Rolling Back the Tide

On November 22 the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops called by John Paul II to reconsider Vatican 2 begins in Rome. Already, in behind the scenes manoevuring, Cardinal Hume of England has got the upper hand on Cardinal Ratzinger of West Germany, the Pope's favourite conservative.

The Roman Synod is of very recent invention. It was devised by Pope Paul VI in 1965 as a response to the Second Vatical Council. The idea was to continue in some way the healthy collaboration between the bishops of the whole world, and recognise the valuable contribution made to the Council by theologians. The technical name for this collaboration was "colllegiality". The Pope was not a solitary Atlas propping up the Church: the world's bishops formed a team which shared with him in the "solicitude of all the Churches."

But it was to be a Synod of Bishops - and no one else. Its role was to proovide information and give advice to the Pope. But it had as such no decisionnmaking authority, although theoretiically the Pope could grant it this power if he so wished.

So far, no Pope has given the Synod this authority. Yet the Synod of Bishops changed the nature of the Church, contributed to understanding across national frontiers, opened up the industrial nations to third world problems, enabled leading cardinals (like Karol Wojtyla of Krakow) to emerge on the world scene, and made the Church, in short, more truly "Catholic", that is, the home not of uniformity but of reconciled diversity.

The Synods tackled crucial posttconciliar questions such as liturgical reform (1967), the priestly ministry and justice in the world (1971), evanngelisation (1974), catechetics (1977), Christian marriage (1980) and reconnciliation (or what used to be called the sacrament of "confession") in 1983.

At Knock on September 30, 1979, Pope John Paul said to half a million people: "The Second Vatican Council and the Synod of Bishops have brought new pastoral vitality to the Church." He said that the Church was now living' in its "synodal period". He claimed that "the Church in Ireland has grateefully accepted the riches of the Counncil and the Synods."

One does not know - or I do not know - who drafted this speech at Knock. But what matters is that Pope John Paul was prepared to read it out. So he accepted and ratified the idea that no wedge could be driven between Vatican II and the Synods that had followed it.

All the Synods of Bishops so far mentioned were "ordinary synods", that is happening regularly (at first) every two and (later) every three years. There will be another "ordinary" Synod in October 1987 on the theme of "The Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World". Its workinggpaper has already been published. Everyone is invited to contribute Èbefore next Ash Wednesday. Hurry, hurry.

But two other types of Synod are foreseen by its statute. One can hold a "special Synod" devoted to the parrticular problems of a local Church: examples are the Dutch Synod held in Rome in January 1980, and the Synods of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in April 1980 and October 1985. No one paid much attention to the Ukrainian Synods, while the Dutch Bishops at their Synod were required to reject most of the poliicies on which their pastoral work had been based in the previous fifteen years.

An "extraordinary Synod" was yet another animal. The delegates for "orrdinary Synods" are elected according to the number of bishops in the episscopal conference. Ireland and England and Wales have two each; smaller conferences like Scotland and Burundi have only one; huge conferences of nearly 300, like the US and the Braziilians have four bishop delegates.

But this moderately "democratic" weighting by size was abandoned for the "extraordinary Synod" which is attended only by Presidents of Episscopal Conferences - Tomas 0 Fiaich in the case of Ireland and Basil Hume for England and Wales.

There has been only one instance, so far, of an "extraordinary Synod", that of 1969 devoted to "collegiality". Its not-so-hidden agenda was how to cope with the varied responses of episscopal conferences to the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, banning artiificial contraception, which had apppeared the previous year.

Some Bishops had called for blind obedience; others stressed that the rights of an informed conscience were uriimpaired. The extraordinary Synod of 1969 cannot truthfully be said to have resolved this problem. There were denunciations from curial cardinals of the centrifugal force of nationalism that was said to be destroying the unity of the Church. But there were also pleas for a recognition that the Bishops of local Churches were also successors of the apostles and therefore had the right to be consulted about Church teaching (which had not happpened).

The Extraordinary Synod of 1985 was not called to resolve a crisis of exactly the same nature. Yet, curioussly, as its true agenda gradually emerrged, it really had to deal with preecisely the same problem that was faced in 1969: what, in practice, is the relaationship between local Churches and the universal Church symbolised by the Bishop of Rome? Or to put it more technically: how is the colleegiality proclaimed by the Council and expressed in the successive synods faring?

Yet this was not the question that seemed uppermost when Pope John Paul II announced the convocaation of the Extraordinary Synod in the basilica of St Paul's without the Walls on January 25, 1985. It was a total surprise. Poles love anniversaries. But twenty years after Vatican II seemed a short time to be reassessing its teachhings.

