The Synod of Bishops may lead to great things
The Synod of Bishops, primarily devoted to the Eucharist, has come to an end, and its advisory propositions will now be considered by Pope Benedict, who will eventually give his response. So we have to ask ourselves: was it largely a waste of time?
Critics of previous synods have made much of the allegation that such synods allowed for little theological thought, and even less for constructive discussion. The heavy control of the agenda, and the formality and secrecy of the proceedings, meant that they had the externals of collegiality but little, if any, of its substance. On this occasion, the greater opportunity for discussion, the attentiveness of Pope Benedict, and the high value of his intervention, gave rise to the hope that collegiality would be usefully advanced and that some creative theological developments would emerge.
Ironically there are those who are now looking to the Pope to deepen and develop in his final response the thinking of a somewhat uninspiring Synod. There are even suggestions that he might have done better working alone, and saved the bishops the trouble of their sojourn in Rome. But we believe that the Synod was worthwhile, and may, under Benedict’s wise guidance, lead to great and important things in the future.
Admittedly the propositions, as we currently understand them to be, did not take us very much further. It would be hardly surprising if the Synod had not emphasised the importance of the Eucharist, and noted the need for deeper understanding of the mystery. We all agree. The canon law restrictions on general absolution are of course confirmed. But if the bishops think this will stimulate a growth in personal Confession, they have not taken into account the shortage of parish clergy and the need for much greater training in the necessary skills.
The bishops express a welcome understanding of the pain of those excluded from receiving Communion because they are irregularly married. But it would have taken hearts of adamantine not to have been already aware of the pain involved. They emphasise the value of the charism of celibacy, which few would be concerned to deny. Although a little corner remains open to the possibility of change with regard to married priests, they believe that the discipline of priestly celibacy should remain in place. They believe, rightly, that a greater devotion to the Eucharist will produce more vocations, but such a process will take time – and the vigorous co-operation of Western bishops who have, until now, exhibited little enthusiasm for the style of Eucharistic spirituality that nurtured Pope Benedict.
What, then, is our reason for optimism? It lies in the growing recognition, throughout the Church, that most of the battles of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are over. Pope John Paul II decisively ended them, by signifying that the Church does not have either the desire or the authority to modify its stance on women priests or personal chastity. By doing so, he did the Church a favour, even if many Catholics were unable to recognise that at the time. Denominations that have yielded to the secular consensus by abandoning core teachings have fractured and faltered; by holding the line on controversial areas of the Magisterium, even at the price of limiting collegiality, John Paul spared the Church the fate of the Anglican Communion.
And now is the time to heal wounds. Who would have thought, a few years ago, that Joseph Ratzinger would be able to do that? But he can, and he will.