The second assembly of the “Synod on Synodality: For a Synodal Church—Communion, Participation, Mission” is now only forty-seven weeks away: a thought that will not fill some of the participants in Synod-2023 with Pentecostal joy. For notwithstanding the happy-talk propaganda barrage that followed Synod-2023’s solemn closing on October 29, more than a few Synod members experienced October 2023 as a trial.
Because some of the Church’s most accomplished and evangelically effective bishops were deeply frustrated by the dumbing-down inherent in the “Conversation in the Spirit” method imposed on the Synod’s small-group discussions, as they were unhappy with being muzzled by the Synod general secretariat’s manipulation of the roster of speakers at the Synod’s general congregations.
Because serious Catholic thinkers and communicators were compelled to listen to nonsense from ill-catechized and woke fellow-participants.
Because tall tales were told to the Synod and never corrected.
Because synodal members lobbied for various causes and were neither rebuked nor restrained by the Synod’s leadership.
Because the Mass in St. Peter’s beginning the Synod’s final “module” of work featured ditties by the St. Louis Jesuits — thus confirming in some minds the sense that this was not a bold synodal journey into the future, but rather a Long March back to the 1970s.
And because the voting procedures at the end of the Synod were flawed. Requests for disaggregated vote-counts that would allow the Church to know how the bishops had voted in a Synod of Bishops were rejected. The Synod members were only given the text of the final “synthesis report” at 10 a.m. on the Synod’s last working day; the text was then read aloud in Italian (with simultaneous and unofficial translations), over such a length of time that one Synod member admitted he thought he had died and gone to Purgatory (to which a more acerbic soul replied, “At least Purgatory is about sanctification . . .”). So the majority of the Synod members who were not Italian-speakers voted on an unofficial text they had heard, not read.
The League of Women Voters would not have been approved.
From the beginning, this entire 2021–2024 synodal process has been justified by a false premise: that there are voices in the Church that have not been “heard” and deserve to be heard. This is poppycock. The loudest voices in the local, national, and continental synodal phases leading up to October’s planetary phase were, by and large, the same loud voices that had been promoting the failed Catholic Lite project during the thirty-five years when John Paul II and Benedict XVI were giving Vatican II its authoritative interpretation. To suggest that the voices calling for the ordination of women as deacons, or for the rewriting of the Catechism’s texts on homosexuality, or for the reception of Holy Communion by those in canonically irregular marriages have not been heard is to confess that one has not been paying attention—or that one needs hearing aids.
And why should the Church’s leadership have tacitly suggested that these settled questions are in fact unsettled, thus raising the hopes of the Catholic Lite Brigade over the two years of preparation for Synod-2023? That was both a dereliction of duty in the exercise of the Church’s teaching authority and a cruel disservice to progressive Catholic activists….
My former pastor, an amiable Irishman, used to tell the story of Paddy’s funeral in a small village on the Emerald Isle. Paddy was comprehensively and deeply disliked. At the end of his funeral Mass (well-attended, presumably by those who came not to mourn, but to make sure), the local pastor asked someone to come up and say a good word about Paddy before his mortal remains were consigned to the village graveyard. No one moved. The priest asked again: dead silence. The priest then threatened to lock the church door until someone finally came up to say a good word about the deceased. After a few more moments of recalcitrant Irish muteness, an old man got out of his pew, walked to the Communion rail, put his hand on the casket, turned to the congregation and said, “I think his brother was even worse.”
Which is about all that can be said for Synod-2023’s “Synthesis Report”: forty-some pages of leaden prose, heavy on sociology and woke-speak (“Weaving Bonds”), light on theology, and reminding no one of the clarity of Ernest Hemingway’s prose or the lyricism of Willa Cather’s….
The word “magisterium” appeared ten times in the final text as opposed to four times in the draft; but did this reflect a sudden respect for settled doctrine or the new progressive ultramontanism that considers Pope Francis’s every utterance to be “magisterium”?
The notion of conceding doctrinal teaching authority to national conferences of bishops reared its ugly head again, raising the possibility of a fragmentation of Catholic self-understanding and pastoral practice such that what is a serious sin in Poland (receiving Holy Communion unworthily because of an irregular marriage) is a source of grace ten miles away across the Polish-German border.
