Editorials:The Synod — Before & After

The Synod in Rome: What to Look For

To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II has convened an Extraordinary Synod in Rome November 25-December 8, in which leading bishops from every part of the world will take part. How shall we interpret it?

No bishop in the Church took Vatican II more seriously than did the pope, when he was Archbishop of Krakow. Under his leadership, the Church in Poland rose to unprecedented spiritual dynamism. The churches of Poland were alive with worship, prayer, intellectual discussions among workers and intellectuals, and pastoral guidance of a very high and heroic order. In this magnificent revival the Polish Church gave up its share of martyrs: thousands of lay persons imprisoned and some killed, Father Popieluszko brutally beaten to death, and even the pope himself targeted for assassination.

For Poland Vatican II was an immense pastoral success. From around the world, however, have come reports of significant losses and failures in other parts of the Church. Scores of thousands of priests and nuns have left their ministries. Church attendance is down significantly. Moral discipline has grown lax and confused. In the name of “dissent,” vigorously un-Catholic views have been presented as legitimate Catholic teaching. Too few readers have been will­ing to say “Nay.”

So the celebration in Rome the next two weeks is bound to have a tinge of realism. Not all “the signs of the times” in 1985 are as hopeful as those of 1965.

Still, observers should expect a resounding affirmation of Vatican II. The Catholic Church is ever new, ever changing in authentic development and growth, but profoundly concerned to be faithful. In that sense, Vatican II was a profoundly con­servative Council.

The United States is always properly embroiled in argu­ment over how best to be faithful to the principles and proposi­tions of its Founding. Even more so, the Catholic Church finds its raison d’etre in the vision of human life entrusted to it.

One of the central emphases of Vatican II was the “collegiality of bishops in union with the Bishops of Rome.” How does the Church decide when it is being faithful to the intentions of its Founder? One criterion is the universal consen­sus of all its scattered bishops, in union with their head, the Bishop of Rome. This is a solid set of checks-and-balances.

But since Vatican II, a new institutional reality has been encouraged: regular meetings of national (or regional) conferences of bishops. This means that bishops now function in two ways: both in the old way as individual bishops and in na­tional (or regional) conferences. Given contemporary com­munications, this new institutional form has been both helpful and necessary.

But it also has three drawbacks.

(1)  Individual bishops, like other professionals, are reluctant to stand up in public to criticize their fellows. Thus, national or regional meetings experience “group-think.” The individual testimony of bishops — so vital in giving witness to orthodoxy — thus suffers a certain diminution.

(2)  Group meetings are easily swayed by a determined band of activists. Even fewer than ten percent of a national conference can easily sway the center of gravity of the body as a whole.

(3)  Large group meetings necessarily rely heavily on committees and staff. If you wish to control a large body, con­trol the staff that writes its formal documents. Since no docu­ment is ever perfect, individual bishops find themselves in the position of assenting to written texts that they themselves would write quite differently.

To the extent that the Catholic Church relies on the con­sensus of a multitude of scattered individual bishops, the new dynamics dilute individual witness.

In part, national conferences wish “to provide moral teaching and guidance for a specifically Catholic audience,” an Archbishop Weakland recently declared of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral on the U.S. economy. In part, they also wish “to influence public debate in the broader arena of society at large.” These are two quite different tasks, under two quite different sets of intellectual pressures.

At the Extraordinary Synod, then, look for an imperative to evaluate more closely the “collegial” experiences since 1965. Possibly, the bishops at the Synod will desire more autonomy for their own national conferences. Possibly, they will recognize serious dangers of disunity. Possibly, Pope John Paul II will wish to comment.

We shall see. Most likely, this basic issue will be discussed in very tentative and guarded language, and the dominant impression will be that Vatican II has been very much affirmed.


Neo-conservative Pope, Neo-conservative Synod

As predicted, last week’s Extraordinary Synod in Rome resoundingly celebrated Vatican II — even more than predicted, it was a total vindication of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, the prelate whom the pope appointed to watch over the genuineness of Catholic faith.

You could see this vindication in the Washington Post: “Score it a draw,” one bishop said. “It was 1-1 between traditionalists and progressives.” The strongest ally of “progressives” is the media; when progressives claim a tie, you can be sure they lost.

What did progressives win? (1) Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown said the synod “laid to rest” recent specula­tions that the synod would “repudiate” Vatican II. But this was always a false issue, fed by the progressives. No bishop thinks more highly of Vatican II than Pope John Paul II. It awakened Poland.

