tThough the Oct. 5-26 Synod of Bishops was hardly defined by electric theological debate, the final propositions submitted to Pope Benedict XVI nonetheless represent a victory for what might be called a “moderate” line.
In perhaps its most surprising move, the synod recommended that women be officially admitted to the ministry of “lector,” meaning a minister authorized to read Bible passages at Mass. Overall, the bishops voiced strong support for laity – endorsing lay-led liturgies of the Word in the absence of a priest, as well as small ecclesial communities (often known in Latin America as “base communities.”)
This edition of the synod was devoted to the Bible, and in broad strokes the bishops steered a middle course between two possible extremes: secular skepticism and fundamentalist literalism. They endorsed the use of historical-critical methods of study, while also calling for a distinctly “theological” and “spiritual” reading of the Bible.
Several propositions reflected a desire on the part of the bishops to send signals of sensitivity to other Christians and to Jews – including a call to review the lectionary, or the collection of scripture readings for the Mass, to ensure that it doesn’t promote a negative theology about Judaism.
The bishops also struck an ecological note, calling for greater attention to the “cosmic” implications of the Bible and “a renewed theological sensibility for the goodness of all things.”
The synod’s conclusions are merely advisory, and it will be up to Pope Benedict XVI to decide what action, if any, to take. Nonetheless, the propositions illustrate the thinking of a representative cross-section of bishops from around the world.
The Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” ran Oct. 5-26 in Rome.
Reaching out to women
Against the backdrop of a church sometimes perceived as a “boy’s club,” this synod is likely to be remembered for its efforts to reach out to women. For the first time, women were a majority among the official “observers,” occupying 19 of 37 spots. More women participated in this synod than in any edition since the body first met in 1967.
In the end, concern for women came through most clearly in Proposition 17, devoted to “Ministry of the Word and Women.”
Under existing church law, the ministry of lector is technically open only to males. In part, that’s for historical reasons; before 1972, the office of lector was considered one of the “minor orders” leading to priestly ordination. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) it’s become common practice for women to read at Mass, including during papal liturgies in Rome, but this is officially considered only a “temporary” measure.
The bishops suggested making it permanent.
“It’s hoped that ministry of lector can be opened also to women, so that their role as announcers of the Word may be recognized in the Christian community,” the bishops said in proposition 17.
The bishops also endorsed the growing practice of lay-led celebrations of the Word of God, especially in areas where communities don’t have regular access to the Sunday Eucharist due to priest shortages.
Discussions around these services had been one of the few flashpoints during the synod, albeit in muted fashion. Some observers saw them as a “proxy” for wider debates about the possible ordination of married men. At the end of the synod’s second week, Bishop Luis Tagle of the Imus diocese in the Philippines said that the subject had “made people pause.”
In the end, however, the bishops’ tone was encouraging.
“Even in the middle of today’s din, which makes effective listening difficult, the faithful are encouraged [in these liturgies] to cultivate a disposition of interior silence and a way of hearing the Word of God that transforms life,” the bishops said in proposition 18.
Vote of confidence in laity
In another vote of confidence in lay activity, the bishops also endorsed the practice of Bible reading in small Christian communities, often known in Latin America as “base communities.” Over the years, liberation theologians have sometimes touted the base communities as the kernel of a popular “church from below” – a reading which has, in turn, often made bishops wary.
The synod, however, seemed positive.
“These small communities meet regularly around the Word of God, in order to share it among themselves, and they draw strength from it,” the bishops said in proposition 21. “The service of the laity who guide these communities must be esteemed and promoted, because they render a missionary service to which all the baptized are called,” the bishops said.
Concern for the laity even ran through the synod’s treatment of priestly formation. Proposition 32, dealing with educating future priests about the Bible, included the following recommendation: “Parallel to formation inside the seminary, future priests are also invited to take part in meetings with groups or associations of laity gathering around the Word of God. These meetings … favor in future ministers the experience and the taste for hearing what the Holy Spirit is arousing in believers gathering as the church, whether these gatherings are large or small.”
Several bishops, and even Pope Benedict XVI himself, voiced concern during the early stages of the synod about overly skeptical and secularized interpretations of the Bible, and the final propositions contained several items related to the need for a “theological” or “spiritual” reading of the Bible alongside a purely historical-critical interpretation.
At the same time, however, the propositions reassert the importance of historical-critical study. Proposition 46 also distinguishes the Catholic approach to the Bible from “fundamentalist interpretations that ignore the human mediation of the inspired text and its literary forms.”
“The believer …must be educated to not unconsciously confuse the human limits of the Biblical message with the divine substance of that message,” the bishops recommended.
Proposition 12 recommended that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith produce a document on the inerrancy of the Bible, emphasizing “the specific character of Catholic Biblical hermeneutics in this area.”
In proposition 48, the bishops endorsed efforts towards “inculturation,” meaning expressing the Biblical message in terms and images drawn from local cultures. Though the limits of inculturation have long been a source of theological debate, the synod was fundamentally positive:
“The Word of God must penetrate into every environment in such a way that the culture produces original expressions of life, or liturgy, of Christian thought,” the proposition reads.
In a gesture of sensitivity to Judaism, proposition 16 recommended a revision of the lectionary, or the collection of scripture readings for use during the Mass, in part to ensure that it does “not imply an overly restrictive reading of the Old Testament.” Critics have charged that because readings from the Old Testament are selected almost entirely with respect to episodes from the gospels, it can feed a theology of “supercessionism,” meaning that Judaism is no longer valid because Christianity has taken its place.
The proposition on the lectionary did not directly address complaints from some quarters that the current selection omits stories about women, but it called for attention to the "exclusion of certain important passages."
Moreover, the bishops also suggested that a revision be carried out in collaboration with other Christian denominations that use the same lectionary. Several Christian bodies currently use a “Revised Common Lectionary” based on the Catholic model, though ironically, the Catholic church does not.
A proposition devoted to Islam, however, struck a slightly tougher line, insisting that an important part of any dialogue must be “reciprocity and liberty of conscience and religion.”
Complaints about the treatment of religious minorities, including Christians, in several majority Muslim states have long been a flashpoint in Catholic/Muslim relations, and may surface again in early November when Benedict XVI is scheduled to meet Muslim leaders as part of a new “Catholic/Muslim Forum.”
The full text of the propositions can be found here: Final Propositions
(John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)