e-mail us
A synod for a God neutral in history

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

“We are not economists. We are not politicians. We are pastors. That is where we are experts, and that is where we can speak with authority.”

Such is the message that seems to be crystallizing from the discussions in general assemblies and working sessions as the Synod of Bishops for America enters its fourth and final week. It is a bleak time for the journalists who have come from many parts of the Americas in the hope of reporting to the church and the world what this special synod is all about.

Because Monday was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the bishops had a long weekend free, during which many of them took off to sightsee in places such as Florence, Italy, and Paris. Before the break, they listened Dec. 6 to the reading in four languages of a proposed message from the synod to the people of God.

The official news release for that day explained in more than 300 words the complicated procedures for the election of a post-synodal council. It provided another 400 words of non-news about the greeting to the synod of the president of the Episcopal Conference for Europe.

It said that 28 fathers, seven auditors and the president of the Commission for the Message had made interventions on the draft of the proposed message, but not a single word either about what the draft contains or about these 36 comments on it.

Earlier it had been indicated that this message would be built around the propositions formulated in the 12 working groups. At an official news briefing, we were told that it was not. It would be simply a “hello” from the bishops to their people. Beyond that, the briefing gave only the vaguest indications of what the message contains, emphasizing that it has still to undergo “severe and disciplined” editing, both “theologically and linguistically.”

One point was stressed: that it rejects the idea that the role of the church is “to build a better world,” because “that is not the primary role of the church.” This emphasis will most likely remain. It has been present in the preparatory documents of the synod and in the reports from most of the working groups that are now being synthesized and put into recommendations to submit to the pope.

What this adds up to is a continuation of the process that was set in motion at the very beginning of the present pontificate. The commitment of the church to serve the world, especially the world of the poor, made by John XXIII and formalized in Vatican II’s constitution on the church in today’s world, is being watered down. The rich and powerful do not like that commitment, and we cannot risk losing their patronage.

The Third World of poverty has not ceased to exist. On the contrary, it is far more visible and widespread than in the 1960s. The bishops can see it on Via della Conciliazione as they walk out of St. Peter’s: the beggars, the thriving informal economy of Pakistani, Ethiopian and West African peddlers of toys, trinkets and wood carvings. But the bishops choose to return to the sacristy and concentrate their message on a vertical relationship with God in Jesus Christ, claiming to see him directly and not through the intermediacy of the suffering neighbor.

We bishops are not economic experts, we were told. But, if they wanted, the bishops could call on experts in any field they chose -- economics, politics and also theology. This they have chosen not to do, excluding from their deliberations the theologians, historians and sociologists who made the critical difference at Vatican II and at the council of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968.

Many of the people brought here as “experts” have no identifiable expertise in any field. Are they mere window dressing? The U.S. bishops knew how to call on experts for each of several important and impressive pastoral letters. The statements on unjust social structures, the forthright denunciation of “the international imperialism of money on which the system rests,” formulated at Medellín reverberated around the world.

But now we look inward, concentrating on church concerns. We worry about the aggressiveness of the “sects,” the limited number of priests and of vocations to the priesthood. But even this navel-gazing is selective. The plea of Milwaukee’s Archbishop Rembert Weakland found little echo when he called on the church to imitate in its own life the values it proposes for society: to respect the dignity of each human being; to give women their rightful role in the church’s institutions; to implement the option for the poor.

We have here two radically different ecclesiologies at work. One is that of a God who liberates his people, the other that of a God who not only accepts but legitimizes social power and inequality, who tells the poor to be humble, resigned and passive, a God neutral in the drama of human history.

The liberating theology already present at Vatican II was developed in Latin America in the years that followed. Underlying it is a radical optimism, a belief that we can construct a new human free of hatred and hidden interests, a new society free of unjust structures. Its church is a church in history and it gives high hermeneutic importance to the historical figure of Jesus.

By contrast, the theology that dominates the synod offers us an ahistorical church, one that is above and outside the world.

The obsession with secrecy at this synod fits this mentality of withdrawal to the sacristy. Secrecy is a means of atomizing all opposition, destroying horizontal catholicity to the profit of vertical catholicity. We have forgotten the progress on opening to the world made during the Second Vatican Council and the further advances by the Latin American bishops at Medellín; Puebla, Mexico; and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

We are back at the first session of Vatican II, where the Vatican press officer, Msgr. Fausto Vallainc, said the council did not need the media and Archbishop Pericle Felici, the council secretary general, referred to journalists as parasites.

One could still ask today the question cited during the council by J.L. Martin Descalzo: “Our world ... is asking how far the church has accepted and assimilated the press and how far it simply tolerates it as a dangerous enemy.”

Today’s news bulletins contain more words than the classic one at the opening of the debate on the liturgy at Vatican II: “Of the fathers who asked to speak, 20 intervened this morning, some to defend the schema, others to attack it.” But the bulletin for Dec. 6 was equally uninformative. It, too, should go down in history.

In an earlier report on the synod, I referred to the pope’s health. Many are saying here -- though nobody for attribution -- that it is closely linked to the way the synod is developing. Although John Paul continues to be present and continues to make televised appearances, it is suggested that we are in a typical terminal phase of a papacy, with the Roman curia making the decisions. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state, is seen as the dominant figure, solidly supported by Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Pio Laghi, and two Latin Americans, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo and Dario Castrillon Hoyos, in charge of the Council for the Family and the Congregation for the Clergy respectively. It is a powerful combinazione and committed to the John Paul II policy of withdrawal into the sacristy.

But there are other and more open currents of opinion in a deeply divided curia. Many Latin Americans, in particular, are strongly opposed to Lopez Trujillo and Castrillon Hoyos. As of now, they are waiting with what patience they can muster.

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 1997