Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Getting the Synod Back on Topic

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 23, 2023

Early in the 20th century, when British leaders were beginning to question whether they were prepared for a major European conflict, the War Secretary, Richard Haldane, was asked what kind of army he wanted. He answered: “a Hegelian army.”

As that remarkable answer reveals, Haldane was a student of philosophy, caught up in the world of ideas, not inclined to think about practical matters. Not surprisingly, when World War I broke, the British military was unprepared.

Haldane’s response—which gave so little information, and yet revealed so much—came to mind when I read what Sister Nathalie Becquart had said about preparations for the Synod on Synodality. Sister Becquart—who, as undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, is one of the highest-ranking women ever in the Roman Curia—told an Australian audience:

So, what lies ahead is that each of us must become a synod—we must become a synodal sister, a synodal teacher, a synodal priest, a synodal bishop.

A synod is a meeting, an assembly, a council. How, exactly, could one hold a meeting with oneself? The statement makes no sense. But it does reveal something about what Vatican planners expect from the coming Synod meeting.

What Sister Becquart meant, I think—and this interpretation is borne out by other statements from Vatican leaders, most notably Pope Francis, about the preparations for the Synod—is that we should ask ourselves questions. The theme of the preparations for the Synod on Synodality has been questioning: questioning how we can include more people in the deliberations, questioning the structures of Church governance, even questioning the fundamentals of Catholic doctrine. Read through recent statements from the Vatican, and notice how the word “synodal” is used. More often than not, in context it implies a willingness to question.

Now if the questions were focused on Church governance, that would be logical. A Synod on Synodality would logically involve a discussion of how the Synod of Bishops should work with the Roman Pontiff to set policies for the universal Church. And there is plenty of material for discussion there. The synods of the Eastern Catholic churches set policies, select bishops, and even elect patriarchs for their particular churches, rather than looking to Rome for decisions; the Holy See merely recognizes or confirms what those synods decide. Viewed from the ecumenical perspective, the question of synodal governance opens up the much-debated issue of papal primacy, and the Orthodox churches would be keenly interested in any development that might allow greater autonomy for the bishops’ synods.

But these are not the questions that have been dominating discussion during the preparatory phases of this Synod. Instead, thanks largely to the fractious behavior of the German bishops’ conference, we are hearing discussion of the same old familiar “hot button” issues that have preoccupied dissident Catholics for years: divorce and remarriage, women’s ordination, and especially the acceptance of homosexuality. What do those issues have to do with synodality?

We could be having a very useful discussion of papal primacy and the role of all bishops in the governance of the Church. We could be seeking to clarify the teachings of Vatican I and Vatican II. We could be exploring possible ways to protect the primacy of the Roman Pontiff while easing the fears of the Orthodox churches—and thus paving the way for reunion of East and West.

In Lumen Gentium (22), Vatican II confirmed the teaching of Vatican I that the Pope has “supreme and universal power over the Church.” But the Vatican II fathers immediately went on to say:

The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.

So the bishops, as a body, also have “supreme and full power.” How is that power exercised? Through the Synod of Bishops, presumably. And it should be exercised, Lumen Gentium tells us (23): “For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church…”

So perhaps the best possible outcome of the October Synod meeting would be a realization, among the world’s bishops, that at a time when fundamental tenets of the faith are under attack, and when statements from the Holy See have aggravated a widespread confusion, it is the duty of the bishops to restore clarity.

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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  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 27, 2023 2:38 PM ET USA

    Historically, it has always been the primary role of the Successor of St. Peter to guard the Deposit of Faith from human error. But with the election of Francis things have flipped up side down. At this time, the only means of scrutiny for the ongoing attempts to corrupt the Catholic Faith and Christian morality are the voices of knowledgeable lay Catholics, and the very few brave, and still faithful to Christ, Catholic prelates.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Mar. 24, 2023 9:17 PM ET USA

    Um… it’s been the bishops themselves but I’ve been the source of so much of this confusion and outright immoral action! If the bishops were, as perhaps they once were, faithful guardians of the Catholic Church’s Faith, then maybe what the second Vatican Council outlined as potency, might be possible in action. But the Synodal Way is not about asking honest questions, with the goal of clarity … Taking the leadership of our present Pontiff as guide, the goal is to confuse, pull-down, and undermine

  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - Mar. 24, 2023 7:34 PM ET USA

    I often wonder about people who are so dissatisfied with Catholic doctrine, and want to make radical changes. Why don’t they go somewhere else? There are any number of denominations who have made all the changes the dissidents long for. They have women clergy, embrace same-sex unions, have no problem with divorce and remarriage, and more. Why must they meddle? It seems diabolical to me.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 23, 2023 9:56 PM ET USA

    "For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith". Very, very interesting quote. Lumen Gentium did not say "promote and safeguard the unity of" factions, rites, or bishops' conferences, but precisely the _unity of faith_. If there has been anything contrary to the unity of faith for the last decade, it has been the confusion, nuance, sophistry, neglect, and outright rejection of fundamental aspects of the faith, the discipline, and many of the moral absolutes.