In a report released yesterday at the close of a two-week synod, Roman Catholic bishops struck a delicate balance between sharply differing visions of the church's Rome-centered rule and its role in political and economic struggles. Elements of the synod's work and the comments of some of the 10 non-Catholic observers who attended suggest that one unexpected result of the gathering was the airing of the possibility of making the church more ``democratic'' and less subject to the sole rule of the Pope.
The consensus here is that the synod confounded those who expected it to be a radical step backward -- a rejection of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and a restoration of the pre-Vatican II church doctrine.
The compromise final report reflects the unity of the church, which claims 840 million members. But deep divisions, revealed during the Nov. 25 to Dec. 8 synod, lie just beneath the surface.
The report strongly asserts the teachings of the Vatican II, which broke with 400 years of Catholic tradition by calling for a new openness to the modern world and to other churches and religions, as well as reforms in liturgy and religious life, including the end of the Latin mass and compulsory fish on Friday.
Vatican II was ``the greatest grace of this century'' for the Catholic Church, the report says. There are three concrete results of the synod:
A decision to prepare a new ``universal catechism'' (a statement of the church's teachings), to be prepared in Rome and to serve as the basis for individual national catechisms.
A decision to study in depth the role of bishops' conferences in church government.
A decision to publish ``speedily'' a new code of church law, which would unify for the first time the church laws of the Eastern Catholic churches.
But the report does not address some controversial issues, such as tolerance for divorced Catholics, allowance of artificial birth control for married Catholics, acceptance of women or married men as priests, or sympathy for non-Western social institutions, such as polygamy.
What the bishops did do was call for reemphasis of fundamental religious values, without turning the church away from social-justice issues.
``Today, in fact, there are signs of a new hunger and thirst for the transcendent and divine,'' the report says. ``In order to favor this return to the sacred and overcome secularism we must open the way to the dimension of the `divine' or of mystery and offer the preambles of faith to mankind today.''
The report says that the church is confronted by the secular world, which reduces man and ``leads not to his true liberation, but to a new idolatry to the slavery of ideologies.''
However, two central issues were taken up which reveal the wide differences among the synod's 165 bishiops, who represented every national bishops' conference in the world.
These were the nature of church authority and the implications of the church's commitment to the idea of a ``preferential option for the poor,'' an idea closely linked with liberation theology. (Liberation theology has advocated the need for Catholics to become involved in social-justice movements and the desirability of revolution in some cases.)
The final report handles both issues in a nuanced and sometimes technical language, which reflects the delicacy of the compromises made at the synod -- and, perhaps, their fragility.
The Pope is ``the subject of supreme and full power in the whole church,'' the report affirms.
But the report also stresses the role of all Catholic bishops -- called ``The College of Bishops'' -- in ruling the church. ``Collegial action in the strict sense implies the activity of the whole college, together with its head [the Pope], over the entire church,'' the report states.
The report goes on to call each national conference of bishops, set up after Vatican II as a type of intermediate layer of church government between the local bishops and the papal curia in Rome, ``authentically signed an instrument of the collegial spirit.''
This statement contradicts the position held by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's chief teaching office.
``We must not forget that the episcopal conferences have no theological basis. They do not belong to the structure of the church as willed by Christ,'' Cardinal Ratzinger said last year. ``No episcopal conference as such has a teaching mission.'' He said such conferences ``smother the work of individual bishops with burdensome bureaucratic structures.''
It would appear, then, on this particular point, that Ratzinger's opinion has not won the approval of his fellow bishops in their report. But the decision to prepare a new catechism is seen by some as a victory for Ratzinger and the party within the church concerned with maintaining Rome's central authority.
Ratzinger has consistently maintained that the church faces a great danger from secularization and ``a loss of the sacred.'' He has particularly criticized liberation theology for focusing too much on material improvement of people's lives.
Observers from Protestant churches who attended the synod as guests said they were heartened by the ``ecumenical'' spirit of the synod, but said that ``major problems'' still exist in the way of closer union between the various churches.
``It was quite a courageous step to invite protestants inside the synod hall,'' said the Rev. David Russell, representative of the World Baptist Union. ``I wonder how many of our Protestant synods would invite Catholics?''
For some of these Protestant observers, the role of the Pope as the final arbiter of power in the Catholic Church continues to be a handicap in ecumenical relations. But some Protestants also praised the Pope for the fact that he sat for two weeks and listened.