Vatican Synod Ends with No Surprises

Catholic leaders wrap up a three-week-long Synod of Bishops, the first presided over by Pope Benedict XVI. Some new topics arose, but the conference ended with no major policy changes.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

With a Mass today at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI brought a formal close to a three-week-long bishops meeting. In this first synod of Benedict's young papacy, the bishops approved 50 propositions that fully embraced the church's traditional teachings. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

The synod's official topic was the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ. The sacrament can be given only by a priest. It was Third World bishops who opened a frank debate on the worldwide shortage of priests. Discussion included the possibility of ordaining older, married men of proven virtue, but the final document said allowing married men into the priesthood was a road not to follow. Australian Cardinal George Pell told a closing press conference there was considerable consensus on this point.

Cardinal GEORGE PELL (Australia): And I think it is also significant that there has been a massive restatement of the importance of the tradition in the Latin church of mandatory celibacy for the priests.

POGGIOLI: The bishops also upheld the ban on allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, as well as the ban on inter-Communion with Protestants. With regard to Communion for Catholic politicians who back legislation allowing gay marriage or abortion, the synod decided to leave the decision up to local bishops. They were instructed to exercise the virtues of firmness and prudence.

The synod included the novelty of an open-floor discussion at the end of each daily session. While no new doctrines were proposed at the synod, Gerard O'Connell, a Catholic author and veteran Vatican watcher, says in terms of process, the pope broke new ground.

Mr. GERARD O'CONNELL (Author): He's removed the idea of that taboo subject. Under John Paul II, there were taboo subjects--for example, the question of ordaining married men. So the fact that the pope has allowed them to talk so freely and to allow any subject to be tabled was certainly progress.

Sister CHRISTINE SCHENK: So in some sense, I feel like, `Yes, it's good; we started the conversation.' But it's very bad because we started it and put our heads in the sand.

POGGIOLI: Sister Christine Schenk represents two American Catholic groups, Future Church and Call to Action.

Sister SCHENK: What was most distressing to me were the remarks from bishops in the synod. `Oh, no! We can't have married priests! My gosh! They have families; they have children. It will be harder to transfer them.' And first of all, I wanted to say, `Earth to bishops, you know, the church is made up of families, number one. And we can only benefit from having priests who understand the family experience.'

POGGIOLI: Sister Schenk says the priest shortage issue is so serious that in the foreseeable future, more than half of US parishes will not have their own priest.

(Soundbite of Mass)

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Singing in Latin)

POGGIOLI: But in today's closing Mass in St. Peter's Square, Benedict once again rejected suggestions that the solution to the shortage is ordaining married men.

(Soundbite of Mass)

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: He said, `The celibacy that priests received as a precious gift and a sign of undivided love toward God and neighbor is founded upon the Eucharistic mystery celebrated and adored. And lay Catholics have to show their faith clearly.' Benedict said, `No dichotomy is admissible between faith and life.'

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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