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Writer sees a ‘Vatican II’ for region


A veteran Australian religious affairs writer predicts that the Synod for Oceania will be remembered as “a kind of Second Vatican Council for the region.”

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on Dec. 15, Chris McGillon said the synod had been “marked by frank exchanges about the problems facing the church in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. There was a bold exploration of possible solutions and a refreshing degree of openness throughout.”

McGillon, who is also the Australian correspondent for the London Catholic newspaper The Tablet, said that a majority of the 82 bishops at the synod “joined what until now has been a largely lay chorus of complaint about the need for church renewal.” In doing so, McGillon wrote that the bishops “reopened the book on issues John Paul II would like to think he had shut the covers on long ago.”

McGillon cited calls for an expansion of roles open to women, inclusive language in liturgies, a more compassionate approach to divorcees and homosexuals, a reconsideration of mandatory celibacy and more decentralized decision-making in the church.

He quoted a bishop who defended ordinary Catholics “suffering at the hands of zealots making their voices heard through the church’s authority structure” and thereby stifling “legitimate diversity.”

On divorcées, McGillon reported that Cardinal Thomas Williams of Wellington said, “Exclusion from the sacraments easily leads first to alienation and resentment, and then to seeking membership of another church which offers a compassionate welcome.”

Cardinal Edward Clancy of Sydney hinted at change on the celibacy issue. “All the synod fathers would acknowledge that [the decline in the number of priests] is a real problem, and there is merit in the argument about ordaining married men,” McGillon quoted him as saying.

As the synod drew to a close in mid-December, however, not everyone joined in the call for reform. Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne told a Roman news agency that softening the requirement of clerical celibacy, as some in the synod seemed to support, would “weaken terribly” the church’s witness.

“As Cardinal Ratzinger said during a session, we are called to be the salt of the earth, not sugar or artificial sweetening!” Pell said in an interview with Zenit. “Our duty is to comprehend ever more fully the teaching of Christ, not to reduce it or ‘improve’ it to suit ourselves.”

Sacred Heart Missionary Fr. Paul Collins, a commentator for Australian radio and currently the target of a Vatican heresy probe, told NCR he’s “fairly skeptical” the synod will have much lasting effect.

“There were some very good interventions made by the bishops, so they got some important things on the record. But in terms of what it means for the Australian church, I think it will have minimal impact.”

McGillon acknowledged in his column that the changes requested by the Oceania bishops may disappear “by the time Vatican officials have sanitized an account of their synod.”

“But the bishops themselves cannot so easily deny the causes they took up in Rome or argue that having aired their concerns, they have done enough,” McGillon wrote. “For the church in Australia, things may never be the same again.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998