Some observers found hints of evangelical faith at the recent Catholic Synod of Bishops.

Not everyone could attend the historic Extraordinary Synod of Bishops late last year. But American Catholics who were there are trying to share the experience with as many people as possible. They have produced a two-hour videotape of the synod, held to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. An estimated audience of 200,000 has seen the report on cable television. Plans call for a tape to be sent to every Catholic parish in America.

The program features American Bishop James Malone, president of the highly visible U.S. Conference of Bishops, which has made headlines with its proclamations on the arms race and hunger in America. It includes questions and comments from grassroots Catholics, whose observations reveal the diversity of opinion about the Catholic church. Conservative Catholics from Texas and Florida bewail the spread of Protestantism among Catholics. Others deplore the loss of mystery resulting from the translation of the Latin mass into the English.

Significantly, these voices from the grassroots accurately reflect the diversity of the Catholic church at large. The videotape captures the hopes and fears of a church in transition.

Conservatives are uncomfortable with changes in the church since Vatican II. These include the widespread removal of the crucifix from Catholic life, the dishabiting of nuns, the general decline in attendance at Mass, and a trend toward less devotion to “the Blessed Mother.” Some of these changes have been attributed to the influence of Protestantism.

But Catholics who consider themselves progressive feel there have not been enough changes in the last two decades, including issues related to women. Said Donna Hanson, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ National Advisory Board, “I hope I’ll live to see the day when it doesn’t matter if a person is male or female to be a priest.”

That day will never come for Mary Daly, theology professor at Boston College and author of The Church and the Second Sex. Once a Catholic, she attended Vatican II while in Switzerland doing doctoral work. Commenting on the Extraordinary Synod, she said she sees the Catholic church as an institution of oppression “to women in particular.”

Evangelical Response

Evangelicals who followed the proceedings in Rome had mixed feelings. David Russell, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, was one of ten official non-Catholic “observers” invited for the first time to attend such a synod. Russell said he was impressed with the “experience of Christ” shared by some of the speakers. But he said he felt “ill at ease” with several things, including “the stress on authoritarianism and the centrality of papal primacy.” Russell was also disturbed that Scripture, tradition, and magisterium [the teaching authority of the church] were given equal billing with respect to authority.

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In their final report on the historic meeting, the bishops reflected evangelical concerns in their call for increased lay spirituality and holiness, preaching of the gospel, and evangelization and missionary activity as the “first obligation” of all Christians.

Kevin Perrotta, associate director of the Center for Pastoral Renewal in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a leading spokesman for the evangelical wing of Catholicism, said he was encouraged by developments at the synod. He observed that the Bishops’ Final Report stressed that what is needed is “not just a change in structures,” but “people who will show the image of Christ to the world.”

Perrotta noted that “many Catholics feel far closer to evangelicals than to liberal Protestants.” He cited Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston as an example. Law has made concrete efforts to get to know leading New England evangelicals, many of whom he has worked with to address abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and other issues of public morality.

Although evangelical observers were pleased with the bishops’ statements on holiness and spirituality, they were concerned at their emphasis on the church as an institution. At no point in the final report was the Bible mentioned by name, and the word “church” was used far more often than “God,” “Christ,” or “Holy Spirit.” Evangelicals said generally that the document emerging from the synod was far less biblically informed and Christ centered than similar evangelical documents.

Catholic Critique

There was varied evaluation of the synod by Catholic observers. Avery Dulies, professor of theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said that the consensus reached at the synod “represents the large, growing body of middle-of-the-road opinion, unsatisfactory to people on the right or left.” Dulles, considered a moderate, added, “[The synod] did not distance itself from Vatican II,” thus disappointing progressive Catholics who wanted it to address questions that have emerged since the historic council.

Author and priest Andrew Greeley, director of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, said that “the Curia is still a stronghold of mean-spirited, neurotic reaction. The Pope is still gloomy. But everything has changed. The chief bishops of the world are no longer willing to lie down and play dead when the Vatican leans on them. And the Pope permits them to resist.”

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Joseph Gremillion, considered progressive, believes that the most significant impact of the synod will be its firm support of the principle of regional churches. Said Gremillion, director of the Institute for Pastoral and Social Ministry at Notre Dame University, “Prior to Vatican II there was no intermediary between the pope and the 2,500 Catholic dioceses of the world.” He said that Vatican II laid the groundwork for the more than 100 national conferences of bishops that have emerged in the last 20 years.

Gremillion maintains that the existence of regional churches will spawn diversity in Catholic practice. “The U.S. church should have the freedom to make decisions about the role of women that are different from decisions made by the church elsewhere,” he said. “Research data show that women priests are acceptable to 50 percent of the leadership and parishioners in the United States.”

Gremillion also commented on the equally controversial question of divorced Catholics participating in the Eucharist. He said that priests all over the U.S. are privately allowing the practice. He said, “The issue will be settled in a pastoral way, without a major public statement in the near future.”

Progressive Catholics who believe change in the church is inevitable must for now contend with a Pope whose conservatism is equalled only by his charismatic leadership. The result is that America’s largest denomination is also its most unsettled.


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