Fruits of Disagreement

Bishops should not disagree with one another in public, especially on the most neuralgic issues of the day. For better and more often for worse, that discipline was a cornerstone of John Paul II’s pontificate. Yet disagree they did at the Synod of Bishops last month in Rome, the first of Benedict XVI’s papacy.

The 256 participants spoke with surprising candor about issues surrounding the synod’s appointed subject, the Eucharist, including married clergy, the global priest shortage, and Communion for the divorced and remarried. In the end, of course, the “propositions” issued by the synod on October 22 broke no new theological or ecclesiological ground. Indeed, the discipline of mandatory clerical celibacy was strongly affirmed. Still, a discussion was begun that must continue.

The Synod of Bishops was inaugurated forty years ago by Paul VI. At the conclusion of each synod a set of propositions is presented to the pope, who, after several months of review, issues his own apostolic exhortation. A synod’s authority is purely advisory. Under John Paul II, whose near constant presence at the meetings hindered open debate, synods became little more than an opportunity for bishops to tell the pope what they thought he wanted to hear. As Robert Mickens reported in the Tablet of London (October 8), the standard joke was, “What book is the pope reading while sitting in the synod hall? The postsynodal exhortation...

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