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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

A ‘hostile takeover’ of Catholicism?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 12, 2022

Did you participate in the diocesan discussions leading up to next year’s Synod of Bishops? Neither did I.

Were you invited to discussion groups and listening sessions? Neither was I.

Oh, there were official announcements, no doubt, in diocesan newspapers and even parish bulletins. But like the vast majority of American Catholics, I paid them no notice. No one sought me out personally, to invite my participation. Which is fine with me, because—as I have explained more than once in the past—I have profound misgivings about this synod and the awkward, time-consuming, self-referential process it has begotten.

Whose opinions have been heard

As conceived by Pope Francis, this Synod on Synodality involves a series of consultations: in parishes and religious communities, in dioceses, at the level of national episcopal conferences and continental bodies, and then finally the general session of the Synod next October. In theory this process allows ample opportunity for all Catholics to make their voices heard.

In practice the overwhelming majority of Catholics have chosen not to speak. In the document released last month, summarizing the results of consultations in this country, the US bishops’ conference (USCCB) estimated that 700,000 people had participated in the discussions. No doubt that estimate is high, not only because event organizers always tend to inflate attendance statistics, but also because the figures include such anomalies as the entire classes of parochial-school children who were listed as participants rather than as (what was probably closer to the truth) captive audiences. Still the number seems impressive—until one recalls that there are nearly 67 million Catholics living in the United States, so that the participants represented about 1% of the total.

And who were the Catholics who composed that minority? The sample was skewed heavily toward older adults, and even more heavily toward people who had some direct connection with Church institutions: priests and religious, of course, but also diocesan employees, schoolteachers, parish volunteers, and activists of varying stripe—the people the late Russell Kirk once characterized as the “church mice,” who are already embedded in the decision-making structures of parishes, dioceses, and episcopal conferences. Their voices were heard, no doubt; their voices are always heard.

Tacitly acknowledging that the listening sessions had not drawn broad participation from “ordinary” Catholics, the organizers of the US bishops’ synod process told The Pillar that the process “is a spiritual endeavor, not a scientific endeavor; it requires prayerful discernment rather than quantitative analysis.”

Ah, discernment. When 700,000 people express their opinions, someone has to summarize the results, and discern the most important themes. The US bishops’ conference received reports (already carefully edited) from 178 dioceses, which were then boiled down into 14 regional syntheses, and finally condensed into a 16-page national report. So if you were one of those 700,000 participants in the listening sessions, your contribution weighed at most a couple of pixels in the report finally sent to Rome.

That is, if your contribution weighed in the balance at all, because the editors, remember, discerned which themes merited inclusion.

Airing of the Grievances

In his perceptive analysis for The Catholic Thing of the USCCB synthesis, Francis X. Maier writes that he recognized “a familiar therapeutic ring” in the document, and later says: “The impulse behind the synodal process is essentially sociological.” He backs up that claim with some textual analysis:

In a text of more than 6,300 words, the name “Jesus” appears four times: three of them in the introductory letter from Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville. The word “Christ” appears nine times; four of them in the same letter.

(Typical of the therapeutic/sociological approach was the treatment of the Covid crisis in the USCCB document. The synthesis proclaimed that the “experience of Covid” had “heightened a sense of how important the experience of the Church and, more particularly, Eucharist is for the life of faith.” But it was not the experience of the disease that caused the absence of the Eucharist; it was the deliberate decision of Church leaders to shut down the churches. That staggering pastoral negligence left millions of Catholics reeling—while the Church leaders responsible chose to blame a virus.)

Only on page 9 of the USCCB synthesis do we encounter any recognition of the most urgent problem facing the Church in this country: “the departure of young people.” But this massive problem is analyzed as a function of dissatisfaction among the young, “a feeling of exclusion,” and “a source of great pain for the many older community members.” Nowhere is there any recognition of the fact that the exodus of young Catholics—the proven fact that most American Catholics leave the Church when they reach adulthood—threatens the future viability of thousands of parishes, not to mention millions of souls.

So if the US bishops’ document did not address the fundamental truths and the evident crises of the faith, what did it say? There was a great deal of discussion about unfortunate divisions within the Church, and about the suffering of people who feel marginalized, excluded from participation. And who are these aggrieved people? Anyone who has been paying attention to Church affairs for the past few generations could predict the answers:

  • Women—although they easily outnumber men on parish and chancery staffs (and, where it is most important, in the pews)—“said that they felt underappreciated…”
  • Catholics who are divorced and remarried described the annulment process as “unduly burdensome and judgmental as well.”
  • Homosexuals feel marginalized “because circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the Church.”

When the Synod of Bishop addressed marriage and the family, the topic dominating discussion was whether those who are divorced and remarried outside the Church should receive Communion. At that Synod meeting in 2015, a bid for pastoral outreach to homosexuals was advanced, then strategically withdrawn. We can expect no such timidity at the 2023 session, the gay lobby is ready for a full-scale offensive.

