WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- For the first time in 20 years, the synod of Roman Catholic bishops that ended its session Saturday dispensed with its customary secrecy and published its recommendations. But that was perhaps the only breakthrough after three weeks of debate focused on issues related to the Eucharist.
On the tough questions of priestly celibacy and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, 256 bishops from all over the world voted to maintain the status quo. In one of the 50 "propositions" submitted to Pope Benedict XVI to help him write an encyclical on the Eucharist, the bishops "affirmed the importance of the inestimable gift of priestly celibacy in the Latin church." The bishops further said that the proposal to appoint Catholic married men of good reputation -- described in the Latin debates as "viri probati" -- was "not a path to follow."
Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, told reporters Saturday the celibacy rule received a "massive endorsement," and its reaffirmation was among the synod's most important accomplishments. But other synod sources suggested support for such an iron clad reaffirmation of clerical celibacy was not so overwhelming. The National Catholic Reporter quoted Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as saying, "The status quo held because we couldn't find common ground on the issue."
The debate on clerical celibacy was crucial to the synod's main theme of the Eucharist, the central moment of the mass when, in Catholic teaching, bread and wine are truly transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Because only a priest can celebrate mass, the dire shortage of vocations for the Catholic priesthood in many countries, particularly in Europe, means many congregations who have no resident priest but rely on visiting clergy spend weeks without the opportunity to attend mass and receive communion.
Prelates in favor of rethinking the disciplinary rule of barring priests from marrying argued that it might encourage more young men to enter the priesthood. The Orthodox Church allows priests to marry, but those who do are not eligible to become bishops. Defenders of priestly celibacy concentrated on its symbolic nature. Speaking in the synod during one of its sessions, Cardinal Pell called it "the witness to loving sacrifice, and to the reality of the Last Things, and the rewards of Heaven." Pope Benedict XVI endorsed the majority view Sunday when he called on priests to remain "faithful" to their vow of celibacy, which he said was "a precious gift."
But the reality is the synod found itself urging Catholics to attend mass on Sundays, receive communion regularly and to go to confession often, but at the same time admitting that many faithful could do none of these things because of the shortage of priests.
The synod also offered cold comfort to divorced Catholics who remarry. It said remarried Catholics should continue to attend mass; but if their previous marriage had not been annulled by the church's matrimonial courts, they could not receive communion. Doing so would be "against the Lord's commandment." At the same time, the bishops said procedures in the ecclesiastical courts should be streamlined to facilitate marriage annulments. Vatican observers saw some irony in this recommendation: the late Pope John Paul II himself had admonished the courts in the United States for granting annulments too easily. In the debates those same American courts were mentioned as a model for closer study.
The bishops also debated the question of whether communion should be given to politicians who showed "no coherence when they support laws that run counter to the human good, to justice, and to natural law," as the recommendations put it. The topic was known among prelates at the synod as "the American issue" because of the controversy in the 2004 presidential election campaign over Democratic presidential candidate -- and Roman Catholic -- John Kerry's pro-choice position on abortion. But European bishops doubtless also had in mind Spanish politicians who earlier this year voted in favor of recognizing gay marriages and easier-to-get abortions. In the end, the synod voted to recommend the decision should be left to the judgment of local bishops.
The bishops also considered the liturgy and decided that, while they welcomed the reforms introduced by Vatican Council II in the 1960s, including celebrating mass in the local languages, some hierarchies had become too permissive in allowing variations on the rite of the mass which were far from what was allowable, and should be checked. They proposed a return to the use of Latin in the mass for international celebrations, such as Eucharistic congresses and -- presumably, although not stated -- major celebrations in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. They went further and recommended that priests should be trained in the seminary to celebrate mass in Latin, and to sing the Gregorian chant.
Their propositions also include a recommendation to move the exchange of peace by members of the congregation to another part of the mass. The bishops argue these salutations often take too long and create a confusion that detracts from the solemnity of distributing communion, which follows immediately afterwards.
It's hardly surprising that liberal Catholic groups found the outcome of the synod disappointing, as doubtless did some of the participating prelates. There had been prior evidence of some "give" by Pope Benedict XVI on the issue of clerical celibacy, and even some acknowledgment of the hardship to many divorced and remarried Catholics at being unable to receive communion.
But this synod was called, prior to his death by Pope John Paul who in his pontificate had shown no flexibility on either question, and his teaching was often invoked during the debates. Perhaps, as the problems intensify, the next synod will take a different approach.
The 21st Synod of bishops was clearly in no mood for flexibility on either large issues or small. An African bishop suggested that the usual form of address on the final document should be changed to "Sisters and brothers" instead of the other way round as a courtesy towards women. The idea was turned down.