A two-week extraordinary synod of Roman Catholic bishops ended today on a conciliatory note, as Pope John Paul II promised to act on the bishops' two most basic concerns: the elaboration of a new catechism of church teaching, and deeper study of bishops' power in their local and national churches.
In a closing address to the senior church figures gathered here for the synod, the pope had nothing but praise for the gathering, even though his references to the synod's work indicated that it remained inconclusive.
"Nevertheless," the pope said in his final address in Latin to the gathering of cardinals, bishops, patriarchs and specially invited theologians and religious representatives, "I am persuaded that the work the synod has performed was very worthy."
Only the pope's promised publication in coming days of the synod's final relatio, or summary of its deliberations, will make clear what the gathering accomplished. But it was clear from the pontiff's remarks, comments of the prelates who participated and Vatican officials that the meeting had not developed into the conflict between traditionalists and progressives that had been forecast.
Moreover, while the conclave ended as it began -- under papal auspices and with the bishops in an advisory role -- reports of the sometimes free-wheeling deliberations indicated a process of compromise between the two sides on some key issues.
"Score it a draw," said one soccer-minded Italian bishop. "It was 1-1 between traditionalists and progressives."
"Frankly," said Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich of Armagh, Northern Ireland, "I was amazed at the harmony that was evident at the synod. I had been led to expect a major fight from what I had read in presynod reports, but it just didn't happen."
What did seem to happen -- as the pope had planned -- was an open debate amid varying points of view about the church and the teachings of the historic Second Vatican Council -- also known as Vatican II -- of 20 years ago, which was the object of this synod called earlier this year by John Paul.
As the pontiff put it today, he was pleased that the synod debates had been categorized by "diversity within unity."
"The fathers have been able to express their personal views freely," he said, noting that these were openly aired in the synod's general sessions as well as in the smaller working groups. "This liberty was not in any way an obstacle to substantial unity. You have thus excellently expressed the spirit of collegiality," he said.
Collegiality, or the sharing of power between the Vatican and the bishops that was foreseen in the major modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, was one of the key issues discussed -- but not resolved -- in the synod.
Among the major, still controversial, reforms begun by Vatican II, which was held from 1963 to 1965 under the auspices of the late popes John XXIII and Paul VI, was the broadening of the power of the bishops. This was codified by Paul VI in 1965 in a document entitled "Apostolica Solicitudo," which for the first time envisioned a regular convening of synods of bishops to advise the pope and discuss problems of the church.
That shift was seen by progressives as a major advance in broadening power previously exclusively held by an infallible pontiff. But the concept has been bitterly resisted by traditionalists who fear any decentralization beyond the traditional powers of the pope and the curia, or Vatican administration.
One of the major developments since Vatican II has been the growing power of the church's bishops as expressed by national and regional episcopal conferences, which increasingly have tried to assume responsibility for local issues and liturgical questions, and the application of Roman Catholic teachings in a local, often non-European, culture.
That effort has been resisted by the curia, whose power these local groupings usurped, and, to a certain extent, by John Paul II, a conservative who believes in the traditionalists' insistence on centralism in doctrinal as well as liturgical questions.
Thus it was natural that when the pope called the current synod the issue of collegiality, and the democratization and regionalization of responsibility that it implied, would be a major one.
The traditionalists' view of collegiality was upheld by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or watchdog on orthodoxy, through an insistence on the "mystery" of the church. Such "mystery," it was argued, made it impossible to consider the church in normal sociological, or even political, models of organization and thus became a buzzword for the preservation of the traditional, centralized hierarchical structure.
In his closing speech today in the papal audience hall in which the synod was held, the pope praised both the gathering's insistence on the special "mystery" of the church and the collegiality that the meeting reinforced.
As such, the pope was recognizing the ultimate compromise of the bishops, who only agreed to the texts of a final "pastoral message to the faithful" and the synod's forthcoming relatio after three revisions each and repeated debate. In the end the messages and conclusions remained ambiguous, with none of the major divisions of the church in the post-Vatican II decades resolved.
Though such leaders of the so-called progressives as Bishop James M. Malone, archbishop of Youngstown, Ohio, and president of the U.S. National Conference of Bishops, declared themselves extremely satisfied by the synod, it is clear that it remained very much the pope's show, not the bishops'. He called the gathering, established the theme, appointed its main organizers and a majority of those who formulated the final documents, and set the tone in his daily meeting with the bishops as synod president.
"It would be a vast mistake to believe that the synod, this one or any other, was an independent body," said one western prelate who spoke on the condition he not be named. "The synod is but an advisory group to the pope; it has no legislative functions. We can advise, we can raise issues, but in the end nothing we say makes any differences unless the pope wants to hear us. This pope says that he does, but his actions, or those of his curia, often indicate that he does not. This is still not our synod, it is John Paul II's."
That it was not totally the pontiff's, however, was demonstrated by the issue raised by traditionalists, the need for a universal church catechism to guide the faithful.
Advocated most publicly by Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, one of the leading American traditionalists, the synod quickly recognized the need to accept the concept of some sort of universal catechism.
Though the initial suggestions appeared to reinforce the central church authority and orthodox teaching favored by traditionalists, in the synod's last two days that notion was watered down notably by progressives. In the end it was agreed only to formulate some general compendium of church teachings that would form a basis on which individual regional and local churches could base their own catechisms.