A red cape shielding him from the early morning chill, the Bishop of Rome strode through the vaulted crypt beneath St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday. Three dozen American bishops in purple vestments awaited him before an altar of compelling simplicity.
“It is here at the altar that the church is revealed in her most intimate nature as a hierarchical communion of faith, hope and love,” said Pope John Paul II at the opening of a Mass at the tomb of St. Peter, the first Pope.
So began, at the literal heart of the Roman Catholic church, a communion of brothers to climax an extraordinary four-day encounter between the innovative American Roman Catholic church, and its exacting leader.
Differences of opinion on how to preach the faith to 53 million Catholics in a determinedly secular United States marked the conference, and survived it. Still, both sides said Saturday that they were satisfied that exchanges of unprecedented bluntness had strengthened the links between them.
“I think we leave with a sense that we really are members of one body of Christ,” said Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony. “It was never us-them, but there was no hesitancy among any of us to say what we thought. We made our point, and the nice thing was, the Pope was there to hear it.”
So, too, was John Paul present to hear Vatican traditionalists complain about some American approaches they consider unacceptable, short-cut Catholicism. Yet, as Curia Cardinal Antonio Innocenti noted, “this was not a meeting of battles or confrontations; no winners, no losers.”
“There was no question of us being scolded. We were not bad boys being called home to be disciplined by father. Everybody said what he thought,” said Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk.
Americans vigorously defended such practices as the occasional use of general absolution as a replacement for individual confession and the work of tribunals that grant three-quarters of the world’s Catholic marriage annulments. They also pressed the Vatican for quicker consideration of reforms on liturgical language and a greater role for women, Mahony said.
“The meeting was not about tensions between the two sides but about our unity of mission,” said Boston Cardinal Bernard Law. “The one permanent tension that was present was the one between the church and the modern world.”
Bishops left saying that their own ministries had been strengthened, but as a practical matter, it seemed unlikely that the meeting would have any short-term impact on the everyday lives of American Catholics. “I don’t think it will change the shape of the American Catholic church,” said Pilarczyk.
‘Cosmos, Not Chaos’
“What we have seen here is an attempt to reconcile one church in its many manifestations. Rome is the one; Americans are just one of many. The church is cosmos, not chaos,” observed Father John Navone, an American Jesuit professor of theology at a pontifical university in Rome.
The closing day of 10 head-to-head discussion sessions, with the Pope as an absorbed spectator, featured an exchange of views between the American bishops and Curia cardinals on ecumenism and use of the mass media for evangelization.
“The Roman Curia (the administrative body of the church) has listened and it has learned. We have taken a great step forward together,” said Cardinal Innocenti, an Italian who heads the Vatican Ministry on the Clergy.
Once again Saturday, discussions focused on the difficulties of proclaiming Catholicism in secular America; what the Pope called in his closing address “the task of handing on the truths of the faith in a cultural context which questions the integrity and often the very existence of truth.”
The Pope reminded his bishops, as Curia cardinals had done repeatedly, that their role as teachers is both fundamental and circumscribed by the realities of their faith.
‘Guardians of Something Given’
“We are guardians of something given, and given to the church universal; something which is not the result of reflection, however competent on cultural and social questions of the day, and is not merely the best path among many, but the one and only path to salvation,” John Paul said.
Four days of sometimes spirited discussions displayed differences of opinion and approaches between American bishops and Curia cardinals on facts of modern Catholic life, ranging from the role of women in the church to birth control, divorce, mixed marriages, declining vocations and the financial crisis of Catholic education in the United States.
“Difficulties will not be lacking,” the Pope said. “What is important is that challenges or even opposition to the saving truth, which the church professes, be met within the context of faith.”
A synthesis of the conference’s conclusions by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin touched on a few specifics but stressed the consultative nature of the meetings.
“We have not developed a litany of answers or solutions. We have not developed a specific program for action,” said Bernardin. Rather, he said, the meeting had identified “a number of issues that need further exploration and action.”
Limits of Compromise
Among them, Bernardin listed clarification of the relationship between theologians and bishops, the limits of compromise in teaching church doctrines to Americans, and a better understanding of the dynamics of change.
The bishops also expressed the “urgent need for a sound philosophical theological critique” over the impact on the church of what they called “radical feminism.”
Boston’s Law defined it as the kind of feminism “that has difficulty in accepting the idea of complementarity between the sexes on the assumption that equality and difference are incompatible.” Innocenti, in an aside that once again illustrated the different world view of the Americans and their Vatican peers, warned that the desire of some women who aspire to a historically all-male priesthood “may be fed more by the search for power than the ideal of service.”
Innocenti stressed the traditionalist Vatican line in asserting that “there are no shortcuts. The message of the Gospel cannot be adulterated and domesticated. We cannot seek Christ without the cross.”
If the Vatican position is well known to the Americans, so by now is manifest to the Curia an American conviction that to prosper, the church must take into account American values and democratic traditions.
“The issues and differences of opinion are well known, but American bishops as a group have never defended their views so strongly or publicly before the Pope and his Curia,” said Father Terry Tekippe, a New Orleans theologian at the North American College in Rome.