The Extraordinary Synod: A Symposium


June 1, 1985

No one knows for sure what the Pope has in mind for the Extraordinary Synod. Since all but a small minority of the world’s Catholic bishops concur with him on matters of faith and morals, as they were one with Paul VI in 1964 when he polled the various hierarchies on contraception, it is not likely that this will be a theological conference. If Canon 346, which governs Extraordinary Synods, is controlling, the Pope and the elected presidents of the National Conferences of Bishops will deal exclusively with “matters which call for speedy resolution.” This can reasonably be interpreted to mean policy decisions for the universal church concerning those changes in Catholic practice already authorized by several popes over twenty years. In the words of the Pope’s announcement, the Synod has the purpose of “engrafting Vatican II onto the Church’s life in the light of new requirements.” It cannot avoid dealing also with aberrations which have occurred outside or against the Law of the Church.

What, therefore, might the post-synodal Church look like?

Contrary to what the Pope’s enemies are alleging, the post-1985 Church will not turn back the ecclesial clock, will not conserve outdated liturgical practices, medieval costumes, the veneration of fictitious saints, nor will it condone Catholic isolation from the world’s problems or other religious groups. Neither will clerical absolutism in Church management be reclaimed nor will discipline for its own sake become a law of Catholic life. The heritage of Vatican II will remain along with continued experimentation on better methods of relating the Catholic message to the needs of modern peoples.

The Catholic faithful have the right to expect John Paul II to address the problems created by his antagonists, especially the impression they leave that the only choice facing Catholics is between papal thought control and their right to believe as they will. Catholic dissidents regularly intimate that Vatican II made the individual conscience primate over Church authority; the Synod will assuredly reassert the apostolic mandate: “He who hears you hears me, he who rejects you, rejects me” (Lk 10:16).

John Paul II faces more serious obstacles than a normal head of state struggling to rebuild his country. John Paul knows that important segments of his own flock no longer accept the Catholic creed as taught. Not only are words like “hierarchy,” “truth,” “commandment,” “obedience,” and “eternal salvation” out of fashion, but they make no sense to people whose parameters of life are the here and now and whose experience is confined to the present American way.

The Pope’s most difficult and most important task may be the restoration of hierarchy in the Church. The legitimacy of the Catholic hierarchy depends on whether the faithful ever again will rely on bishops for the “Word of God.” Every society, even the most democratic, has its hierarchy. Customary ruling elites exist by the will of selected audiences. The Catholic hierarchy claims it lives by the will of Christ. Since Vatican II, however, the bishops’ own theologians speak more of the Church as “People of God,” as if the people need no leaders or were given no leaders by Christ: The Synod, therefore, will have a difficult time reasserting the sacred character of the episcopal and papal office.

Even then, however, it will be necessary for the Pope with his bishops to clarify the intentions and directions of Vatican II. Ambiguities in the Council’s language provided Church “rebels” with seeming excuses for challenging the ancient Catholic creeds. (The Dutch bishops were even more troublesome.) To be useful, therefore, the Synod platform will have to avoid appearing to be just another political document, drafted to offend as few as possible and saying little about what is demanded by the Church’s faith and moral code. Rome has rejected misinterpretations of Vatican II almost annually since 1965 without follow-up at local levels. A coherent and accurate summary of objectives and policies evolving from the forthcoming synod may ease “the Catholic problem,” but it could also further polarization. This depends on the will to power of the insurgents and on how vulnerable the hierarchy is vis-a-vis “the new theologians.”

John Paul likely expects certain immediate results from his Extraordinary Synod; otherwise, he would not have called his episcopal leaders together. However wrongly he is perceived by his enemies, he is engaged in the serious task of reforming his Church according to the written demands of Vatican II. Historians will have much to write about, whether he succeeds or fails. For the future’s sake, however, it is well to remember that his is only one of two major heads of government worldwide who is unashamedly and stubbornly pro-life.

The other is Ronald Reagan.


  • Msgr. George A. Kelly

    A native of New York City, George A. Kelly (1916-2004) was ordained for that Archdiocese in 1942. After receiving a Ph.D. from Catholic University, he worked in parish life, administration, and academia in New York. He was one of the founders of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and author of many books, including The Battle for the American Church (1979). In the 1980s, Msgr. Kelly was at St. John's University in New York City.

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