Bishops Synod on the Eucharist
Posted Thursday, Oct. 13, 2005 at 1:15 p.m. CDT

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Coverage of Bishops Synod on the Eucharist

Report #11:
Problems acknowledged, synod bishops seek middle ground solutions


John L. Allen Jr.


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By John L. Allen Jr.

A dynamic is shaping up at the Synod of Bishops in which the bishops seem, in effect, to be trying to meet their critics half-way. They’re willing to acknowledge, in unusually blunt fashion, certain long-taboo topics as real problems, but not necessarily to embrace the most ballyhooed solutions.

Thus, bishops have been crystal clear about the conundrums generated by the priest shortage, by the exclusion of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics from Communion, and from the ban on Protestants receiving the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass. What they don’t seem interested in doing is getting rid of clerical celibacy, or relaxing the rules on Communion.

The real solutions, they believe, must be found elsewhere.

On the priest shortage, for example, several bishops have talked about the theological and spiritual logic for mandatory celibacy in the Western church, with one defining celibacy as the church’s “most precious jewel,” and others arguing that the problem underlying priest shortages is not celibacy but a broader “crisis of faith.”

Both Cardinal Telesphore Placidus Toppo of India and Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez of Mexico made that argument in an Oct. 13 Vatican news conference, marking the synod’s half-way point.

Wednesday evening, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the relator for the synod, presented the relatio post disceptationem, or the “speech after the discussion,” which is intended to focus the discussion to date and provide direction for the meeting of the circoli minori, the small groups whose job it is to generate proposals for propositions to submit to the pope.

Read more NCR coverage of the synod on the Eucharist
  • Report #17: Final draft rebuffs Latin Mass; priest shortage, divorce squarely on church’s pastoral agenda Posted Oct. 20, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #16: Gregory: Little change expected but synod had honest talk of pastoral realities Posted Oct. 19, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #15: Draft propositions do not recommend changes in church discipline Posted Oct. 18, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #14: Women’s voices heard through interventions of 12 synod auditors Posted Oct. 17, 12:15 p.m.
  • Report #13: Statement on married priests likely in final list of proposals Posted Oct. 17, 12:00 p.m.
  • Report #12: Outreach to Latin Mass Catholics proposed for final message Posted Oct. 15, 9:32 a.m.
  • Report #11: Problems acknowledged, synod bishops seek middle ground solutions. Posted Oct. 13, 1:15 p.m.
  • Report #10: Despite frank talk, few breakthroughs expected from synod. Posted Oct. 12, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #9: Key synod themes seem clear, but consensus may be elusive. Posted Oct. 11, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #8: Inculturation of liturgy sparks debate at this and past synods of bishops. Posted Oct. 10, 11:30 a.m.
  • Report #7: Bishops of Global South link Eucharist and justice, local cultures. Posted Oct. 8., 9:52 a.m.
  • Report #6: Discussion of celibacy and marriage clergy continue to hold center stage. Posted Oct. 7, 10:21 a.m.
  • Report #5: Environment, social justice emerge as eucharistic themes. Posted Oct. 6, 10:30 a.m.
  • Report #4: Divorced, remarried Catholics topics of frank synod discussions. Posted Oct. 5, 3:00 p.m
  • Report #3: Priest shortage continues to roil synod of bishops. Posted Oct. 4, 2:01 p.m.
  • Report #2: Movements appeal for changes to make Eucharist more accessible. Posted Oct. 4, 2:00 p.m.
  • Report #1: Priest shortage takes center stage on synod's first day. Posted Oct. 3, 3:04 p.m.
  • Read The Word From Rome columns
  • The final set of propositions; The case of viri probati; Some worry the synod lacked theological heft. Posted Oct. 21, 2:07 p.m.
  • Latin Mass a non-issue; Interview with Bishop Skylstad; Scola's 17 questions to guide the synod. Posted Oct. 14, 10:46 a.m.
  • The synod so far; How to report on a synod; A view from Moscow; Document on homosexuals in seminaries will not create an absolute ban; Catholic left and right square off. Posted Oct. 7, 11:55 a.m.
  • Preview of the synod on the Eucharist. Posted Sept. 30, 8:05 a.m.
  • Here’s what Scola had to say on the issue of celibacy.

    “Fathers from every continent underlined the worrying shortage of priests,” Scola said. “In this area, someone made reference to the viri probati. … Some fathers, recalling the Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological motives for celibacy presented in Sacerdotalis coelibatus [a 1967 document of Pope Paul VI] in continuity with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, affirmed that the hypothesis of the viri probati is not a path to pursue.”

    Bishops from the Eastern rite churches have warned of practical problems a married priesthood can create, such as the difficulties of supporting a priest with a wife and children, or of moving him to a new parish assignment when his family has already put down roots.

    “We have nothing against [married priests],” said emeritus Bishop Sofron Stefan Mudry of Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, a member of the Greek Catholic rite, during an Oct. 13 Vatican press conference. “They helped preserve the faith during communism, and many were arrested.”

