Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Despite stage-managing, Synod highlighted confusion in Rome

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 29, 2018

Remember back in 2014 and again 2015, when angry bishops protested that the Vatican staff was manipulating the Synod of Bishops? This year, when the Synod met to discuss youth and vocation, the complaints were different in tone. The participating bishops could no longer claim to be surprised by the maneuvering of the staff. The manipulation was too obvious.

As the Synod ended its work, George Weigel provided a comprehensive summary of how the meeting had played out. The tensions between the Synod staff and the participating bishops were evident, he reports. Discussing the heavy-handed approach taken by the secretary-general of the Synod, Weigel writes: “If Pope Francis is serious about making the Synod of Bishops work better, he will thank Lorenzo Baldiserri for his services and bring in a new general secretary—right away.”

That’s an unlikely prospect, however, because Cardinal Baldiserri, who was appointed by Pope Francis, is one of the Pontiff’s staunchest allies. His tactics during the October session were calculated to advance two of the Pope’s favorite goals: to increase the teaching authority of the Synod, and to ensure that the bishops’ message was in line with the Pope’s preferences.

You can see the difficulty there, can’t you? It’s no easy trick to tell a group of bishops that they should teach with authority, and then to tell them what they should teach. If the Synod is merely to rubber-stamp papal policies, then it doesn’t have much authority on its own.

Nevertheless this year’s meeting, as orchestrated by Cardinal Baldiserri, saw a series of attempts to tell the bishops what they should say. The committee of bishops selected to draft a final statement for the group found that a statement had already been drafted, by the ever-helpful Synod staff. That statement included a lengthy discussion of synodal government—a topic that the bishops had not really addressed, but one close to the Pope’s heart. And finally, the final statement included an admonition that the bishops’ document should be read in the light of the Instrumentum Laboris, the preparatory document that had been presented to the assembly by the staff before the bishops began their discussions. As Father Raymond de Souza points out, “The ‘working document’ [the Instrumentum Laboris] was not prepared by the Synod, nor was it voted upon by them.” So how could this staff document be interpreted as an expression of the bishops’ thoughts?

It couldn’t, of course. But the staff seemed less interested in collecting the bishops’ thoughts than in promoting the thoughts of Pope Francis. For that matter, even the thoughts of previous Pontiffs were given short shrift. Weigel reminds us that Pope John Paul II was spectacularly successful in reaching out to young people, yet the final document of this Synod—whose topic was reaching out to young people—ignores him.

In another perceptive report on this Synod, Christopher Altieri remarks that the bishops did not allow their discussion to be dominated by the current crisis of confidence in the hierarchy. But in his closing remarks to the assembly, in which he spoke again of the “Great Accuser” who criticizes bishops, Pope Francis betrayed his own preoccupation with that crisis. As well he might. Altieri writes: “Pope Francis still has a chance—perhaps his only one left—to right the ship.” Whatever else this October meeting accomplished, it did not enhance confidence in the Pope’s leadership.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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