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Issue Date:  November 4, 2005

Mixing bitter with sweet

Eucharist synod emphasizes both orthodox rules, pastoral concern


Sloganeering is always a hazardous business, but if one had to come up with a sound bite to characterize the spirit of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, which concluded Oct. 23 in Rome, perhaps the best stab at it would be “orthodoxy with a human face.”

The allusion is to Alexander Ducbek’s 1968 reform program in the old Czechoslovakia. Some may be troubled by a comparison between the Catholic church and a Soviet-era police state. The point, however, is not to compare the systems, so much as to compare attempts to make the systems appear more humane than a cold recitation of rules might suggest.

In that sense, the synod offered a faithful mirror-image of the emerging approach of Pope Benedict XVI, mixing the bitter with the sweet.

Time and again, on issues such as celibacy, divorced and remarried Catholics, and intercommunion, the bishops resoundingly affirmed existing discipline, but also expressed deep concern for people who find themselves hurt or disadvantaged by these rules.

Regarding the priest shortage, for example, the 256 bishops and 10 religious superiors reaffirmed the discipline of celibacy, but stated openly in their final message that “the lack of priests to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist worries us a great deal.” Finding new priests to make the sacraments available to the people, the bishops said, must be a top pastoral priority.

Regarding divorced and remarried Catholics, the synod backed their exclusion from the Eucharist, but offered words of understanding: “We wish to tell them how close we are to them in prayer and pastoral concern,” the final message read. The synod also recommended greater investment in marriage tribunals, to make it as easy as possible for Catholics to request an annulment.

The same approach held with the issue of intercommunion for non-Catholics, where the synod upheld the present ban, but expressed a deep desire for greater unity.

Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh said this juxtaposition of doctrinal firmness and pastoral compassion reflects “how the Catholic church has understood her role from the beginning.”

He told NCR Oct. 24, “In the pulpit, a pastor must be the source of complete, clear and authentic teaching. Yet in dealing with the faithful one-on-one, in counseling, in confession, and so on, he meets them where they are.”

The synod produced two documents -- a message to the world, and a set of 50 propositions, or recommendations to the pope for action. In a break with past practice, the propositions were made public following numerous leaks to the press.

While the synod is an advisory body, and it’s up to the pope to decide what action to take, on the celibacy issue Benedict XVI has already tipped his hand. In his homily at Sunday’s Mass closing the synod, he said that celibacy is “a precious gift and a sign of the undivided love of God for the other.”

The synod’s compassion had its limits. The language on divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, was progressively watered down over the course of debate, as synod fathers such as American Cardinal Edmund Szoka and Colombian Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, both senior Vatican officials, argued that the church must defend its traditional teaching on marriage. In its first two drafts, the message pledged to divorced and remarried Catholics that “your suffering is our suffering.” Under the weight of objections such as those from Szoka and López Trujillo, the phrase was removed.

At one stage in the editing, the phrase “sincere suffering” was changed to “suffering,” on the grounds that divorced and remarried Catholics are not always sincere. The case in point cited within the editing team was Henry VIII of England -- proof positive that the Vatican does, indeed, think in centuries.

In the end, the message, whose primary author was Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, dropped the word “suffering” altogether, using “sadness” instead.

Yet despite the rather stern conclusion, at least some participants say the debate over divorced and remarried Catholics is not yet over.

“This is a very urgent problem, especially for bishops in the West, in places such as Germany,” German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s point man on ecumenical affairs, told a Rome news conference Oct. 24. “I cannot imagine that the discussion on this issue is closed.”

