Synod ’74: Success or Failure?

Joseph M.Connors

Certain observers mistook the lack of a final statement for failure to come to grips with what a synod is all about.

In the closing session of the Synod of Bishops on Evangelization, on October 26, Pope Paul VI adverted to the common desire “to pass a judgment on it and to draw up a balance sheet.” He then expressed his own “sense of sincere satisfaction and realistic optimism.” During the remainder of his address, he emphasized no less than 10 times that his evaluation of the synod was “positive.”

At the same time, the five American delegates (Cardinals John J. Carberry, John F. Dearden and John J. Krol; Archbishops Joseph L. Bernardin and John R.Quinn) released their own previously prepared statement, expressing their conviction that this had been “the best of the synods so far.” Careful and thorough preparation, simple and well- conceived format, and the candid and perceptive exchange of views were among the elements they felt had made it so.

This emphasis on the positive was clearly necessary in the midst of conflicting reactions during the closing days. Judgments had already appeared in the press that the synod had reached an impasse on October 22, when the draft text of a final document was presented in the synod hall, and that the complete rejection of this text the next day had brought on a debacle. In response to this, the Pope stated in his closing talk: “We regret that certain quarters have wished to interpret this episode as a sign that the synod has not succeeded. Indeed, this fact in no way detracts from the enormous richness and real validity of the work accomplished.” The American bishops said: “We share the view expressed by many, that the decision not to rush to publish a hastily composed document is a sign of the synod’s growing maturity and sense of responsibility.”

From a fairly extensive informal sampling, it is a safe estimate that this positive view of the synod has the most supporters. It is a sincere conviction held by a great many who took full part in the month-long sessions, and of many others who spent just as much time observing them. On the other hand, there are more than a few who just as sincerely feel quite otherwise.

With such contrary opinions already in the air, it was understandable that, immediately after the synod closed, news analysts working with deadlines and limited space had to choose, unhappily, between general descriptions of “success” or “failure.” A more nuanced reaction required time for reflection and room for expression, and even something more. An evaluation is, by definition, based on values, and it was not readily evident at first what values had been involved in this complex event, and what relative weight should be assigned to each. Thus, it is basic in judging the outcome of this synod to consider the relative importance of arriving at clear decisions, as distinguished from fostering general rapport and building a broad base of mutual understanding.

Anyone who had been expecting from this synod theological clarifications and pastoral proposals on evangelization had ample reason to do so. This is exactly what he had been led to expect from the materials issued by the synod secretariat, chiefly its discussion outline, distributed far and wide in modern languages in June of 1973, and its agenda document, distributed only in Latin to the synod fathers in June of 1974. This expectation was further confirmed in the extended press conference given by the general secretary, Bishop Ladislaus Rubin, September 10.

But there were other signs all along that this expectation was unrealistic. Observers pointed out again and again that the theme was being viewed far too broadly, that it had to be focused on a few key questions. The Pope himself said this to the 15 members of the council of the synod secretariat in a private audience on April 5. At the last minute, in his opening address on the afternoon of September 27, he seemed to be trying to get the bishops to concentrate on a few essential points. These were chiefly ecumenism, dialogue with the adherents of non-Christian religions and atheistic ideologies and the precise relationship between the task of evangelization and the need for human progress and liberation.

By then, however, it was too late. Members had already prepared scores of presentations to be delivered as speeches in the synod hall or submitted in writing just as soon as the sessions began. Within the first week, it was already evident that the great range of topics allowed and even encouraged under the general theme of evangelization was having two simultaneous effects. For those who believed that the main thing was to get everything said and to hear how everyone felt about it, all was proceeding very well. For those who believed that it was important to get something settled, attention and energy were being scattered, and precious time was being lost. When the unacceptable draft of a final document appeared in the morning session of Tuesday, October 22, and the majority of the participants could not see extending the month-long synod beyond its scheduled closing the following Saturday, it was clear to everyone that the time to express any real theological clarifications that may have been achieved, and even to generate any thoroughly considered pastoral proposals, had finally run out.