But Slovak Archbishop (as he then was) Jozef Tomko, then President of the Synod Secretariat, the body designed to ensure continuity between one synod and the next, explained at a press conference that "one could not pass up in silence" such an anniversary without denigrating the event. This was curious logic. Much later Cardinal Basil Hume told Kevin 0 'Kelly of R TE with a twinkle in his eye: "Why twenty years? Well, you see, it's not nineteen, and it's not twenty-one."

Pope John Paul's address on January 25 assigned a threefold purpose to the Extraordinary Synod: to relive the exxperience of the Council, to enquire how well it had been applied, and to adapt it where necessary "in the light of new needs". These were nonncontroversial aims. Pope John Paul g said he was utterly committed to the ] Council which was "the constant ~ reference point of every pastoral .;;: action" in his pontificate and "the ~ fundamental event in the life of the contemporary Church".

No sooner had these words been released on an unsuspecting world than Pope John Paul set off on another of his marathon trips, this time to Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru. On the papal plane reporters asked Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Secretary of State, where the idea for an Extraordinary

'Synod had come from. He raised an eyebrow and replied: "It was all his own idea."

For Casaroli had not been consullted. The proof was that the Pope's speech contained an error. He said that Pope John had announced the Council "here in this basilica" (qui in questa basilica). But Pope John had announnced the Council not in the basilica but privately to an audience of eighhteen cardinals in the chapter-room of the adjoining Benedictine Abbey. It was a minor lapsus but it showed that there had been little consultation in advance. Casaroli did not have to read my book on Pope John (though he did) to be aware of papal fallibility here.

Tomko added another error. "We all remember," he declared at his press conference, "the evening when Pope John announced the Council." It was one of those events like the shooting of President John F. Kennedy when everyone can recall exactly where they were when they heard the news. Alas, Pope John started speaking at ten past one which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be construed as "evenning".

Do these slips matter? Not in the long run. But they show that the Extraaordinary Synod was a bright idea, immpulsively decided upon with little or no consultation and not really thought through. The consequence was that the "meaning" of the event was not predetermined. It was up for grabs. The first episcopal statements about it were therefore, as Clifford Longley noted in The Times, "two-thirds specuulationand one-third jockeying for position."

There was an immediate conflict between the pessimists and the optimists. The pessimists said that manifestly the Pope was trying to "put the clock back." This absurd metaphor was attributed to "a Belgian theoloogian in the Curia". All one can say is that if the anonymous Belgian did make such a remark, there would soon have been one fewer Belgian theoloogians in the Curia.

The optimists said that it was preeposterous to imagine that Pope John Paul had any intention of repealing, shelving, still less "burying" the Counncil. His own record proved that he was 100% behind the Council, both during it and after it. Look at his track record, they said, and you will find that no one was more committed to the Counncil than he.

But this dispute left out one vital factor, the Pope's decision to summon an Extraordinary' Synod did not come out of a clear blue sky. If one placed it in the context of his pontificate as a whole, then there were real grounds for disquiet.

For it was evident that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, . formerly professor in Tubingen University in West Gerrmany, then from 1977 Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and since January 1982 Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (formerly the Holy Office), was the chief intellecctual guru to the Pope. Ratzinger is a clever man, but he had been driven to the right by the events of 1968, when German universities were in uproar, and his own theological students read neo-Marxists like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse.

He had come to resent the theoloogical tendencies of the multi-language review, Con cilium, of which he had been a former board member, and suppported the rival but less successful review called Communio founded in 1972. The Polish Bishops (including therefore Karol Wojtyla) had banned the translation of Concilium into Polish on the grounds that "Polish theoloogians were polyglot and could read it in other languages." Yet they soon translated Communio .

It would be unjust to explain what subsequently happened merely by odium theologicum (a disease that afflicts the celibate clergy more viruulently since they have no other outlet for their aggressivity). But it would be equally unjust not to point out that all the theologians who have so far been dealt with by Ratzinger's office have been members of the editorial board of Co n cilium : Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx OP, Leonardo Boff OFM, Gustavo Gutierrez, Jacques Pohier OP.

There is happily no Irishman on the board at the moment. But England is represented by Nicholas Lash, the first Roman Catholic to be Norris Hulse Professor of Theology in Cammbridge and Scotland by John Zizoulas. But Lash is a laicized priest and Zizouulas a Greek Orthodox, so their views do not count for much.

