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How I learned to mistrust the Synod process

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 01, 2021

You will forgive me, I hope, if I am skeptical about the Synod on Synodality. My own experience with an archdiocesan synod did not inspire confidence. Bear with me while I tell the tale.

When I was hired as editor of Boston’s archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, an archdiocesan synod was underway. The vicar general instructed me to give the synod plenty of headline coverage, and at that early stage in my brief stay at The Pilot I was earnestly anxious to satisfy my ecclesiastical superiors. So I attended the first plenary meeting, eager to scout out the stories that would fire popular enthuasiasm for the synod.

The meeting began with Mass (in a gymnasium), then quickly moved into an arcane discussion of the synod process: the preparatory meetings, small-group sessions, focus groups, outreach, listening sessions, and early drafts of various statements. The speakers were energetic, at times edifying. But the content of the talks was difficult to pin down: not the material for a catchy newspaper headline. (If I had a dime for every time the word “vibrant” was used, I might have retired a wealthy man—and saved the archdiocese the trouble of firing me some months later.)

But finally the assembly moved on to voting on some propositions, and although many were abstract—calls for renewed evangelical vigor, and the like—I latched onto one proposition that might appeal to our paper’s general readership. The synod approved a rule that the notorious “second collection” would be banned from Sunday Mass, except in certain restricted cases.

Here, I thought, was something the ordinary man in the pew would understand. Here was a concrete change, which would touch every Catholic in the archdiocese. Here was a headline story. So I wrote a report on the synod assembly, leading with the decision to outlaw the second collection. My bosses at the chancery were pleased with the coverage, and I immodestly thought it was a job well done. I had put a realistic “news hook” on a story that defied simple treatment. I had conveyed some of the main story about the synodal process, but put my focus on one actual result.

The focus on the process

Then a few weeks later, a friendly older priest punctured my balloon. The synod’s rule, he said, was not a new one. Second collections had already been banned—by the last meeting of the archdiocesan synod, a generation earlier. That old rule had never been repealed; it had simply sunk into desuetude over the years, as one week after another saw some “special” reason for a second collection. By the 1980s, when this story took place, the second collection was a routine feature of Sunday Mass throughout the archdiocese. And sure enough, after the new rule (which was really an old rule) was passed (anew), within a few years the second collection was routinely accepted once again.

Looking back now, I cannot see any significant change that occurred in the Boston archdiocese because of that synod in the 1980s. The Catholic Church in Boston was rapidly shrinking, and continued to shrink—at an accelerated pace, actually. There was a great deal of good material in the propositions endorsed by the synod: ambitious plans and exhortations to spiritual growth. But there was also, frankly, a great deal of boilerplate: statements prepared under the guidance of chancery officials who were convinced that current policies should be preserved. The synod process itself did not lend itself to propositions for dramatic change. The process was controlled by archdiocesan insiders: people who already had a voice in councils and a stake in policies.

The synod on synods

On October 10, Pope Francis will formally inaugurate a worldwide process, leading up to the October 2023 meeting of the Synod on Synodality. I have already voiced my fears that both the topic and the extended process will give rise to confusion, at a time when confusion already plagues the universal Church. Ed Condon summed up the problem nicely for Pillar:

Some critics will raise the prospect that the synodal process is set up to produce documents which undermine established teaching and authority in the Church, largely by calling for broad participation in the process, without sufficient guidelines on how to facilitate fruitful engagement within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.

No doubt there will be many good things said, done, and written during the preparatory phase of this synod, during which the Pope has called for discussions in every diocese around the world. But all those good ideas will go into the meat-grinder process by which the synod’s working documents are finally prepared. At every stage—diocesan, national, hemispheric, and worldwide—the process will be controlled by insiders. If the goal is to eliminate “clericalism,” this is not the way to do it.

The danger in the details

Watch, as the months pass, and take notice. Are your opinions about the needs of the Church being solicited? Do you feel that your main concerns have been addressed in the discussions? Or have they been filtered out, to produce an anodyne committee document that will offend no one and change nothing? Will there be a few concrete successes—like the ban on second collections—that distract attention from a broader failure to act on the most important questions?

Finally, be aware that the most important result of the synod may not show up clearly in the formal propositions. The process itself will arouse expectations for radical change, and even if the final product does not endorse such changes, the expectations will endure. More likely still, the final product will include a few carefully constructed passages, couched in inoffensive language, that at least seem to endorse the calls for radical change.

The best possible outcome of the synod, I suspect, would be a collective decision by the world’s finest bishops to challenge the process, to reject the prepackaged documents, and to demand what Pope Francis says he wants: a full unfettered debate on how the Church should be governed.

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: loumiamo4057 - Oct. 03, 2021 7:54 AM ET USA

    Mr Lawler, your last paragraph includes an interesting idea, "a collective decision of the world's finest bishops." But do you have anyone in mind skillful enough to write the cliff notes version for the bishop of rome?