The summary rejection the next morning of the entire draft document, as not expressing the thinking of the participants, the apparently stopgap decision to substitute a very general final message, and the similar decision to give to the Pope as pastoral proposals a simple listing of the points most talked about in the small discussion circles, all created in the next three days as impression of muddle and disarray that many took for total failure. For those whose chief or only expectation of the synod was an immediate theological and pastoral breakthrough of some kind, a failure is just what it was.

Yet when a bishop from Madagascar rose on Wednesday morning, October 23, after the vote rejecting the draft document had been announced, to say exactly this, an overwhelming opinion to the contrary was expressed by a whole series of speakers pouring out what they felt.

They had come to Rome to consult with the Pope and with one another about the task of evangelization today, and that was what they had been doing for three and a half weeks. They had seen aspects of the worldwide situation as never before. They had talked them over with full freedom and candor. They had been inspired and encouraged, and were more than ever dedicated to their responsibility to evangelize. Who could describe all this as failure? As for rejecting the proposed document, the real failure would have been to accept it. And, anyway, no one should have expected a synod to produce a lengthy theological-pastoral dissertation in a month. The most they had wanted to come up with was a short series of concrete proposals, for which there was still time in the remaining days.

The sense of solidarity among the bishops, the atmosphere of understanding and cooperation among themselves and with the Pope, as well as the determination to improve their procedures after this experience, transformed that October 23, which had begun with spirits at a low ebb, into what was perhaps the most inspiring day of the whole month. One synod father said later that evening, almost with tears in his eyes, that the expression of faith and devotion from bishops from all over the world, and their appreciation of what a synod meant to them and to the church, had been an experience that he would cherish for the rest of his life.

The value being emphasized here was obviously that of the synod as a forum for the discussion of the ideas, hopes, fears, obstac’es and opportunities which the synod members and their fellow bishops around the world are experiencing at any given time. In a phrase used by Pope Paul in his closing address, the value of a synod is in its “fruitful exchange between those in charge of the local churches, carried out in a fraternal, simple and genuine atmosphere.” It is a value implied throughout Apostolice Sollicitude, the motu proprio of Sept. 15, 1965, in which the Pope established the synod as a new and permanent institution in the church. In this document, which takes up only five pages in the standard English translation of the documents of Vatican II, the synod is described, in effect, as a consultative meeting of a representative group of bishops of the world, called together periodically by the Pope to offer him the benefit of their firsthand information and advice on a topic chosen by him from a list suggested by them.

Anyone who feels the prophetic urge and Pauline boldness to “withstand Peter to his face” has a historic setting in which to do so, and can read in the eyes of his fellow bishops and sometimes in the next morning’s newspapers the approval or reproach which tells him where he stands. The Pope himself, as he has shown, can both listen very carefully to all that is said and, in the opening and closing remarks to which he limits himself, can express his own views quite frankly. In either case, the unfiltered communication can be as clear as any speaker wants to make it.

There is general agreement on some of the results of this process in the recent synod. The bishops of Africa and Asia emerged with an energetic, self-confident and articulate voice among the world hierarchy. Bishops from Latin America spoke with characteristic emphasis on the need of the church to identify with the oppressed masses everywhere. Bishops of North America and Europe expressed a new-found awareness of the impressive reality and diversity of situations of the church in the Third World. The stress upon subsidiarity, pluralism, indigenization and the commitment to work for human promotion and liberation was strong and sustained. The weariness of the church in former mission lands with attitudes of paternalism, theological colonialism and the exporting to the rest of the world of problems which have grown up in Europe and North America was clearly expressed. At the same time the bishops from Asia and Africa- especially the Africans- took pains to point out that the desire for missionaries to come from Europe and North America in a truly fraternal spirit to help them meet the immense needs of their developing churches is as strong as ever.

