The way forward
The synod of bishops held last October in Rome was planned under the previous papacy and therefore most of the preparatory work was a fait accompli. However, Pope Benedict XVI brought a certain freshness to the proceedings. In a far-reaching reform, at least by Vatican standards, he allowed the Synod Fathers to make use of an hour every evening for an open discussion.
The new Pope must have also given his consent to have the final propositions agreed by the synod published, a definite break from the past. Some observers commented that Cardinal Ratzinger owes his election to the Papacy to his listening skills and his sincere desire to put collegiality into practice by embracing wholeheartedly the reforms of Vatican II.
One can say in fact that this Synod put an end to attempts to turn the clock back and revert to a pre-John XXIII style of Church. The Synod Fathers extolled the virtues of the reforms promulgated by Vatican II, particularly the liturgical reforms, hence rebuffing neo-Tridentine groups such as the Lefebvre rump. Appeals to the contrary by strong figures such as Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, were ignored and even rebuffed.
This does not mean that the Synod has reached its full potential. Some Curia cardinals still dominated the proceedings and some bishops were intimidated by their interventions. Generally speaking, one could sense the difference between Curia personnel and others with more practical pastoral experiences.
Cardinal Edmund Szoka, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State, spoke on divorced Catholics who entered into other relationships without an annulment. He referred to them as "people who have freely chosen to enter into invalid marriages".
This language was not acceptable to the synod. More sensitivity was called for. Indeed, the final proposition referring to the ban from receiving the Eucharist by Catholics in these types of relationships is more understanding and pastoral in its nature. Some observers believe that this area of pastoral concern remains open to more development.
It is well known that many European bishops admire the way marriage tribunals in America are more practical than those elsewhere. Bishop William Skylstad of Washington, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter that "there are ways we can tell people that when a community of life hasn't developed, there are things we can do to make it possible for them to enter into another relationship".
Vaticanologist John L. Allen, reporting on this debate, wrote: "One irony is that American bishops, long accustomed to hearing their tribunals criticised in Rome for giving out too many annulments, now are hearing them praised as models."
Although it would seem at first glance that the question of access to Communion to Catholics in non-approved relationships is settled, not everyone is convinced. Cardinal Walter Kaspar suggested that Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics might still be an open question. After all, inside sources from the synod revealed that 50 bishops did not support the present ban on lifelong refusal of Communion to these Catholics. They wanted more reflection on the matter.
The synod has shown clearly the great diversity of opinion that resides in the Church, not on matters of faith, but on the application of pastoral norms on a whole raft of issues and particularly on the administration of the Church. Cardinal Godfried Daneels, Archbishop of Malines-Bruxelles, Belgium, applauded "the affective collegiality" of a fraternal joyful synod but lamented the absence of "the effective collegiality" which would lead to decisions. This remains very difficult to achieve without a root-and-branch reform of Church bureaucracy, which some sources claim Pope Benedict has already initiated.
The final propositions by the Synod were a disappointment for some Catholic groups. A statement by Future Church, an influential US group, applauded the open discussion on the shortage of priests but remarked that in some ways "that makes it even worse as the Synod failed from recommending any changes on celibacy". The group also pointed out that not much attention was given to the issue of women in the Church considering that women are holding so many parishes together in the absence of a priest.
No one doubts the value of the Synod of Bishops but some prelates are doubting the practicality of this institution as a decision making mechanism, which of course in practice it isn't, as its brief is still to propose and not to decide.
The synod has demonstrated how different the problems of the Church are in different parts of the world. While bishops in Africa grapple with converts who are in polygamous marriages, in other parts of the world the Church is confronted with the breakdown of marriages on an unprecedented scale.
Such diversity of problems can never be tackled effectively in a universal Church assembly. Bishops' Conferences are the answer. This is how Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta dealt with the Synod's discussion on the proposal to ordain tested married men: "The status quo held because we could not find common ground on the issue." He added that it would be up to individual bishops or bishops' conferences to raise the issue again with the Holy Father if they believe their specific situations warrant it. (National Catholic Reporter, October 19)
The synod adopted this attitude when discussing the issue of whether politicians who publicly disagree with Church teachings should be allowed Communion. And also in the matter of allowing communion to non-Catholics in certain situations. Local bishops are best equipped to deal with these matters. And indeed they are, perhaps I should say, should be. The way forward for the Church is to recognise truly and honestly its diversity within a unity of faith.
The problem remains on how to deal with this diversity. Only true collegiality exercised both by the Papacy and the local churches, and the adoption of the principle of subsidiarity can bring forward the changes that will make the Church of Vatican II more effective in its hard task of staying relevant in a globalised and yet so diverse a world.