Catholic Synod: Binding The Bishops

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Citing “radical opposition,” the shortage of priests and “nearly empty seminaries,” and the “faithful who are no longer afraid to be unfaithful,” Pope Paul VI conceded sadly: “The church is in difficulty. It is more troubled than happy.”

He uttered the words at one of his weekly noon audiences shortly before he convened the month-long fourth Synod of Bishops in Rome on September 28. It didn’t take the 209 delegate bishops, archbishops, and cardinals from seventy-five nations more than a session or two to show the world the Pope was right.

The announced topic of the synod was “Evangelization in the Contemporary World,” but the prelates turned the gathering into a platform for airing a lot of problems and conditions they saw as impeding evangelization or needing attention before evangelization can take place.

Synod ’74 had its origins in Vatican Council II (1962–65), which stressed the concept of collegiality (the bishops with the pope have full power over the church). In response, Pope Paul convoked synods of bishops. The first three met in 1967, 1969, and 1971. But despite the collegiality concept, the Pope determined the agenda (the bishops had selected family life rather than evangelization as the topic for the fourth synod but were overruled), reserved all decisions to himself, and treated the bishops’ recommendations as advice only. He rejected outright some of Synod ’74’s findings.

In his keynote address, the Pope set limits for the ensuing discussions. He admonished that Catholic missionaries must never embrace violence, revolution, or colonialism in their efforts to spread the Gospel (in a few well-publicized cases, priests in Latin America, Asia, and Africa have been identified with revolutionary movements and hassled ...

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