The elected leader of America's Roman Catholic bishops today pronounced the church's worldwide Synod of Bishops here "a great success" even though he admitted that it was ending with numerous "unresolved questions."
Bishop James M. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, said the synod had "laid to rest" recent speculation that the gathering would somehow try to "repudiate" the historic reforms of the Second Vatican Council 20 years ago.
"The synod has provided a resounding reaffirmation of the teaching and the authentic spirit of the Second Vatican Council," Malone said at a press conference this afternoon.
He spoke as the 165 cardinals, bishops and patriarchs of the Catholic Church retired to their private chambers to meditate on the final, much-revised summation of their two weeks of deliberation here on the message and teaching of Vatican II.
"Again and again we have heard the council spoken of as a great gift of God to the church in our times," he said. "I trust this has laid to rest certain rather fervid speculation during the past year to the effect that the synod might somehow repudiate or undo the work of the council."
Malone's words notwithstanding, however, there was evidence that the synod, a type of bishops' gathering that has resulted from the Vatican II reforms, remained deeply divided over what the true message of the council really was.
Although there has been extended discussion about whether or not the final summary of the synod's work would be made public or merely presented to the pope for his consideration, it now appears that the decision to publish the synod conclusions will rest entirely with the pope. This is viewed as a victory of sorts for traditionalists, who oppose publication of the ambiguous conclusions of the gathering to date.
The Rev. Diarmuid Martin, a Vatican spokesman who has been conducting regular briefings on the closed proceedings to reporters covering the synod, said tonight that the issue of whether or not to publish a final document was not even on the agenda for the synod's final day because it was the tradition of past synods to allow the pope to decide that question. Synods are not legislative bodies within the church, but purely advisory.
Although the synod divisions have been muted in the interest of presenting an image of a united church, traditionalists and progressives have debated the true message of the council for 20 years. They have been divided about whether to stress the letter of its limited texts or to embrace its open spirit in choosing a model for the church of today and the immediate future.
From all indications, this meeting -- called by Pope John Paul II earlier this year -- failed to settle that 20-year-old debate. Proof of that was the difficulty that the bishops have had agreeing on a basic summation of their work and views.
Although it was decided in the first days that one of the synod's products should be a pastoral "message to the faithful" to explain the meeting's work, it took three different, hotly debated drafts before a needed two-thirds majority could be lined up today behind an ambiguously worded compromise pastoral letter.
The final document, scheduled to be read publicly for the first time Sunday during a closing mass celebrated by John Paul and the bishops attending the synod at St. Peter's Basilica, offers a little something to each side in the still unresolved debate.
To the traditionalists, it pays dutiful reverence to the "mystery" of the church, which translates as support for the Rome-based central church administration whose powers have been eroded by Vatican II collegial reforms that gave new status to national bishops' councils and to lay church members.
At the same time, the pastoral letter approved today makes specific reference to the progressives' concern for the "social, economic and political" problems of the times -- including human rights violations, racial discrimination, economic inequality, and the "destructive and terrifying" arms race.
As one Vatican source put it today, the message was "nothing but a compromise" that wove together the concerns of both the traditionalists and the progressives as the best way to reach a majority consensus.
The major synod summary, called the relatio, is understood to be another such hodgepodge of church opinion on just how the Vatican II reforms are to be interpreted and applied.
The final relatio given to the synod participants tonight was a rambling document put together by Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the official relator, or secretary. The document contained 15 sections that had been through four revisions during the two-week meeting. The cardinals and bishops were being asked tonight to read that summary and before they meet again Saturday morning, the last working day of the synod, to mark a ballot, section by section, on whether they approve the final document.