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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER Oct-7-2005 (1,060 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Deja vu: First week of synod follows patterns from past

By John Thavis

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The first week of this fall's Synod of Bishops followed a long-standing tradition: Bishops from all over the world gave speeches all over the map, while the media focused on a few hot-button issues.

The press tended to view the Oct. 2-23 assembly as a showdown debate on married priests, eucharistic sharing, Catholic politicians and Communion for divorced Catholics.

The actual content of the first 30 hours and 250,000 words of synod discussion included those topics, but was less dramatic than the headlines.

The bishops, in fact, ranged far and wide in choosing subjects for their six-minute speeches on "The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church."

The topics included the quality of televised Masses, the shortage of priests, Communion in the hand versus Communion on the tongue, ministry to the sick, the Eucharist's connection to social justice and environmental issues, liturgical translations, Mass prayers with a missionary theme, the dehumanization of secular culture, priestly celibacy, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the proper place of eucharistic adoration.

And all that came in the synod's first two days.

Not surprisingly, journalistic pulses beat faster at the first hint that bishops were tackling controversial questions. When several bishops mentioned the shortage of priests as a pastoral problem -- and one or two raised the possibility of relaxing the church's rule on priestly celibacy -- the synod began to sound like a referendum on married priests.

But such early fireworks have a habit of sputtering quickly at synods. It's happened at several previous assemblies, where bishops asked for a new look at the possibility of ordaining married "viri probati," or "men of proven virtue."

At a 1990 synod on priestly formation, for example, the issue built up steam the first week -- only to fade out completely by the time the synod made its final recommendations to the pope. In the end, that synod re-emphasized the value of priestly celibacy, and Pope John Paul II concluded that the ordination of married men "is not to be taken into consideration" to solve the vocations shortage.

Still, it was significant that Cardinal Angelo Scola's "relatio," or pre-discussion report, for this year's synod explicitly raised the question of ordaining "viri probati" -- even while giving a generally negative response. It meant the question was officially on the table.

Equally interesting was the fact that several bishops took issue with Cardinal Scola's statement that Catholics do not have a "right" to the Eucharist. Some cited canon law, which states that the Christian faithful have a right to receive help from the spiritual goods of the church, "especially the word of God and the sacraments."

This was an important question in the debate over priestly celibacy, and it lay behind pastoral pleas heard at the synod on behalf of the faithful who are suffering because priests are not regularly available to say Mass.

By week's end, Cardinal Scola had no doubt learned that being asked to write the "relatio" is an honor but also a bit of a thankless task: It put him in the hot seat more than once.

The synod's discussion over Communion and politics was initiated by U.S. Archbishop William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He said the issue had caused some ecclesial divisions during the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, and he wanted to hear what bishops from other countries had to say.

Archbishop Levada was trying to broaden the Communion-politics debate and draw insight from the universal church, perhaps because many people see it strictly as a U.S. problem.

But several reporters misinterpreted his suggestion as a move to crack down on Catholic politicians who support legal abortion and on Catholics who vote for pro-abortion candidates. The headline the next day in Rome's La Repubblica newspaper screamed: "The synod attacks abortion: 'It's a sin to vote for someone who supports it.'"

Media in several countries also mistakenly reported that the synod's working document had said it was a sin to vote for pro-abortion candidates. What the working document actually said was this: "Some Catholics do not understand why it might be a sin to support a political candidate who is openly in favor of abortion or other serious acts against life, justice and peace."

The word "might" was a powerful qualifier. In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- the future Pope Benedict XVI -- sent an informal memo to U.S. bishops saying that a vote for a politician who supported abortion may or may not be sinful, depending on the voter's intention.

That point of view was echoed by Italian Cardinal Mario Pompedda, a respected expert on church law and the retired head of the Vatican's top tribunal, who reacted to Cardinal Levada's remark in an interview Oct. 6 in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Cardinal Pompedda said that because voting has such an indirect connection with the actual act of abortion, to speak of sinfulness in this case was generally not appropriate. A Catholic voter may, in fact, have other reasons to vote for such a politician, he said.

Other issues that surfaced quickly at the synod also prompted a sense of deja vu. For example, more than one bishop asked for a new look at church rules prohibiting Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried civilly without an annulment.

The same issue was raised in synods in 1991, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001, and probably others as well. On those occasions, the synod's final documents either ignored the question or encouraged compassion for divorced Catholics while suggesting no changes in the current church policy.

Much has been made of the fact that last July, Pope Benedict seemed to indicate pastoral flexibility on the question of divorced Catholics when he wondered aloud whether marriages contracted between people of weak faith can really be considered sacramentally valid. The comment seemed to augur a relaxation of the church's annulment procedures, which would make it easier for divorced Catholics to reconcile with the church.

It's interesting that during a 1999 synod, at least one bishop pointed hopefully to a practically identical statement made at that time by then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

All of which illustrates that change comes slowly at the Vatican, and rarely during a three-week synod.


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