The Extraordinary Synod: A Symposium

Pope John Paul II took the first part of his name from Pope John XXIII who twenty-five years ago electrified the world by calling for Vatican Council 11 (1962-65)—and, exactly on the anniversary of that summons, Pope John Paul II called for a new, two-week Extraordinary Synod in Rome to evaluate the results of that Council.

Even archbishops and bishops around the world were shocked. Like John XXIII, John Paul II chose secrecy and a surprise announcement.

For some years now, many voices in the Church have been saying that it is time to reevaluate the experiments launched twenty years ago. After all, experiments are tests; some fail, some succeed.

But the deeper issue is a threefold crisis at the heart of the Catholic community today. First, though, some background: In the contemporary period in particular, the Pope has no more real power than free persons freely give him. If his bishops, priests, religious and lay persons choose to ignore or disobey him, what can he do? To excommunicate them would, typically, create great divisions and bitterness that might last for generations.

Therefore, the Pope must rely on words, symbolic travels, and all the intellectual and moral persuasion he can muster, attempting to change, not so much individual minds, as the ocean of opinion within which individual minds swim.

If you put yourself in the position of the Pope in Rome, with his counselors, you will soon see how weak they feel. They want to keep the community together. They also want it to be faithful to its patrimony. Rash actions can do great damage; the means of quiet persuasion and symbolic action are quite limited. They depend much on God’s grace, working in human hearts.

In three different quarters (at least), the crisis in Catholicism threatens the spiritual authority of the Pope. (1) Closest to home, in America as in other countries, significant numbers of Catholics appeal to a nebulous “Spirit of Vatican II” to justify their own authority to decide what is Catholic and what is not. There is increasing danger of a do-it-yourself church. Protestants may accept such a model, based upon individual conscience; Catholics have a much stronger sense of community, oneness, and rightful authority. There is a crisis of authority/conscience.

(2) In Latin America, Marxists have become adept at expressing all Marxist concepts in Christian language, all Christian words in Marxist ways. Concentrating on action, disregarding intellectual disputes about exact meanings, many Catholics are in danger of betraying their inheritance.

(3) Since Vatican II, a new institution has begun to function among the world’s bishops: national (or regional) conferences of bishops functioning according to majority votes, in consideration of documents necessarily prepared by administrative staffs. The problems here are twofold: first, increasing nationalism and regionalism, apart from the deep Catholic sense of universality; second, a breakdown in the Catholic system of checks and balances. Theologically, authority on faith and morals is vested in each single bishop, not in a majority vote of conferences of bishops. Once presented with a document in their conferences, it is very hard for individual bishops publicly to dissent. Minority voices are likely to be lost.

All three of these new conundrums must now be faced, as Vatican II did not have to face them. Some on the left fear that Pope John Paul II—whose seriousness, great talents, and conservative instincts repel them—is seeking greater internal discipline. No doubt, he is. Precisely in the “Spirit of Vatican II.”

As a key player at Vatican II, when he was simply a bishop, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) took home with him to Poland an intense desire to reform and to renew the Polish church. This he helped to do, over two decades of arduous work. He encouraged intense intellectual discussions in the churches among workers, intellectuals, the young, journalists, and others. He encouraged a deepening of conscience, intellect, courage, and spiritual discipline, to prepare for hard times ahead. Solidarity is one fruit of his labors.

For the Church in Poland, Vatican II was an immense spiritual and intellectual lift. Pope John Paul II is rightly disappointed that similar results have not been harvested everywhere. Far from turning away from Vatican II, he wants to return to its true meaning and deeper possibilities.

  • 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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