One of the most important teachings to emanate from the Second Vatican Council was "collegiality," the concept that bishops collectively govern the Roman Catholic Church in union with the Pope. In a concrete application of that principle, since Vatican II ended in 1965 Popes have periodically summoned synods of bishops to offer advice on issues facing Catholicism. In practice, however, churchwide power is exercised by the Vatican Curia and the Cardinals who supervise its administrative agencies.
At an extraordinary two-week-long synod now meeting in Rome to review the work of Vatican II, collegiality was clearly on the minds of many of the 161 delegates. Indeed, one of the most radical proposals to emerge last week came from Archbishop Maxim Hermaniuk, spiritual leader of Ukrainian Rite Catholics in Canada. To carry out Vatican II's teaching on collegiality, declared Hermaniuk, there should be a permanent synod, sitting in Rome as an ongoing body, empowered to act "in the name of the entire college of bishops." This group, said Hermaniuk, would acquire "legislative power to decide with the Holy Father and under his authority all problems of the life of the church, which now are decided by the Pope and the Roman Curia." Hermaniuk proposed that delegates petition Pope John Paul to establish the new body.
Though no one expected Hermaniuk's suggestion to be endorsed by the synod, the fact that it was even voiced underscored the frank atmosphere of the session. So did speeches by two archbishops who asked that the church rethink its ban on Communion for divorced Catholics who remarry. Pope John Paul helped establish the synod's forthright mood with an opening homily that avoided touching on specific issues; it seemed clear to Vatican observers that the Pope was presenting the synod participants with a blank page on which to express their thoughts freely. Godfried Cardinal Danneels of Belgium, who was assigned to summarize official reports for the meeting, told journalists that the Pope "said nothing about the work of the coming synod, gave no guidelines for what we were to do."
Danneels also took issue with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a leading church conservative, who feels that Vatican II led to a lamentable confusion about what Catholic teaching truly is. Asked whether the synod would launch a "restoration" of the church, a term used by Ratzinger in a recent controversial book to describe the efforts to counteract supposed damage from liberal interpretations of Vatican II, Danneels snapped, "We are not having a synod about a book."
At the synod's start, Danneels delivered a summary of reports from more than 100 national episcopal conferences and Curia departments, and his presentation of the state of the church was distinctly optimistic. The bishops, said Danneels, embrace "neither pessimism nor resignation nor discouragement," and the first week's discussions bore him out.