A bone was thrown to feminist activists (whose call for women deacons never got serious traction) by the final text claiming that it is “urgent that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry”—an injunction that a) ignores what is already going on in what the pope and his nuncio to Washington seem to regard as the benighted Church in the United States and b) confirms that many of these feminist agitations are about power, understood in the thoroughly unevangelical sense of “I can tell you what to do.”
The final text’s proposal that “the possibility be considered of re-inserting priests who have left the ministry in pastoral services that recognize their formation and experience” got a deservedly large negative vote and is a sure prescription for mischief.
As just noted, the Synod did little to clarify just what “synodality” means, and the Synthesis Report reflects that. At one point, the text says that synodality “in its broadest sense” is oriented “towards mission”—but the “mission” is not defined in that term’s most basic Christian sense: the offer of friendship with the incarnate Son of God through the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Nor does the Synthesis Report acknowledge that the living parts of the world Church are precisely those living that idea of mission through the New Evangelization.
The text concedes that the “Conversation in the Spirit” method forced upon the Synod’s small groups has “limitations,” but then gushes that “its practice elicited joy, awe, and gratitude.” From whom? Primarily, I suggest, by those whose putatively “unheard” voices were being heard, with others compelled to listen to their sundry dissatisfactions for the umpteenth time. As for “awe,” the only cognate sentiment I heard expressed came from Synod participants who were aghast at the biblical and theological ignorance being expressed by their synodal colleagues—including, alas, bishops.
The final text’s proposal that each local church “equip itself with suitable people trained to facilitate and accompany processes of ecclesial discernment” will be a cause for serious concern among those who experienced the whip-hand of some facilitators at Synod-2023 (not to mention those who survived the “facilitator” mania of the seventies).
Finally, it might be noted that the Synthesis Report seems to reflect the view that post-conciliar “magisterium” in the Catholic Church begins with Pope Francis. Two great teaching pontificates — stretching over three and a half decades within living memory — are virtually ignored in Synod-2023’s final report. Something is seriously awry here, especially since “communion, participation, and mission” were key themes in the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
So: It could have been worse, that final document. But its many flaws (and capacity to induce narcolepsy) do not recommend it as a template for serious discussion of the challenges of being a Church of “communion, participation, and mission” between now and Synod-2024.
A pontificate putatively dedicated to consultation and reformed ecclesiastical process has in fact been characterized by an extraordinary use of the motu proprio—a papal form of presidential executive order—of which almost sixty have been issued in ten years (John Paul II issued thirty in twenty-six and a half years). This pattern continued a few days after Synod-2023 ended, when Pope Francis issued Ad Theologiam Promovendam (To Promote Theology), on the alleged need for a “paradigm shift” in Catholic theology. An early and able assessment of this troubling—no, seriously wrong-headed—document was published in The Catholic Thing, to which readers are referred. A few parallel points may be made here.
First, it cannot be said often enough that the Catholic Church does not do “paradigm shifts.” Anyone who claims that the Church does either misunderstands the term “paradigm shift” or misunderstands the nature of the Church. A “paradigm shift” is the fundamental reorientation of a body of thought: as, for example, when the Ptolemaic (Earth-centered) concept of a stationary universe gave way, under the pressure of irrefutable scientific evidence, to the Copernican concept of the earth orbiting the sun. The replacement of Galen’s “miasma theory” of disease (diseases are caused by bad air) by the “germ theory” of disease (diseases are caused by infectious pathogens) is another example.
“Paradigm shifts” are not how Catholic self-understanding develops. (Please repeat that three times, placing your right hand over your heart and holding Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in your left.) Catholic doctrine develops, deepens its understanding of ancient truths, and finds new ways of expressing them, but always (as John XXIII put it in his opening address to Vatican II) with the “same meaning and the same judgment.” It is unsettling, to say the least, to find a text of the papal magisterium misusing the term “paradigm shift”—and in such a way as to suggest that there is nothing settled in the Deposit of Faith. But there is: The Deposit of Faith is rooted in divine revelation, and the God of the Bible does not and cannot say one thing yesterday and another (different) thing tomorrow. Once again, in referring to “paradigm shifts,” this pontificate seems disconnected from the teaching of Vatican II in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which robustly and unambiguously declares that divine revelation is real and binding over time. (For more on this, see the homily appended below.)