Read more NCR coverage of the synod on the Eucharist
  • Report #19: 'Massive endorsement' of priestly celibacy said to be among the synod's important accomplishments Posted Oct. 22, 11:05 a.m.
  • Report #18: Synod adopts tougher language on divorced, remarried Posted Oct. 22, 10:15 a.m.
  • Report #17: Final draft rebuffs Latin Mass; priest shortage, divorce squarely on church’s pastoral agenda Posted Oct. 20, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #16: Gregory: Little change expected but synod took honest talk of pastoral realities Posted Oct. 19, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #15: Draft propositions do not recommend changes in church discipline Posted Oct. 18, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #14: Women’s voices heard through interventions of 12 synod auditors Posted Oct. 17, 12:15 p.m.
  • Report #13: Statement on married priests likely in final list of proposals Posted Oct. 17, 12:00 p.m.
  • Report #12: Outreach to Latin Mass Catholics proposed for final message Posted Oct. 15, 9:32 a.m.
  • Report #11: Problems acknowledged, synod bishops seek middle ground solutions. Posted Oct. 13, 1:15 p.m.
  • Report #10: Despite frank talk, few breakthroughs expected from synod. Posted Oct. 12, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #9: Key synod themes seem clear, but consensus may be elusive. Posted Oct. 11, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #8: Inculturation of liturgy sparks debate at this and past synods of bishops. Posted Oct. 10, 11:30 a.m.
  • Report #7: Bishops of Global South link Eucharist and justice, local cultures. Posted Oct. 8., 9:52 a.m.
  • Report #6: Discussion of celibacy and marriage clergy continue to hold center stage. Posted Oct. 7, 10:21 a.m.
  • Report #5: Environment, social justice emerge as eucharistic themes. Posted Oct. 6, 10:30 a.m.
  • Report #4: Divorced, remarried Catholics topics of frank synod discussions. Posted Oct. 5, 3:00 p.m
  • Report #3: Priest shortage continues to roil synod of bishops. Posted Oct. 4, 2:01 p.m.
  • Report #2: Movements appeal for changes to make Eucharist more accessible. Posted Oct. 4, 2:00 p.m.
  • Report #1: Priest shortage takes center stage on synod's first day. Posted Oct. 3, 3:04 p.m.
  • Read The Word From Rome columns
  • Latin Mass a non-issue; Interview with Bishop Skylstad; Scola's 17 questions to guide the synod. Posted Oct. 14, 10:46 a.m.
  • The synod so far; How to report on a synod; A view from Moscow; Document on homosexuals in seminaries will not create an absolute ban; Catholic left and right square off. Posted Oct. 7, 11:55 a.m.
  • Preview of the synod on the Eucharist. Posted Sept. 30, 8:05 a.m.
  • On other matters, the synod signaled surprising openness.

    The bishops eagerly picked up on a point made by Kasper, which is that church law already allows for administering the sacraments of the Eucharist, penance and anointing of the sick to non-Catholics under certain circumstances. Kasper called for a wider application of this provision, and the synod called doing so “possible and even recommended.”

    On the question of Catholic politicians, the synod called politicians to “coherence,” at the same time urging bishops to exercise prudence in light of concrete local situations. That outcome was considered a victory for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and especially Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who led a task force on the issue that reached essentially the same conclusion. Some U.S. bishops feared the synod might call for a new policy at the level of the universal church on this question, in effect overruling the McCarrick commission.

    “What we saw in that proposition was very reflective of what the American bishops said,” Wuerl told NCR Oct. 24. “That’s because both reflect long-standing Catholic tradition.”

    Wuerl said he “didn’t hear any suggestions in the synod” that the Vatican or the pope ought to issue a new ruling on this question.

    The bishops argued for an intrinsic relationship between celebration of the Eucharist and efforts to combat poverty, end war, fight HIV/AIDS, and even to protect the environment. They called for greater ecumenical efforts, more attention to the role of the Holy Spirit, and greater appreciation for scripture.

    From a historical point of view, perhaps the most significant outcome was the endorsement of the “goodness and validity” of liturgical reforms triggered by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), in effect a way of shutting the door on efforts to return to the pre-Vatican II rite. The lone call for mention of the old Mass at the synod, from Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, was rebuffed.

    Even a rather innocuous proposition calling for the use of Latin and Gregorian chant in international Masses attracted the largest number of “no” votes in the final balloting, though it passed with a comfortable majority.

    The bottom line, therefore, is that the Synod of Bishops was neither conservative nor liberal, open nor closed, traditionalist nor progressive, but an odd blend of all these qualities at once.

    In any hierarchical system, senior managers generally take their cues from the man on top, and hence the synod generally corresponded to the mind of Pope Benedict XVI -- tenacious on matters of doctrine, but “kinder, gentler” on most everything else.

    For Benedict, it is not a matter of balancing rules with compassion -- the rules are, in effect, a form of compassion. Church law is not about the arbitrary exercise of power, but rather guiding people to become the men and women that God intends, thereby realizing their full potential.

    That’s what “orthodoxy with a human face” is all about.

    This view is likely to be the core “sales pitch” of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, as it was of the 21st Synod of Bishops. Whether the market responds, however, remains to be seen.

    Early signals suggest that at least some sectors of opinion in the Catholic world remain dubious. St. Joseph of Carondelet Sr. Christine Schenk came to Rome representing a reform group called FutureChurch, to push for married priests.

    Her reaction to the synod?

    “Disappointed is a mild way to put it,” she told NCR.

    John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is NCR’s daily coverage of the synod is on

    National Catholic Reporter, November 4, 2005

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