American bishops participating in the extraordinary synod of the Roman Catholic Church today ruled out any change in the church's current position denying communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Four ranking U.S. prelates also said they could foresee no changes in the church's opposition to divorce, the ordination of women or the rule of priestly celibacy.
"We have no evidence that such an accommodation could easily be made," said Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in response to suggestions during the synod by Canadian, Austrian and Japanese churchmen that the church relax its current stand on denying the sacraments to divorced Catholics who have remarried without first obtaining a church annulment.
Malone, who is considered one of the more progressive of the 165 churchmen participating in the two-week synod, said there was strong pastoral concern among clergymen for the problems encountered by Catholics who have divorced and then remarried.
But, he said at a press conference this afternoon, "the basic question is how a person who continues in what is considered a state of sin can be said to repent when in fact that person continues to live in a union that is invalid."
The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, and the bishops speaking today asserted that that position could not be modified.
"The church is not free to accommodate itself . . . to the modern world," said Bishop John May of St. Louis, the vice president of the U.S. bishops conference. "It is not free to change what Jesus said."
His views were echoed by Cardinal John Francis Dearden, archbishop emeritus of Detroit, and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. Cardinal Law told reporters that "part of our pastoral concern . . . has to be for the very high value of the indissolubility of marriage, and the maintenance of that very high value for us is essential."
During the first five days of general debate at the synod, several prelates spoke of the need for change in this field. Canadian bishops and an Austrian archbishop expressed support for an appeal for change by a Japanese churchman who said current policy "seems an especially cruel measure."
But the American bishops said the calls for change were not realistic.
The bishops also said that a change in the ban on the ordination of women or the acceptance of married priests were unlikely. Speaking of the church's position against allowing women to become priests, Bishop Malone pointed out that the priest "images Christ Jesus, who was a male" and that the role was thus barred to women.
Bishop Malone also said that he had asked the synod to reexamine the question of priestly celibacy -- which he defined as a matter of Roman Catholic discipline rather than doctrine -- but that his purpose had been to see the rule reinforced rather than eliminated. Bishop Malone said he could foresee no relaxation of the ban on married priests except perhaps in areas where there is a drastic shortage of priests. But he added that "the shortage of priests in the United States is not in the same category."
Today, the synod ended the first period of general debate, breaking up into separate discussion groups where individual topics will be examined in greater depth.
Today, two bishops -- one from a Soviet republic and the other from a noncommunist dictatorship -- asked that their speeches not be made public because of the difficult situation in which the church operates in their countries. For the most part, however, the 165 participants have discussed openly and frankly the problems affecting Roman Catholicism in their areas following the Second Vatican Council, which was held in the mid-1960s.
This synod was called to examine the impact of Vatican II, and Bishop Malone said today that the principal theme of the synod so far has been "universal support for Vatican II, universal agreement that the council was a great gift of God to the church."