So much for the background. In the immediate foreground at the start of 1985 was that Ratzinger had given an interview to a right-wing Italian magazine, Jesus, in which he said that the Vatican Council, though good in itself, had had deplorable effects. Religious life had been desstroyed. Theologians had embraced the world. Karl Rahner had undermined missionary work with his "catchhphrase" of "anonymous Christians". American moralists were ruined by notions of "fullfilment". Bishops were lax. The Church had manifestly "fallen apart" in more than one country. And so on.

In short what was needed was a "restoration of pre-conciliar values" (obedience, docility etc) and the firm smack of authority. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of" Faith, Ratzinger was in a position to supply the latter at least.

On February 11, 1985, he silenced the Brazilian Franciscan and liberaation theologian, Leonardo Boff. Since liberation theology presented itself as "the voice of those who have no voice", this was an ironical move. Boff took the ban in good part, knowing that he had the support of most of the Brazilian hierarchy.

That already disproved the Vatican theory that liberation theologians had devised a "popular Church" that was at loggerheads with the bishops. It also brings us back to the theme of the Synod: how much autonomy do local Churches really have? In the case of Brazil there was a head-on clash.

There was a similar scenario in Peru where Ratzinger had been unable to persuade the Bishops to condemn Gustavo Gutierrez, conventionally known as "the father of liberation theology". Pope John Paul who had wagged a warning finger at Ernesto Cardenal, the priest minister of culture in Nicaragua, went to Peru and did not even try to meet Gutierrez. I asked a Polish friend of the Pope the reason for this omission. "Because any meetting would have been manipulated", replied Stefan.

All these factors conspired to sugggest that if Ratzinger's agenda for the Synod were to be followed, then it would be a pretty gloomy affair, with the emphasis falling on the urgent need to "correct the misinterpretations of Vatican II". Pope John Paul's visit to the Netherlands in May supported that judgement: he evidently believed that the Council had gone to the heads of the Dutch and had emptied the connvents and religious houses. He might have known the story about the funeeral of a Dominican: as the good man was lowered into his grave, a friend remarked: "That's a funny way to leave the order."

But at the same time there was the paradox and challenge of Holland. The five theological colleges are full. Of men who do not wish to become priests because of the requirement of celibacy; and of women who cannot become priests because of the requireement of maleness. This means that unnordained lay people begin to do most of the ordinary pastoral work of the Church. The Dutch think they have got to the future first. The Pope does not agree. Impasse.

The visit to innocuous. Belgium, . however, was just as important. FQr there Pope John Paul lectured the Belgian Bishops, warned against theologians becoming a "parallel magissterium" (a quote from Pius XII in 1954), and said that "errors existed that ought to be named". It was difficult to resist the conclusion that "naming errors" would be one of the runcuons of the Synod. The Ratzinger approach seemed to be vindicated.

But not altogether. Rescue was at hand. Basil Hume mounted his white charger and determined to save the Synod from negativity and futility. He was in a strong position. For he was an elected member of the Synod Council (one of three for Europe), which meant he was in on the planning stage. He was president of the English and Welsh episcopal conference, which meant he would be present at the Synod come what may. He was also President of the Council of European Bishops, which meant that he knew his colleagues and could draw upon the best theologians in Europe.

There was more. As a pastoral bishop, Hume could appeal to his constituency whom he consults freequently. Ratzinger would have to speak in the name of the reports that crossed his desk - a sorry tale of deenunciations. Hume could speak; in the name of his local Church, in French (his mother is French) or German (he studied in Fribourg, Switzerland) or even bad Italian (which he has not learned properly because he fears the prospect of a Roman curial job).

What was Hume's strategy? Simple: seize the initiative, win the public relations battle, get in first with his positive agenda for the synod. How do I know? From his actions. On April 23, feast of St George (a good day for dragon-slaying) he went to Paris and gave a press conference to Catholic journalists. What was unusual about that? Nothing, except that the invitaation had been on the tapis vert since he was appointed to Westminster in 1976. Why did he take it up now? Because Tomko, Secretary of the Synod had just been moved from the Secretariat of the Synod to become Prefect of the Congregation of Peoples (formerly Propaganda) to replace the former Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Ryan, who had died on February 23.

So, as far as the Synod was concerrned, there was a vacuum, a black hole. Hume hastened to fill it. He went to Paris and declared bluntly that it was not the Council that had failed, but that we - bishops, priests and laity - had failed the Council. So at the Synod there would be no question of putting clocks back or burying the Council. On the contrary, we had not yet realised its full implications. Growth and development were posssible. We were still groping for the right way to implement collegiality.