(2) Pope John Paul II “released” the synod’s report to the public. But the pope is not naive. Progressives often leak to the press. The New York Times ” obtained” the Latin ver­sion, rushing a clumsy translation to print on December 8. The pope announced “release” December 7.

A “Western prelate,” asking anonymity, told the Washington Post: “It would be a vast mistake to believe that the synod, this one or any other was an independent body. The synod is but an advisory group to the pope; it has no legislative functions. We can advise, we can raise issues, but in the end nothing we say makes any difference unless the pope wants to hear us. . . . This is still not our synod, it is John Paul II’s.”

And that is as it should be. The Catholic Church is not a legislative body, not even of bishops. Its final authority rests in two places only: in the pope alone acting in common with the Church universal, and in the pope acting together with a coun­cil of bishops. Its powers are not divided between the pope and the bishops, as it were, half-and-half. On the contrary. The pope is the primary sign of unity. To be apart from him is to be on one’s own. Even bishops, apart from him, lose their authority.

On the other hand, the pope is no arbitrary monarch. His judgments retain their authority only when in communion with the whole Catholic people (not only of this time and place) and with the bishops, assembled in Council or dispersed throughout the world. He cannot just make things up. He is a sign of unity, and his authority comes from that unity.

The Catholic Church is a unique institution. Its “political constitution” is not like that of any nation. It is neither a monarchy, nor a republic, nor a democracy. Its most unique feature is the papacy, a sign of unity amid immense worldwide diversity.

“How many divisions has the pope?” Stalin asked. The pope does not so much “rule” as “guide.” His power is moral, based upon his capacity to persuade and upon the will­ingness of others to follow. History has shown the dangers of division. Therefore, popes are wise to act cautiously, prudent­ly, slowly, even when they show the utmost courage. A schism precipitated in the passions of a moment may take many generations to heal. A pope must pray much, persuade, and proceed in the light of God’s time, not the time of passion.

All this Pope John Paul II has done splendidly. By all ac­counts, the 165 bishops left Rome last month with a sense of relief, joy, and success. No one was “vanquished,” no one boasted of being “victorious.” The sign of unity remains in­tact. “Who won?” Cardinal Law of Boston was asked. “The Church won,” he said.

In the best single bit of reporting on the synod, E. J. Dionne, Jr., of the New York Times wrote: “All along, the Pope said he was seeking a ‘celebration’ of Vatican II, not par­tisan wrangling. A sharply divided meeting could only weaken John Paul’s position; a happy end suggested a search for a kind of synthesis the Pope himself has been seeking, and left him without a major bloc of challengers.”

Pope John Paul II was brought up in a Marxist country, and knows well the manner and the tactics of “progressive” forces, especially well-meaning ones. This is the very defini­tion of a “neo-conservative”: a person of the left who has learned to be critical of the left. Not every step of “progress” is true progress. One must criticize the progressives, too. The pope is not a traditionalist; neither is he a progressive; he is a neo-conservative.

Last month, before the synod, the pope’s nuncio to the United States told the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference in Washington that the work has been “useful” and “necessary.” These are exactly the terms used by the synod.

But the synod also called for further study of the exact theological authority of national (or regional) conferences of bishops. Since national passions often run high, these are a source of potential disunity. It is much easier to stampede a na­tional or regional conference than to stampede the whole Church. Even in political terms, care in granting full authori­ty to national conferences is called for. It is also called for in theological terms, since apart from unity with the pope, Catholic substance is lost.

In addition, the synod also called for a “universal catechism,” a statement of genuine understanding of the Catholic faith applicable in all places and times. As dispersed as it now is, the Catholic Church (now a predominantly Third World Church) will need greater care than ever to maintain its unity.

The synod took care to observe a fundamental principle time and time again: One must criticize not only traditionalists but also progressives. The teachings of Vatican II are often poorly understood and wrongly interpreted, the synod declared. Not all who speak for “progress” speak of genuine progress; the Catholic people ought to be critical in both direc­tions.

Nothing could be more “neo-conservative” than that.

John Paul’s papacy is, more than anything, an attempt to assert the primacy of the spiritual over the material. Today, as the synod asserted, there are many signs of a return to the sacred, a new appreciation of and thirst for the divine. The synod declared: The task of the church is “to cooperate for a return to the sacred so that we will overcome the secularism of our time.”

In the words of E. J. Dionne, Jr.: “There are few better summaries of John Paul’s own priorities.” This time, one can say “Amen” to the New York Times account — and to Pope John Paul II. 


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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