    Yet Mudry also said that some Eastern rite churches with married priests are experiencing clergy shortages.

    Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told NCR Oct. 13 that he “has not heard a strong call” in the synod for married priests.

    Skylstad said instead that the basic challenge is for meat-and-potatoes pastoral work to encourage vocations in families, parishes and Catholic institutions. He also said that when parishes see a model of a “hard-working, happy and fulfilled pastor,” that parish is likely to generate vocations.

    Some bishops have suggested a “redistribution” of priests from regions with many priests to those with few, but others seem dubious about how practical that might be, both because there are few parts of world generating surplus vocations and because of cultural and linguistic challenges.

    On divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the bishops openly discussed the suffering of people barred from the sacraments, in some cases due to the failure of a marriage that was beyond their control, in candid terms.

    “Not a few fathers made reference to people who are living together, to baptized Catholics who are only married civilly, and to the divorced and remarried, who find themselves in the painful condition of not being able to receive eucharistic Communion,” Scola said. “The importance of a welcoming pastoral stance in their regard was stressed.”

    Yet there has been little push, according to participants, to change the current rules.

    Instead, many bishops argued for streamlining the work of marriage tribunals around the world, making the process less cumbersome and expensive, in order to “regularize” the situations of as many people as possible within the limits of existing legislation.

    Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, defended the ban on Communion at today’s news conference.

    “I don’t see this as a law of the church, but a law of God,” Arinze said.

    “If two people are married, and it’s valid before God and the church … we don’t have the power to dissolve that marriage,” he said. “If one or other party has reason to believe the marriage was not valid from the beginning, they can go to the tribunal.”

    “Communion is not something we priests or bishops possess and can give to our friends, or to the people we like,” Arinze said. “We’re only ministers. We have to respond to God.”

    Scola noted that several bishops supported “promoting energetically the pastoral dimension of ecclesiastical tribunals, with eventual simplifications of functions and procedures, favoring the creation of tribunals where they don’t exist.”

    One irony of this discussion is that American bishops, long accustomed to hearing their tribunals criticized in Rome for giving out too many annulments, now are hearing them praised as models.

    On the problem of inter-Communion with Protestants, members of the synod have repeatedly acknowledged the intrinsic link between the Eucharist and the longing for Christian unity, but again not at the expense of altering the existing rules that generally bar Protestants from the Catholic Eucharist.

    “I get the sense that people think inter-Communion in general is not the way to go,” Skylstad said.

    Instead, the bishops seem eager to be more generous in applying existing rules, which allow Catholic priests to administer Communion to non-Catholics when there is no service in their own rite available, when they request the sacrament, and when they share the faith of the Catholic church about the Eucharist.

    In addition, bishops seem eager to pursue opportunities for joint worship with other Christians outside the Eucharist, such as Liturgies of the Word.

    Interestingly, two other widely debated issues connected to the Eucharist have received virtually no discussion in the synod at all: the status of the pre-Vatican II rite of Mass, and the question of whether or not to bar Catholic politicians who don’t follow the moral teaching of the church from Communion.

    Skylstad told NCR he had the sense that many bishops from other countries regard the latter issue as “a bit of an American problem.”

    In other business, two developments on the margins of the Synod of Bishops yesterday suggest that the always-tense situation of the Catholic church in China, long divided into an official church with an ambiguous relationship with Rome and an underground church loyal to the pope but harassed by the government, is on the mend.

    The core issue between the Chinese government and Rome has been control of the local church, and especially the issue of who picks its bishops. For decades, the “Patriotic Association,” the government-sponsored body with official jurisdiction over church affairs, insisted on nominating bishops without consulting the pope.

    Bishop Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, long known as one of the most outspoken figures in the Chinese church with respect to government restrictions on religious freedom, told the synod that after long years of this forced separation, today “the overwhelming majority of bishops in the official church have been legitimated through the magnanimity of the Holy Father.”

    “Especially in recent years,” Zen said, “it has become ever clearer that bishops ordained without the approval of the Roman pontiff are not accepted, either by the clergy nor the faithful.”

    Zen said this trend, which amounts to the sensus ecclesiae, or “sense of the church,” is opposed by some “conservative” elements in the official church, but he nonetheless hoped that it will lead to a “normalization” of relations with the government.

    Zen’s analysis was confirmed by a piece published in the Oct. 15 Civiltà Cattolica, a semi-official journal screened by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, by German Jesuit theologian Fr. Hans Waldenfels.

    Waldenfels wrote that in China today, “before being consecrated bishops by the official community, candidates normally seek to obtain the nomination of the Holy See.” He cited several cases in point, including the new bishop of Shanghai, Giuseppe Xing Wenzhi, consecrated on June 28, 2005.

    Given this trend, Waldenfels suggested, it is to be expected the successors to the bishops of the “underground” church will not be named, leading to an eventual healing of the decades-long Chinese schism.

    Whether this development will prompt greater openness from the Chinese authorities on religious freedom is another matter, which Waldenfels concluded requires thinking in the “long run.”

    John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

    October 13, 2005, National Catholic Reporter

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