Fears that Pope John Paul II's extraordinary Synod of Bishops later this month will seek to reverse the historic reforms of the Vatican's Second Ecumenical Council 20 years ago are being steadfastly denied by Vatican officials and organizers of the gathering of world Catholic leaders.
"I think when the synod finally meets, it will be very anticlimactic," said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Vals, referring to the widespread concern among liberal Catholics that the pope had called the gathering to try to roll back the reforms begun by Pope John XXIII in the mid-1960s. "I think when all is said and done, you will find that the pope has called the meeting to honor the council, not to bury it."
The pope's impromptu call last January for a meeting of his church's bishops this month to commemorate the Second Vatican Council has generated heated debate within the Roman Catholic Church over the pope's intentions.
While conservative Catholics pleased by the pope's insistence on orthodox doctrine and disciplined Catholic unity have tended to praise the event, liberal Catholics have expressed fears that the pope plans to use the gathering to redefine the sweeping reforms of the church initiated by the Vatican II Council, which met from 1963 to 1965.
Concerns that the synod, which will meet here from Nov. 24 to Dec. 8 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vatican II, will in fact seek to redress its outcome were given some support last week by the synod's secretary general, Cardinal Jan Schotte of Belgium.
Meeting with the press to discuss the opening of the synod, Schotte acknowledged that the replies to the questionnaire sent by the Vatican to all 103 national bishops' conferences soliciting their thoughts on the gains and losses of Vatican II changes "did not omit to indicate, with seriousness and openness, shortcomings and negative tendencies and phenomena."
Senior Vatican officials have confirmed that the synod would be a "stock-taking" of Vatican II, a reassessment of its contributions as well as its excesses of interpretation by certain segments of the church.
Schotte, however, declined to discuss what the "shortcomings and negative tendencies" were, specifying that they constitute part of the secret working agenda of the conference, which will draw 165 voting participants and at least 40 nonvoting contributors and observers, including 10 from non-Catholic Christian churches.
The agenda for the conclave is being formed from the replies to the questionnaires. From the heated debate that has emerged in public, it is clear that there are two distinct interpretations representing the longstanding division within the church between traditionalists and reformers.
The Vatican II Council opened the door to vast changes in the church's practices and its perception of its role in the world. It introduced a more open approach to how the church communicates its gospels, shares authority with its local bishops and assumes responsibility for changing the social and economic conditions of its followers.
For 20 years the church has struggled with these historic changes, which have given the church a new spirit and mission while sparking resistance from those who felt it was stepping beyond its traditional role in spiritual, not temporal, affairs.
Because John Paul II, who assumed the papacy in 1978, has sought to reinforce traditional church adherence to doctrine, unity and papal authority, liberals have expressed reservations about his commitment to the reforms of Vatican II, even though as a bishop he participated in the council and actively contributed to some of the changes.
Liberals have challenged the pope's commitment to such changes as greater church collegiality in decision-making and such Vatican II-inspired social activism as the "liberation theology" practiced in Latin America, freedom of expression within the church and discussion of subjects such as birth control and the role of women in the church.
The answer of British and Welsh bishops to the Vatican questionnaire reflected the reservations of some important sectors of the church. The bishops said there was a threat of a "lack of tolerance and a certain new fundamentalism" in the church under John Paul II.
Vatican officials in recent weeks have tried to allay concerns expressed by liberal Catholics that the synod on Vatican II will aim to reinforce that "fundamentalism" and try to reverse the Vatican II reforms.
"The fact of convoking the synod to commemorate the anniversary of Vatican II is a validating procedure, not an effort to reverse it," said Bishop John Foley, the head of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications. "The synod is not going to revise Vatican II, it is going to celebrate it."
Church officials like Msgr. Foley point out that in calling for the synod last January the pope made it clear that he wanted it to celebrate the council, deepen knowledge among Catholics about its works and message and assess what remained to be done toward seeing that its work be implemented.
Another senior Vatican official said that anyone who studied the pope's role in Vatican II and since should know that he is not opposed to it.
John Paul II took his papal name from his predecessor, John Paul I, who had said he chose the two names to honor John XXIII, who called Vatican II, and Paul VI, who implemented the council's reforms.
"The idea of the pope opposed to the Second Vatican Council cannot be more contrary to the truth and to what the pope has said," said the official. "It is as clear as day to me that what the criticism is is a tempest in a teapot. He may have reservations about some excesses that have resulted, but he is as committed to the council as anyone could possibly be."
In the end, the debate over the synod may prove to be moot. In two weeks of meetings, the bishops, metropolitans, patriarchs and theologians will have too little time to make any major decisions, much less take such a momentous step as reversing the doctrine that emerged from Vatican II.