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Leading cardinal calls for honest look at church problems

Cardinals from around the world ended the consistory on Wednesday, with an influential European urging his fellow prelates to be frank about the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church.

"Freedom of speech is an absolute condition for good management in the church," said Cardinal Godfried Danneels, 67, of Belgium, who is considered a possible successor to Pope John Paul II.

Danneels and several other cardinals took on the sensitive issue of independence of bishops from the Vatican, including giving more voice to the bishops when they are summoned to Rome to meet with the pope.

"Bishops should speak more to the point and more frankly," he said.

Danneels confirmed that talk about "collegiality", was not a dominant theme at the three-day, closed-door meeting. But he said he was encouraged that two Vatican cardinals were "more courageous than others" and endorsed some reforms, including a key proposal to give more power to local churches in the selection of bishops. He declined to name them.

The forum took up such issues as the church's relations with non-Catholics, the response of Catholics to the church's teaching on sex and the pope's call for a new evangelisation.

Several cardinals complained about "poor communications" between Rome and local dioceses. The cardinals also prayed for peace in the Middle East, and were told the pope plans to send an envoy soon to the Middle East.

In a speech to the consistory of 155 cardinals and remarks to reporters before leaving Rome, the Belgian stressed the need for a "culture of debate" in synods.

"There are too many homilies," he said.

"There are so many great voices saying so many great things," said Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. "How are we ever going to narrow down the field?"

There appeared to be confusion among the cardinals themselves over secrecy. Some cardinals released the text of their remarks to reporters, others said it was against the rules to do so. Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls gave brief accounts of the various remarks the first two days but not on Wednesday.