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Roman Catholic synod to look at 20 years of Vatican II reforms

By Robert MoynihanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 1985


The Vatican seems oddly poised between complacent calm and nervous apprehension on the eve of a world gathering of Roman Catholic bishops. The bishops have been summoned here by Pope John Paul II to review the effects on the church of the two decades since the close of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).

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The calm reflects a general conviction that the synod, scheduled to run from Nov. 25 to Dec. 8, will be too short to produce any such profound restatement of Catholic teaching as that embodied in the 16 documents issued by Vatican II in the three years from 1962 to 1965.

The apprehension stems from the synod's unpredictability.

Vatican II, initiated by Pope John XXIII, who said he wanted to ``open the windows'' of the church to ``let in fresh air,'' was remarkable for its sharp break with 400 years of church tradition. Among its many landmark actions were calls for closer union among Christian churches; a new emphasis on the church as a democratic institution rather than a hierarchical structure separating clerics and laity; an appeal for greater cooperation with Jews and those of other non-Christian faiths; and a commitment t o new forms of liturgy.

Roman Catholics of all points of view are worried that the coming synod may make some unforeseen or startling declaration. Liberals fear that some element of Vatican II teaching may be reversed. Conservatives are braced for a possible blanket confirmation of Vatican II, elements of which they strongly oppose.

``Anything is possible,'' observes the Rev. Robert Graham, an American Jesuit historian who has spent a lifetime studying the history of Vatican diplomacy. ``Once that gavel comes down and the synod begins, it is impossible to predict what direction it will take.''

In the midst of the uncertainty, speculation about the synod is more common than information. The synod's agenda is unclear. But it will probably include the state of contemporary faith, ecumenism, the Catholic liturgy, the structure of the church, social justice, and clerical celibacy -- all of which (except for the last), it is generally agreed, were dealt with in unprecedented ways by Vatican II, which began under John XXIII in 1962 and ended under Pope Paul VI in 1965.

There are bound to be differences of opinion at the synod, most observers agree. Among the possible points of conflict: theological liberty, the church's hierarchical and Rome-centered organization, church liturgy, and the ordination of married priests.

The synod will be attended by 164 of the Catholic church's approximately 3,000 bishops. In addition, nine Catholic women have been invited to attend the synod as observers. As recently as two weeks ago, it was uncertain that any women would be invited.

Also, representatives from 10 non-Catholic Christian churches will also attend as observers, including members of the Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches.

One does not have to hunt to find issues of potential conflict among the bishops.

One such issue is priestly celibacy. The report of the United States bishops' conference released Sept. 16 suggests that the US bishops are prepared to raise the issue of changing church law to allow the ordination of married men.

``The shortage of new priestly vocations requires specifically addressing such issues as celibacy,'' states the report, authored by Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio.

Yet a number of priests interviewed here believe the issue will not be raised seriously, if at all.

``That's a foul ball,'' Fr. Graham commented. ``The synod is going to say to the American bishops, `We have discussed that issue already and it's settled. Don't ask us to discuss it again.' ''