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Vatican Bishops' Synod Tackles Western 'Godless' Secularism

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Pope Benedict (left) and Patriarch Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel

Pope Benedict (left) and Patriarch Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel

The Vatican is hardly a democracy but the Synod of Bishops may be the closest the Holy See gets to democratic debate.

For three weeks, Roman Catholic bishops as well as Anglican and Orthodox leaders have gathered at the Vatican synod to debate new ways of bringing the Bible to life to people around the world. Their efforts seek to strike a balance between literal and interpretive readings of Christianity's holy book, and are part of Pope Benedict XVI's broader mission to try to "re-evangelize" a sea of nonbelievers in the Western world.

The gathering in Rome that ends on October 26 is also tackling other issues, such as how to reunite a divided Christian church. More broadly, it enables Catholic leaders from around the world to exchange a wide range of views beyond the gathering's official topic, which is "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church."

"It's the only sounding board the Catholic Church has at the global level for just taking stock of what's happening in the life of the church in the world," says U.S. author John Allen, an expert on the Vatican. "So the real value of these meetings often is for the Europeans to compare notes with the Africans and the Latin Americans to compare notes with the Asians about the challenges that they face."

For the Europeans especially but also in North America, the challenge in recent years has been a dwindling number of faithful amid an embrace of scientific rationalism and rampant consumerism. "I think what's clear from this synod, as it has been from other ones, is that for the Europeans -- and that would certainly include Pope Benedict XVI -- the big challenge is the Godless secularism of the West," Allen says.

Benedict has made a drive to return secular Europe to its Christian roots a key part of his papacy. Nor has he been shy about using popular methods to achieve his ends. He kicked off the synod on October 6 with a nonstop Bible-reading marathon broadcast on Italian television. For a week, more than 1,200 people including Oscar-winning comic Roberto Benigni and an envoy from Aleksy II, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, read from the Bible.

Finding A Way Back To The Faith

And in the middle of the synod, the pope found time to pay homage to a onetime atheist who founded a Catholic shrine in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city destroyed by the explosion of the volcano Vesuvius near Naples.

For a pope who took his name after a medieval monk who helped Christianize pagan Europe, the symbolism was clear. Speaking in Pompeii on October 19, Benedict honored Bartolo Longo, who once opposed the church but later converted and built a shrine to the Virgin Mary before dying in 1926. "Who would have ever thought that amid the ruins of ancient Pompeii, a world-renowned sanctuary for Holy Mary would have arisen," the pope said.

A similar note was struck on October 18 by Bartholomew I, the patriarch of Istanbul, who is considered "first among equals" in the Orthodox Church's hierarchy. Bartholomew, in a historic appearance, prayed with the pope under the frescoed ceilings of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

In his address, Bartholomew called for a renewal of faith to eliminate evil. He said this would take a radical "conversion of attitudes, habits, and practices" including forming a united Christian front to help bring back souls to the faith. "We regard this as a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit, leading our churches to a closer and deeper relationship with each other...towards the restoration of our full communion," Bartholomew said.

The ecumenical nature of the synod was also marked by the presence of a rabbi who discussed the Old Testament and an Anglican bishop and bible scholar, N.T. Wright of Britain.

The pope's own views on Bible scholarship, laid out his book "Jesus of Nazareth," are well-known to the bishops. Reiterating them at the synod, he said that as Christianity is a historical religion, it should be subjected to critical research methods. However, he lamented such modern methods have led some scholars to conclude that, for example, Jesus could not have been resurrected from the dead, as the Bible teaches. The pope said any reading of the Bible must remain faithful to church tradition.

Balancing interpretation and literalism is never easy in reading a holy book, but that's what the bishops hope to do. "The goal of this synod is to try to promote a distinctively Catholic mode of reading the Bible that is neither secular skepticism nor the fundamentalism that you would get from the Evangelicals and the Pentecostals," Allen says. "It's an attempt to try and strike a middle ground."

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