These and other features of the living exchange that took place within the synod, especially in the 12 smaller discussion groups in which modern languages were spoken, do not readily appear in final documents. They are intangible, but real. To say, therefore, as so many of the synod fathers do, that, in the free and frank exchange of experiences, the recent synod was the best so far is to chalk up a success significant for the whole life of the church.

One might ask, of course, whether it might not have been possible to achieve both the value of this exchange and the value of specific decisions on theological and pastoral aspects of evangelization. The answer seems to be no. At least it was not possible to achieve both values within the space of a month. To come out with doctrinal clarifications beyond those already contained in the documents of Vatican II and others published during the past decade, and with thoroughly considered pastoral proposals based upon them, it would have been necessary to have them substantially worked out beforehand, and then to limit the discussion strictly to their approval or amendment. This would have greatly reduced the spirit of spontaneity.

Conversely, to come out after a month with the feeling that everyone had been given the chance to say what was uppermost in his mind on a very broad range of topics under the heading of evangalization, it was necessary not to work out beforehand any more than a general agenda outline stressing this sharing of experiences. Obviously, the council of the synod secretariat, when approving the working document in its meeting during the first week of April, 1974, chose the latter course. At that very time, it was stated by members of the council who had taken part in earlier synods that this one should not subject itself to the pressure and frustration of producing in a few weeks an extensive doctrinal-pastoral treatise, but should limit itself to a short list of concrete proposals. Even though this conviction was stated early in the synod sessions, the obvious failure to make it really clear and to grain for it the general acceptance of the assembly, and the failure also to call a meeting of the drafting committee very early in the month to reach agreement on objectives, all led to the apparent confusion of the closing days.

In conclusion, one’s picture of the synod as a whole depends very much on how far back one wants to stand when taking it. Up close, one frames a scene of stimulating, if repetitive, discussion, with little clear outcome beyond what everyone already knew. The value of the exchange is there, but when one considers that even the synod fathers will find their experience difficult to communicate fully to others, and that they have perhaps already found it overlaid by the many concerns of the dioceses to which they have returned, the results of this synod, measured at the moment of adjournment on October 26, must be largely disappointing.

Standing farther back, however, and seeing a larger view that includes events leading up to the synod and those which in great probability will follow it, one gets a much brighter picture. Not only did the synod theme, broad as it was, generate a great deal of thinking and writing on evangelization, but the mass of ideas and insights so accumulated was given the warmth and earnestness of living voices in the synod hall itself. Little may have been said there that had not already been written before in hundreds of books and articles, but during the synod, representatives from every bishops’ conference heard it all at once, and the Pope meeting with them heard it all as well, from the spokesmen chosen to express the mind of the church in the part of the world from which they came.

Having heard all this, even if they chose not to try to sum it up in a lengthy treatise composed under pressure, the bishops will be deeply influenced by it. Similarly, Pope Paul’s closing address, which he had to write under much the same limitations the other synod fathers felt, can by no means be taken either as the public censure of his fellow bishops that some analysts have made of it, or as his own last word on any of the various points he treated.

Finally, one can only speculate upon a major impact that may yet come indirectly from the synod. The theological clarifications and pastoral directives that can give a new and long overdue impetus to evangelization in the modern world may yet be offered to the church and to the world in the form of a papal encyclical. Of the many Popes in this century who have written on this theme, none has had the opportunity that Pope Paul now has of addressing to the task while the voices of leading bishops from every part of the world are still echoing about him and their reports and speeches are stacked before him. A year from now (Dec.7, 1975) will be the 10th anniversary of the simultaneous promulgation of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Specs) and the Decree on Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes). If on that or an equally suitable occasion, an encyclical on evangelization (Decem Abhinc Annos?) reflecting the whole experience of last October in Rome were to be published, then in 1974 synod could indeed be pronounced a resounding success in every way that counts.

[Joseph M. Connors, S.V.D., who was in Rome before and throughout the recent Synod, has previously contributed “Agenda for Synod ‘74” (9/28) and now plans to give work-shops and retreats for the next six months in Ireland, Pakistan and India on the theology of evangelization and missionary motivation.]

America November 30, 1974