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).
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.' ''
The US delegation to the synod seems likely to split on this issue if it is raised.
Besides Bishop Malone, the other two US representatives are two conservative archbishops, John Cardinal Kroll of Philadelphia and Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston.
Malone, as president of the American Bishops' Conference will be the official voice of the US bishops. But some observers here consider it significant that two higher-ranking US cardinals, both relatively conservative, have also been invited.
Even if disputes arise within the US delegation, they will be in a minority at the synod, and issues of concern to them may not be of concern to the majority of those present. Bishops from third world countries will constitute the majority at the conference.
How the church should address third world problems may thus turn out to be one of the most important issues raised at the synod. According to one recent study, by the year 2000, 70 percent of all Catholics will be found in the third world.
One issue of concern to an African priest and theologian studying in Rome is what the synod might say about church liturgy.
``I hope it will continue what Vatican II began,'' said the African, asking not to be identified because of current religious suppression in his country. ``Vatican II was very advanced in allowing liturgy that could appeal to Africans, incorporating song, dance, and music,'' he said.
A contrary view of the liturgy could be raised by forces in sympathy with the arch-conservative French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was suspended from his episcopal duties by Pope Paul VI in 1976. Lefebvre, with a small but determined following, has crusaded for the return to the Latin rite ever since Vatican II approved the use of ``vernacular'' languages for the Roman Catholic mass.
One issue that may attract discussion from bishops of all points of view and all regions of the world is the current state theologians' liberty -- to think freely and to freely carry out scientific investigation of theological matters.
``Freedom for theological inquiry may become a central issue at the synod,'' said the Rev. John Navone, an American Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University who has lived in Rome since 1963.
The importance of the issue stems from a number of recent decisions by the Vatican, under the direction of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the former Holy Office), apparently aimed at reigning in wide-ranging theological speculation among Catholic theologians. ``There is a fear that Cardinal Ratzinger's theology may become the court theology,'' Navone said.
But Fr. O'Collins said he doubts the issue of theological freedom will be an important issue at the synod.
``There has been a lot of talk about a `chill factor' and a `clamp down' [on theological activity during recent months],'' O'Collins said. ``But the church is in fact much more liberal than many modern secular universities.''
Despite the denials of O'Collins and others, many priests interviewed here said they fear a tightening of church discipline and abandonment of gains made since Vatican II in making Catholic life less externally rigid but more personally meaningful.
However vociferous certain parties turn out to be at the synod, many observers agree that the synod may disappoint those who hope it will lead to radical alterations of church policy or practice.
``There are simply too many issues to discuss and too little time,'' said the Rev. Francis Sullivan, an American Jesuit who is professor of ecclesiology at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome. ``I'm at a loss to figure out what can really be done in just two weeks.''