Last week, as this year’s meeting of the Synod on Synodality moved toward a close, I noticed that my Catholic friends were divided into two camps. Some were following the news from the Synod carefully. They would stop me after Mass and quiz me anxiously about the latest reports. Others were only vaguely (if at all) aware that the Synod was meeting. They were no less intelligent, no less serious about their faith. But they lived—as most good Catholics usually live—by the principle that one can sail on the barque of Peter without paying close attention to what’s happening in the engine room.
Although my work forced me to keep abreast of the Synod discussions, I grew more and more envious of my friends who weren’t taking notice of the Synod. That happy crew: free from the palaver, from the seemingly endless parade of people who talked about listening. This Synod, even more than previous synods during this unhappy pontificate, was enervating.
My friend Robert Royal, who was on the scene in Rome, expressed the same exhaustion:
But I confess that—whether radical, or the “greatest event since Vatican II”—I left the Synod early last Friday. I’d had enough and went home. Saw nothing much was about to happen. Felt totally exhausted by the sheer dreariness of a month-long conversation that could have been done in less than a week. Several bishops I spoke with in Rome confessed to feeling the same.
What was, and what is, the purpose of this Synod, which—even after months of stage-managed preparatory meetings and an even more carefully scripted plenary meeting—is still a full year from completion? Although the word “synodality” was invoked incessantly, we still have no clear understanding of what it means. During their month in Rome the Synod delegates discussed the topic of their discussion; they talked with each other about how they should talk with each other. Most of all they listened, because listening was the order of the day. But as Jeff Mirus has wearily observed they showed little discernment about what they should listen to.
Still not listening
Try this experiment: Break into a group conversation and say, with some urgency, “Listen!” Pretend that there is some quiet sound that they should hear. You will notice that most of the people in the group will close their eyes, shutting down the one sense as they concentrate on the other. To me that is the image of the Synod on Synodality: a group of people so focused on listening that they can no longer see what is right in front of them.
What was right in front of them, during the last days of the October plenary meeting, was the stunning news that Father Marko Rupnik has been welcomed back to priestly ministry despite a long record of reports about sexual and sacramental abuses. In fact Cardinal Robert Prevost told reporters that the topic of abuse had not been discussed much by the Synod delegates. “The whole life of the Church does not revolve around that specific issue, as important as it is,” said the prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops.
Certainly true. But if you were listening to what the world had to say to the Church in late October 2023, you knew that the world in general, and the aghast Catholic faithful in particular, were astounded to see that the Vatican still has not learned the painful lessons of the abuse scandal. It isn’t easy to persuade people that you are listening to them, when you don’t react to the message that has been blaring through bullhorns for twenty years.
But then apparently the delegates to this Synod meeting were not the same people who have been urgently calling for action on the abuse scandal. This was a different sort of group: a group selected at meetings in church basements and diocesan assemblies. The conservative scholar Russell Kirk, who found himself surrounded by such people at the “Call to Action” conference in Michigan in 1976, described them as the “church mice”: “the persons closely involved in the vast bureaucratic apparatus of the visible Church.”
Synod organizers insist that they sought input from every corner of the Catholic Church—and beyond. But the selection process did not produce that result. Ask your Catholic friends if they felt their views were included. My wife Leila, in her very perceptive commentary on the Synod, pointed to…
…four groups who were most definitely not represented: first, devoted wives and mothers seeking only “the noble office of a Christian woman and wife” ( in the words of Pius XI) in the home; second, strong fathers who sacrificially take on the role of sole providers of their families; third, piously cloistered nuns; and fourth, committed pastors of parishes.
All are welcome (?)
This meeting of the Synod of Bishops included, illogically, many voting members who are not bishops. In theory they represented the broad spectrum of Catholic (and non-Catholic) opinion. In practice, they represented only a small segment: the full range of opinion from A to B. They were, disproportionately, the sort of people who work for the bishops or with the bishops and/or the people who, aggrieved by some aspect of Catholic teaching, clamor for the bishops’ attention. Every bishop is in danger of becoming like the commander of a submarine: his situation makes it possible that he will never hear from anyone who is not already on board. This Synod meeting produced more subs than a busy deli.
When the College of Cardinals gathered before the last conclave, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio captured the attention of his colleagues with a talk in which he lamented “self-referential” attitudes within the Church. Ironically this Synod—which might be seen as the crowning achievement of his pontificate—is arguably the most self-referential event in Catholic history. Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced clericalism, yet this was an exercise in clericalism on an outsized scale. High-ranking clerics and the people who typically surround them spent most of a month discussing how they should discuss what they think it is important to discuss.
And I have not yet mentioned the choreography of this Synod meeting: the careful orchestration of media coverage, the strict restraints on speeches at plenary sessions, the tight control on the reports from small-group discussion sessions. As someone weaned on hardball politics, I recognized long ago that the results of this meeting were “in the bag.” Again I think of my friends who were not paying much attention to the October session, and I realize that they are not “troubled about many things” precisely because they have “chosen the better part.”
Making everyone comfortable
Still I am troubled, like many of my other friends, by the messages that have issued from this Synod meeting. As Larry Chapp puts it, “it is a strange wideness with a tendentious predilection for all things modern, Western, bourgeois, and sexually antinomian built into its teleology.” The final message issuing forth from the October session did not endorse any radical departures from Catholic tradition—in fact it explicitly declined to render judgment the neuralgic issues. Yet the leaders of the “progressive” wing of the hierarchy tell us that this Synod will change the Church forever, that there will be no going back.
Yet other more radical delegates and observers express keen disappointment that the October session did not call for changes in Church teaching—that it did not, to mention one important example, demand alteration of the Catechism’s teaching that homosexuality is a disorder. And more conservative commentators advise us to relax because the Synod did not undermine key doctrines. How should we reconcile these very different perspectives?
Let me draw another lesson from everyday life: from ordinary business negotiations. When you begin bargaining about the purchase of a major item—a new car, say, or a house—you usually say that you are ready to discuss any possibilities. (“Bring all offers!”) But if the negotiations advance, and you draw closer to an agreement, you take a tougher stand, hoping that the other party will take the last few steps toward your position. When Father James Martin says that he is disappointed with the Synod’s unwillingness to affirm homosexuals (yet), I have no doubt that he is sincere. But I also have no doubt that he hopes his very public expressions of disappointment will prod the Synod delegates to take the next step in October 2024.
What is the goal of the progressive faction, then? To renounce fundamental Catholic doctrines? Not at all. The Synod on Synodality will not change doctrine. Instead the goal is—as it has been throughout this disastrous papacy—to eschew clear statements of belief, to discourage moral judgments, to render doctrine irrelevant. The goal is to ensure that everyone—regardless of beliefs, regardless of moral choices—can be comfortable in the Church. (Everyone, that is, except those “rigid” old Catholics who long for clarity.)
That is a plausible goal, I suppose—if you believe that the Church exists to make people comfortable. But it is not the goal, or the faith, established by the Lord who said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
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