earful."
The synod's strong reaffirmation of both the spirit and documents of Vatican II "may neutralize the extremists on the right and the extremists on the left for a while and let the moderates, who do the real work of the church, get on with it," McBrien said.
Alluding to the pre-synod fears of some liberal Catholics that the pope would use the synod to reverse Vatican II reforms, McBrien pointed out that the synod provided "a golden opportunity to turn the clock back, if that's what he wanted, and he didn't do it."
All Catholic leaders asked to evaluate the synod praised the call for renewed study of the documents of Vatican II. "There has been so much talk of the council," said McInerny, "yet there is the odd sense that we know it and we don't know it."
Bernardin said he hoped the synod "will motivate us to continue this kind of evaluation of Vatican II at the level of the local" as well as the worldwide church.
The Chicago cardinal said he has been "talking about the need for an archdiocesan synod" to reassess the implications of Vatican II for the huge archdiocese and to look at "where are we and what must we do in the church in the next 10 years."
Protestant church historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago found great significance in the amount of "pluralism" reflected in the synod. "The Catholic Church is a church with awesome internal variety," he said.
Given the fact that "this is a pope who can't stand disarray," Marty said, the church's pluralism "got asserted more than I thought it would."
Marty and some other Protestant leaders, including some who attended the synod as official observers, agreed that the ecumenical thrust set in motion by Vatican II is still alive, though taking a different form under John Paul II.
"I was relieved to see that Catholics are still as interested in ecumenical developments as they've always been," said retired United Methodist Bishop William Cannon of Atlanta.
The Rev. Lewis S. Mudge of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago said that while the synod's final report "does not take ecumenism to a new level," it does contain "a reasonably strong reaffirmation of ecumenical concerns.
The pope invited the 10 Protestant and Orthodox observers to a 90-minute lunch during the synod and, according to Cannon, the observers also issued their own written statement to the synod, emphasizing that "we have far more in common than our differences."
Marty noted that John Paul's view of the church could not conceive of ecumenism in terms of Protestants and Catholics sharing holy communion or in a mutual recognition of each other's orders, but that some joint action and dialogue efforts are possible.
Protestants "have to live with the terms that are set by this pope," he said, "pick it up on the local level and cheer him when he's cheerable." Marty predicted "a mild directionlessness and chaos" in the ecumenical realm, but added, "I don't think ecumenism is dead."
Most agreed that the synod would have little immediate effect on the average Catholic in the pew, except to reaffirm the changes that have become entrenched in the church in the last 20 years.
With all the controversy over Vatican II in recent years, said O'Brien, being a Catholic has been "like working for a company that you know is up for sale. You do your job but you worry, will you still have a job? Now the synod has happened and Vatican II was not swept away."
Catholics can be reassured, he continued that "Vatican II was not just a phase. It is the church. It is the church we are going to be living in for the rest of our lives."