On the eve of a controversial special synod of bishops called to evaluate the results of the Second Vatican Council 20 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church's College of Cardinals today ended a meeting with the announcement that the church expects a record $50.2 million deficit in its operating budget for the current year.
The forecast deficit -- a 47 percent increase over last year's -- was contained in a report presented to the cardinals at the end of a three-day meeting here to consider proposals by Pope John Paul II for a streamlining of his papal bureaucracy, known as the Curia.
As had been predicted by Vatican sources, the cardinals did not act on the Curia reforms before them but only added their comments for papal consideration.
Despite concerns that had been expressed by some liberal Catholics, no major changes were made in the authority exercised by the pope or the heads of the 31 Vatican departments that serve him -- and at times have differed with him.
"The cardinals did not meet to formulate a new set of rules for the Curia as so many had forecast," Joaquin Navarro Vals, the Vatican spokesman, said after the meeting. "They met to discuss the pope's proposals and to make recommendations to him to help him in his final decision."
The $50.2 million deficit, nearly twice the $29.5 million deficit of last year, prompted an expression of "strong concern" by the cardinals over the financial situation of the church and also a warning that it was becoming increasingly hard "to substantially restrain the expenses of the various organs of the Roman Curia without running the risk of compromising the efficiency of their services to the holy father in his universal pastoral mission."
High inflation and a 15 percent salary increase for the Vatican's 3,000 employes -- granted after threats of a strike earlier this year -- were cited as the chief reasons for the increased deficit.
The budget covers the expenses of the Vatican's administration; its newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican Radio network and the Vatican diplomatic service.
It does not include the holdings, and income, of the Vatican bank, officially known as the Institute for Religious Works.
In opening the assembly, which drew 122 of the church's 150 cardinals, the pope on Thursday made it clear that even though he was calling them together for their opinions on the Curia changes, he was still the church's supreme leader and that the Curia was there to serve him, not to act as a "parallel power."
Reminding the cardinals that in reforming the Curia in 1967, Pope Paul VI had called on its "absolute obedience" to papal authority, John Paul said the Curia was but an "instrument" to help the "Roman pontiff" run the church more effectively.
Although the pope timed the cardinals' session to immediately precede the larger synod of bishops, which opens Sunday, the two meetings were not directly related.
The cardinals were being called to give advice on what are relatively secondary matters of internal bureaucracy while the gathering of bishops is to deal with substantive issues that some leading Catholics say could greatly affect the course of Roman Catholic history.
The meeting opening Sunday is to be two weeks of deliberations on Vatican II and the church's experience, in the 20 years since, with the sweeping revisions it produced in the church's liturgy and its view of its role in the modern world.
While Vatican officials repeatedly have emphasized that the pope called the synod last January to honor the council, in which he was a participant, many liberal Catholics have said that they fear he and more conservative church leaders may try to undo some of Vatican II's changes.
Much of the debate over the synod has focused around conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's watchdog for orthodoxy, and whom many consider the second most powerful man in the church.
The West German cardinal set the tone for the debate over the synod earlier this year by giving a rare interview to an Italian journalist that was published as the "Ratzinger Report," a book that shook church liberals.
Ratzinger, whose office has disciplined some of the church's most liberal theologians for views he called just short of "heretical," raised the specter of a counterreformation against the Vatican II reforms by declaring that the years that have followed the historic gathering have been "decidely unfavorable for the Catholic Church."
Those words, coming after the pope called the synod, set the tone for the clamor among liberal Catholics about possible dangers.
But Vatican officials have tried to dampen passions, emphasizing the pope's repeated statements of support for Vatican II and the fact that the two-week meeting would not have the time or authority to fully review and amend the council documents.
The consensus among these Vatican officials is that the synod, which includes the heads of the 103 national churches, will provide the pope with insights on what his scattered bishops are thinking about the state of the church 20 years after Vatican II, not usher in any dramatic changes.