Second, Pope Francis’s tendency to set up straw men and then incinerate them rhetorically is becoming very tiresome. Thus in Ad Theologiam Promovendam, following the pattern of his warnings to the media to avoid “caprophilia” and his broadsides against “doctors of the law,” clerical “narcissists,” and “backward-looking” priests and seminarians, the pope deplores “desk theology” and writes that theology “cannot be limited to abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes from the past.” But who is doing that? Is the pope wholly unaware of the many important developments in Catholic theology — including dogmatic theology and moral theology—since the 1930s? Can the pope or his presumed amanuensis in this document, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, cite a single prominent theologian today or over the past several decades who “abstractly” re-proposed “formulas and schemes from the past”? Is that what John Paul II and Benedict XVI were doing in their papal magisterium? Is that what Joseph Ratzinger was doing in over a half-century of luminous and wide-ranging theological reflection and writing? Is that what Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Jean Danielou, and Hans Urs von Balthasar were doing in the decades before Vatican II? Is that what Avery Dulles and Servais Pinckaers were doing in the years immediately following the Council? Is that what Thomas Joseph White, Tracey Rowland, Michael Sherwin, Matthew Levering, Anthony Akinwale, Melanie Barrett, Aidan Nichols, Erik Varden, Joseph Carola, and Robert Barron are doing today?
Ad Theologiam Promovendam also insists that the theological “paradigm shift” it (wrongly) endorses must be undertaken because of great changes in modern and contemporary culture. No doubt the disenchantment of the world and the rise of secularist nihilism and relativism demand a fresh formulation of ancient Christian truths. But those truths remain true, and their truth-content cannot be sacrificed on the altar of modern relevance. Contemporary culture desperately needs challenge and conversion from the Church, not supine surrender to its shibboleths—the toxic effects of which have been manifest on elite campuses throughout the world over the past month, as pampered moral cretins chant “Death to the Jews!”
Theology is perhaps not quite as important as theologians imagine it to be: Between 1946 and 1990, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine survived over four decades of underground existence without an in-country theological faculty; the Gospel was planted in eighteenth-century Korea and sustained for decades in the nineteenth century by lay catechists who were not theologians. But theologians helped save the Deposit of Faith during the Arian crisis, the Reformation upheavals of the sixteenth century, and the assault of rationalist modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just as theologians prepared the intellectual ground for the Second Vatican Council. To misrepresent how theology is being done today is to insult men and women who have dedicated their lives to the mastery of Christian thought in service to Christ and to the proclamation of the gospel.
The traducing of theology in Ad Theologiam Provenandem is not constructive. On the contrary: It is deconstructive and damaging to the deepening of Christian self-understanding that is essential to being a Church of “communion, participation, and mission.”
….During Synod-2023, well-placed sources in Rome suggested to me and others that Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J., Pope Francis’s favorite canon lawyer, had met with the pope three times in September, allegedly to discuss a document “reforming” conclave procedure along “synodal” lines. When this story broke cover in the week after Synod-2023, Cardinal Ghirlanda denied the accuracy of the reports; he did, however, meet with Pope Francis in a private audience on November 8. Thus two points remain worth making.
First, a “reform” of conclave procedures that would eliminate non-voting cardinals (i.e., those over eighty) from any role during a papal interregnum would be very ill-advised, as it would deprive the cardinal-electors of the wisdom and counsel of some of the Church’s most venerable leaders. How would the process of choosing a new Bishop of Rome be enhanced by stifling the voices of Francis Arinze, Dominik Duka, Wilfred Fox Napier, Antonio María Rouco Varela, Camillo Ruini, and Joseph Zen? And what would it suggest if such a proscription were instituted by an 86-year-old pope?
Second, any reform of the pre-conclave procedures that would admit laity and religious women into the pre-voting discussions of the cardinal-electors (presumably on the manipulative “Conversation in the Spirit” model used during Synod-2023) raises the specter of a papal election process in which worldly powers would once again exercise a form of veto: not through the assertion of the ius exclusivae by Catholic monarchs, but by pressures brought to bear on a hybrid gaggle of discussants by the world media; or by governments hostile to the Church (China, for example), with whom some cardinal-electors already seem to have cordial relations; or by international philanthropists who promote and support the Catholic Lite agenda….
From George Weigel in First Things