Are the reforms of the Second Vatican Council about to be stifled? The synod of bishops now meeting in Rome, and convened as an advisory group to Pope John Paul II, is stirring the world's curiosity much the way the council did when it ended 20 years ago this month.
More than 500 reporters are in Vatican City. Some of them are regulars on the papal beat and as wise as serpents to the church's inner intrigues of secrecy, authoritarianism and male clubbiness. The sharper ones will look beyond that.
"The council remains valid, completely valid," said the synod's chairman, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, at the opening session. "It is impossible to regress."
That will have to be taken on faith. Regressions were occurring even during the three years of the council, 1962-65. Conversatives in the Curia found Pope John XXIII too much the radical reformer. The pope opened the council with a progressive speech. But Peter Hebblethwaite -- a British journalist and a reliable serpent -- later compared the Latin text provided by the Vatican radio with a subsequent translation in "Acta Apostolicae Sedis," the official collection of papal documents controlled by the Curia. Keepers of the "official" text edited out several of John's progressive lines as heard on the radio.
Hebblethwaite reports in his biography "Pope John XXII: Shepherd of the Modern World" that when "the pope discovered these outrageous changes in late November 1962, he was too canny to sack the editor of 'Acta Apostolicae Sedis.' He simply quoted himself, in the original nonedited version, in important speeches."
The same tensions persist. Cardinal Danneels is a Belgian. He was in his early 30s when Vatican II began, and now, at 52, is still a minor among the Methuselahs in the church hierarchy. His full-hearted support of the reforms begun by John XXIII is appreciated in Belgium, a religiously progressive country where the spirit of Catholicism is more honored than conformity to the letter of church law. The Belgian knee has not been bending in the kind of full genuflection preferred by Rome. In 1968, following the encyclical of Pope Paul VI that condemned all artificial forms of birth control, Catholics, 70 percent of the country, were told by their bishops to follow their own "Christian conscience" on the question.
Last May Pope John Paul visited Belgium. He brought a long memory. "There are errors to be pointed out by name," he said. The rebuked bishops, reverent but not cowed, came back: "We do not find formal or obstinate errors, but sometimes a unilateral emphasis on what is conventionally called 'the horizontal dimension' of the Christian message."
Orthodoxy appears to be vertical: from the top -- the pope and the Vatican -- to the bottom, the world's 800 million Catholics. A horizontal Christianity is one that spreads the power, as in the priestly powers that a large number of Catholic women want the option to seek but are denied by a male-run church. In St. Louis last month, the Women's Ordination Conference, an 1,800-member organization founded 10 years ago, brought together 200 women, many of whom feel called to the priesthood. Except for the devout who believe another age of miracles is imminent, none of the women expected the current pope to support their view.
They find it hard to focus even their sympathizers. American bishops, a fairly forward- thinking group, have begun working on what is called a pastoral letter on women. Dolly Pomerleau, an articulate feminist and a staff member of the Quixote Center in Mt. Ranier, Md., said that a double standard is at work: "The proposed pastoral letter should be about sexism and patriarchy, not women. When the bishops wrote on racism, they didn't write on blacks. When they wrote on the economy, it was on the structures that keep people poor, not the poor. So when the issue is sexism, why isn't sexism the problem, not women?"
Were that question to be asked of John Paul II at the current synod, he might, as popes do, quote an earlier pope. There is Leo XIII, the pontiff 100 years ago. In "Rerum Novarum," the encyclical put out as a rebuttal to Karl Marx, Leo said that women "are not suited for certain occupations; a woman is by nature fitted for homework, and it is that which is best adopted at once to preserve her modesty. . . ."
Sexism, entrenched for centuries, vanishes slowly, as do other evils. To study the thinking of Pope John XXIII is to understand that he was pushing the church forward by turning its heart back to Christianity's origins -- the early church that had no ties to governments, when faith was dogma-free and the love of neighbor was expressed in the simplest acts of one-to- one care and mercy.
All of that remains valid. If Vatican II is valid, as the Belgian cardinal and millions of others believe, its reforms go back 20 centuries, not 20 years.