When the Extraordinary Synod of the Roman Catholic Church ended (December 1985), thousands of words were written about the event by religious journalists of every variety. More interesting, however, from a rhetorical point of view, was the pre-Synod journalism; it provides an excellent illustration of the not-uncommon attempt of the press to formulate the agenda of public events, not merely to report or to comment on them. In the United States, certain religious journals hoped to influence the agenda of the Synod, and failing that, to prejudice their audience against what the Synod might teach.
The strategy is not new. If, for instance, these journalists are warned that the new Canon Law will insist on Catholic universities being Catholic and not something else, they will be sure that before the Canons are promulgated they have published the reasons why they will not (cannot) work in this country, heading the Vatican off at the pass, as it were. With respect to the Extraordinary Synod, America and Commonweal, among others, provided excellent samples of this cowboy journalism.
A number of bishops and a variety of clerical opinion-shapers share the hope of creating an American Catholic Church with much closer ties to modernism, to the contemporary secular scene—a liberal Church which understands the nature of power and which will devote itself, at least for a while, to the things of this world as its primary end. While retaining a nostalgic tie to Rome, it will do things in the American way. The partisans of such a notion read the documents of Vatican II to have been a call for a horizontal church, a confederation of local churches. Hence, the National Catholic Reporter printed a warning that the Synod had better not turn back the clock on Vatican II reforms. In Commonweal, Gregory Baum, the spokesman for liberal optimism, warned the Church to give up its “tragic, oppressive, self-defeating bureaucratic centralism” if it wanted to remain true to “the decentralizing collegial tradition” affirmed by Vatican II.
In their attempt to influence the agenda of the Synod, Catholic journalists brought up two items more than any others: (I) the authority of the Universal Church must be substantively changed because of the concept of collegiality; (2) episcopal conferences must be recognized as having theological status and juridical authority. Msgr. George C. Higgins noted the linkage between these two concepts when writing in America that episcopal conferences were a logical corollary to the principle of collegiality, calling this one of the centra! issues that needed “to be aired without hindrance at the synod.” His views enjoyed the protection of the large umbrella of James M. Malone, president of the National Conference of Bishops, who announced in America that he was going to Rome to share with the Synod his “profound conviction that our experience . . . with an episcopal conference has been on the whole a very positive one.” Bishop Malone also felt that a “communal concept of the church” is more in keeping with “the needs and dispositions of the contemporary scene. Her collegiality is central.”
The attack on the authority of the Universal Church by Ladislas Orsy, S.J., was more broadly based. While he did indeed feel that giving greater scope and freedom to episcopal councils the world over would be a step in the right direction, the really progressive thing would be to find a way to release the energy of the people of God by opening their minds in a way that Canon Law does not now offer them the opportunity to do. New structures are needed to allow the laity to voice their insights, to protect them (from whom?), and to involve the bishops “much more” in the government of the Church. In his contribution, Avery Dulles, S.J., described the status of episcopal conferences as the one issue that can scarcely be avoided. His warnings were more oblique: The principle of subsidiarity must be safeguarded and regionalism encouraged.
Rev. Charles E. Curran, currently under fire from the Holy Office, was the most candid of America’s commentators, having less rhetorical deftness (or caution?) than Orsay or Dulles. Since there is no longer, he asserted, one perennial theology, the Church must be willing to live with far greater pluralism and diversity. The true test of collegiality occurs when a bishop tells the Pope that he is wrong. Monika. Hellwig’s sober, dogged hope for the Synod was based on episcopal conferences because they are concerned with the “real issues of the redemption of the world,” e.g., peace and disarmament, questions which do not have a “narrow churchiness about them.” Michael J. Buckley, S.J., justified the Americanization of religious life over the past 20 years, praising native charisma as “an absolute essential for apostolic mission.” The needs of the local church should be a major norm for the shape a seminary assumes, was the opinion of his fellow Jesuit, Brian O. McDermott.
One looks in vain in the numberless pre-Synod articles in the religious press for references to Christ and the Holy Spirit in the list of expectations advanced and proposed. The discussions were so narrow as to have been more appropriately printed in journals of method and management. The suspicion that American seminaries have been teaching little more than sociology for some time now seems to be warranted. Perhaps it is well to remember that it was just 80 years ago that Rome warned the U.S. Bishops that “Americanism” confused the natural and the supernatural.
What the Extraordinary Synod actually preached, we know now, was quite thi; opposite of what the American journalists had suggested. It affirmed the Universal Church as mystery in Christ and communion in the word of God. It affirmed Vatican II by placing the council within the living tradition of the Church from which it got its authority, “the Church itself being the same in all councils.” It warned against the Church being reduced to methodology, organization, or the vocabulary of power. It affirmed the one and universal Church as existing in all particular churches which are formed into one image of Christ because of its universality. The Synod fathers reminded their fellow bishops throughout the world that collegiality based on love is far superior to juridical collegiality. The status of episcopal conferences will have to be studied in the light of the good of the Universal Church and the unalienable responsibility of the individual bishop to his own diocese.
In his closing address, John Paul II extolled “in the first place” the recommendation of the Synod that a universal, normative catechism of the whole of Catholic teaching be prepared. In addition to its profound theological significance, the Pope’s emphasis was a brilliant rhetorical flourish which only the blind could not see or the deaf could not hear. Or the willful, and on that word the short-term future of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States will turn.