Although it was quietly apparent from the first that the Synod of Bishops would not result in any shattering changes for the Roman Catholic Church, there were at least some surprises, and most of them for the Pope. The gathering set something of a precedent in that Pope Paul VI, sitting within the walls of the Vatican itself, took a quiet and orderly but nevertheless thorough tongue-lashing at every meeting of the synod—which he had called in the first place.

The synod lasted for two and a half weeks, October 11–28, and was originally labeled an emergency session. Pope Paul personally drafted its agenda. From this, and the tone of the call, it was generally assumed that he would use the synod as a platform for trying to squelch the liberals who are revolutionizing much of the Roman church, particularly in northern Europe and the United States.

This suspicion was somewhat confirmed by the speech the Pope gave in officially opening the synod. After offering some optimistic tidbits to the bishops by talking idealistically about the doctrine of collegiality (shared authority in the church), he came down hard on the central issue. He reminded the bishops that “supreme responsibility” and hence final authority in the church rests with the Pope.

“Our specific ministry as vicar of Christ,” he said, “cannot be conditional on the authority … of the episcopal college [bishops], which we are the first to wish to honor, defend and promote, but which would not be such were it to lack our support.” There was no question that this meant there was to be no lessening of his total and final authority.

This might have trampled freedom of debate at the synod from the start were it not for a ...

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