Hume returned from Paris after lunch, without seeing Cardinal J eannMarie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris. Of Polish-Jewish family, Lustiger owes everything to Pope John Paul. Made a cardinal by Paul VI, Hume feels much more free. He is a Benedictine. He is used to giving and receiving "fraternal correction". He is spontaneously "fedeeralist" since the Benedictines are not a religious order in the modern sense (like the Jesuits) and only had an Abbot General when the Vatican innsisted on it at the end of the last cenntury.

Hume's next move was to publish on July 29 the report he had drawn up with the English and Welsh Bishops. Then the Americans went ahead. At this point the Vatican put a ban on publication of any other reeports. The Irish were reputedly poised for publication when the news arrived through the Nuncio.

The Canadians found this a bizarre decision and asked why they couldn't publish since others had. "This means the norms of the Holy See have not been observed," countered the Nuncio. So Hume was being rebuked.

But one can see why he wanted to get in first with his own story on the present state of the Church. For in his version it is not "theologians" who are wrecking the Church but conservaatives who are holding it back. .

Here are a few sample remarks:

"Traditionally the laity have been over-dependent on the clergy . . . Because of the previous relative simpliicity of expression of the Church's teaching, present diversities in expresssion and also in pastoral practice have disturbed some of the faithful . . . There must be a concerted effort by the whole Church to be open to the changing role of women ... Attention must be paid to sexist language, espeecially in the liturgy. These questions are causing some disquiet and will unndoubtedly grow in importance in the next decade."

The women's question has been. called "the ticking time-bomb of the Church". The Vatican view appears. to be that it will go away if one iggnores it. Hume does not agree.

The entire document - it is charmmingly called a "submission" - is not only a thorough rejection of Ratzinnger's pessimism, but it refutes also his key theological argument. Having had trouble with episcopal conferences (a national bench of bishops), Ratzinger

declared that they had no theological status and no mandate to teach. What were they then? A convenient pracctical arrangement. No more. A bishop may teach only when in his own diocese or when assembled around the Pope with all the Bishops of the world. So when a small group of bishops meet - say the Irish Bishops at Maynooth ðthey deposit their magisterium (or teaching authority) in the cloakroom along with their hats and coats.

It is a ludicrous theory, a crude attempt at power play, a piece of ideological bullying (and Ratzinger said exactly the opposite in 1965, in' Concilium of all places). It naturally had the stirn ulating effect of uniting all diocesan bishops everywhere against Ratzinger's arrogance and highness.

Hume refutes Ratzinger with the remark that in Lumen Gentium (the Council's document on the Church), episcopal conferences are compared to ancient patriarchates. They had the task of preserving legitimate diversity and translating the Gospel into the local culture. So an episcopal connference is their modern equivalent.

Hume has already won this point.

For Ratzinger, on the same theological grounds, was equally hostile to the Council of European Bishops' Connferences over which Hume presides. (In the language-based sub-groups, Ireland is joined by Scotland, England and Wales, Malta, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.) When they met Pope John Paul in October he said this body of Euro-bishops "represents a deeply significant and prophetic reality, and points forward to the way which has to be pursued with great conviction and courage." That is pope-speak for "Well done!" So the whole debate about episcopal conferences had been much ado about nothing. The reality of koinonia or communion, as it is lived in the Church, goes far beyond what can be pinned down in juridical terms.

Does that mean that the Synod will succeed? It all depends on your expectations. All over the Catholic world bishops are beginning to dammpen them down. From "you mustn't expect too much" to "don't expect anything at all" is not a big jump. The practical problem is what to say at the airport when one has returned home empty-handed. "We will only be able to judge the effects of this Synod' in five years time", is my favourite, episcopal ploy. Or - when there is no document: "Actions speak louder than words."

Will Hume be disappointed? No he will be delighted. To have averted the pessimistic interpretation of the Council and rebutted Ratzinger's views on episcopal conferences is not a bad year's work. Then the Synod can be devoted to prayer. I'm not joking. Gerry Noel, of the Catholic Herald, recently asked Hume whether he thought the Synod could be described as "a sort of working retreat". "You might say that," he replied with (acccording to Noel) the twinkle of faith and humour in his eyes.

He was smiling because this is only one battle in a long campaign. The prudent man looks ahead. The next Synod will be in autumn 1987 on the role of the laity in the Church and in the world. See you there.

Peter Hebblethwaite is full-time Vatican Affairs writer of the National Catholic Reporter, based in Kansas City. His much acclaimed biography "John XXIII, Pope of the Council", has just appeared in paperback. "Synod Extraordinary" (Darton, Longgman and Todd) is due in January, and "In The Vatican" (Sidgwick and Jackkson) in April 1986.