What does ‘synodality’ mean?

Any question is ripe for discussion during this Synod, because the chosen topic—“synodality”—is not easy to define. In fact the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a 2018 report on the topic, remarked that the word “synodality” is of recent coinage: a concept that has not been defined by the Church, was not (contrary to popular conceptions) discussed at Vatican II, and is now in need of “careful theological clarification.”

Unfortunately, “careful theological clarification” is not likely to result from this synod process. The chief organizer of the Vatican event, Cardinal Mario Grech, the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, has asserted that the most contentious issues being discussed in the lead-up to the Synod meeting “are not to be understood simply in terms of doctrine, but in terms of God’s ongoing encounter with human beings.”

Is Catholic doctrine, then, something distinct from an understanding of “God’s encounter with human beings?” Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rightly remarked that this approach is “absolutely against the Catholic doctrine.”

In the same eye-opening interview with Raymond Arroyo on ETWN, Cardinal Müller boldly described the manipulation of the Synod on Synodality as a “hostile takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ.” And in response to that stunning charge, one liberal Catholic commentator replied that it was, instead, a movement of the Holy Spirit.

Pause for a moment now, and reflect on that profound difference of opinions. If the cardinal is right, we are facing an unprecedented danger to the integrity of the Church, and of the faith that is protected by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If his critic is right, on the other hand, the “hostile takeover” is a necessary reform—which suggests that the Holy Spirit has not been guiding the integrity of the faith. But if the Spirit has not guided the Church in the past, how can we be confident in this Synod?

Absent a clear recognition that the Spirit always leads the Church and preserves the essential deposit of the faith, the Synod on Synodality is all too likely to devolve into a sociological/therapeutic discussion, drawing attention and strength away from the essentials of Catholic doctrine and moral teaching. Is this the future vision of the Catholic Church: as a debating society for discussion of personal and social disorders? In his cover letter accompanying the USCCB synthesis, Bishop Daniel Flores says that “synodality is not a one-time event, but an invitation to an ongoing style of Church life.” I’m afraid he’s right.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mikeoslance8135 - Oct. 18, 2022 11:22 AM ET USA

    In the business world, we have R & D (research & development.) The Catholic hierarchy should take note! Synods should lead to developing "pilot programs" that seek to innovate (reimagine) new directions that inspire growth: in a word-ACTION. The crisis of youth abandoning the Church and the dearth of vocations are obvious signs of a 5-alarm fire (we are not describing Pentecost!) The command-control-obey methodology strangles inclusivity & diversity. Mike Oslance, Director, Re-Imagine Associates

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 16, 2022 11:30 AM ET USA

    At my cathedral parish, we were all invited in the bulletin to come to a meeting and provide inputs. I did not bother to waste my time going, since I feel that the whole process is rigged. So far, and given what I read, it appears that I made the right decision.

  • Posted by: kdrotar16365 - Oct. 14, 2022 7:00 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Mr. Lawler, for your clarity on what is a dubious and time-wasting project of the Church (both here in the US and internationally). The amount of time, energy, wheel-spinning and number of meetings used to come up with a 16-page document supposedly representing the thought of Catholics in the U.S. is farcical. If only that much (episcopal?) energy went into keeping churches open during the Covid lockdown...or any other number of more important issues.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 13, 2022 2:22 PM ET USA

    Thank you for the summary of what's really taking place. I have an overwhelming distrust of the "synodal way," confirmed recently by what took place in the Church in Germany. It seems to me that the main end goal of the fake and bureaucratically manipulated "discussions" is to pave way for the acceptance of homosexual depravity and ordination of women, which would destroy the Church.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 13, 2022 9:06 AM ET USA

    Like the secular elections in the U.S., the hostile takeover of the Catholic Church has already happened. When I volunteered to take the training for leading the "discernment" at my parish, I was told "thanks, but no thanks". I doubt that my parish had anything to do with the process at all. Just as this November might hold a clue to whether honest elections are any longer possible in the U.S., the publication(s) emerging from the Synod will likely represent more contra-Catholic drivel/outrage.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Oct. 13, 2022 8:03 AM ET USA

    Dear Mr. Lawler, Thank you for your clear and orthodox thinking and writing. You are a treasure to readers of catholicculture.org. These synods are a set-up game for which gnuine discernment is a hollow and pitiful excuse.

  • Posted by: rameyersjr9828 - Oct. 13, 2022 7:14 AM ET USA

    Great article. I've started to look for keywords in Francis' writings and they're very rare-'sin''grace''Jesus''repent''forgive'

  • Posted by: garedawg - Oct. 12, 2022 9:34 PM ET USA

    I'm one of those church mice who bothered to fill out the survey. I can't remember any details, except thinking that is was pretty lame.