Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Is the Synod Asking the Wrong Questions? (Part II of II)

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 31, 2023

Yesterday I argued that in preparations for the Synod on Synodality, the discussions have concentrated on the wrong questions. If the topic really is synodality, rather than a potpourri of familiar pastoral and theological complaints, the Synod should explore the role of bishops in governing the universal Church.

As I pointed out, while Vatican I affirmed the universal authority of the Roman Pontiff, Vatican II tempered that teaching by adding: “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…” (Lumen Gentium 22) The most important question before the Synod is how the Pope and the bishops should cooperate in their work of guiding the Church.

A bishop is not the equivalent of a branch manager, deputized by the Holy See. Each bishop is, in effect, the Pontiff within his own diocese. “The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiff.” (Lumen Gentium, 27) A bishop is the authority in his own diocese, and as a member of the College of Bishops—successors to the Apostles—he shares in the hierarchical authority of the universal Church. But how does that work in practice? That is the proper question for the Synod.

(Before I move on, let me cite one more passage from Lumen Gentium (26):

Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop, to whom is committed the office of offering the worship of Christian religion to the Divine Majesty and of administering it in accordance with the Lord’s commandments and the Church’s laws, as further defined by his particular judgment for his diocese.

Can that quotation be reconciled with Traditionis Custodes? Perhaps that is another question that might arise at the October Synod meeting.

A process open to manipulation

The lengthy process leading up to this year’s Synod, with an unprecedented number of preparatory meetings at the diocesan, national, and continental levels, has provided opportunities for all sorts of groups to air their grievances against the Church. Indeed the Vatican has made a special point of welcoming disparate viewpoints, from lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics and anti-Catholics, so that the very word “synodality” has become a buzzword, indicating a willingness to hear dissenters. Again, that’s not what “synodality” means; but that was the point of yesterday’s essay.

These preparatory meetings have been easy to manipulate. Everyone is welcome, but organizers can make a special effort to ensure that certain viewpoints are well represented. The many different thoughts put forward at the meetings are then filtered through a small group of editors, who may tailor the final report to reflect their own ideas. Millions of Catholics (and others) were invited to participate in the discussions. (Were you, by the way?) But only a handful will be responsible for writing the working document that will serve as the basis for the Synod’s deliberations.

Even when the Synod of Bishops formally convenes, the opportunities for manipulation remain. One savvy American prelate, a veteran of Synod meetings in Rome, has observed that the bishops who take part in a Synod are all naturally interested in advancing their own ideas, and opposing the ideas with which they disagree. Any such meeting is bound to involve some degree of politicking.

At recent meetings of the Synod, that politicking has sometimes been unmistakable—as when organizers chose which documents should be delivered to participants, or when Pope Francis changed the rules in the midst of the proceedings. At one memorable moment the late Cardinal George Pell slammed a book down on a table and shouted: “You must stop manipulating this Synod!”

This year the prospects for manipulation are more evident than ever. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who as relator-general will be the most influential voice in the proceedings—and who has made clear his sympathies for theological dissidents—cheerfully assured one interviewer that critics “won’t be able to stop” the progress of this Synod.

The German challenge

When they meet in Rome in October, the Synod participants will be facing not only the agenda set by the Office of the Synod, but also the challenge to the universal Church posed by the German bishops’ conference. In defiance of Rome, the German bishops have vowed to move ahead with the recommendations of their “Synodal Path” initiative, establishing a commission—with lay members alongside bishops—to set policies. The Vatican warned that a bishop cannot be subject to the authority of any commission. The German hierarchy ratified the initiative nonetheless.

Again despite pleas from Rome for caution, the German Synodal Path authorized blessings for same-sex unions. (The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had already issued a statement that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.”) Among the bishops voting at the concluding meeting of the Synodal Path, the proposal for same-sex blessings won an overwhelming (38-8) majority.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, said that the German bishops “cannot make such a decision that involves the discipline of the universal Church.” But they did. Cardinal Walter Kasper—himself a German, and certainly no theological conservative—characterized the Synodal Path as an “attempted coup.” In appearances on EWTN, Cardinals Gerhard Müller and Raymond Burke suggested that the gravity of the conflict might call for canonical trials, for crimes of heresy and/or schism.

To date, the Vatican has taken a conciliatory approach to the challenge, urging the German bishops not to break ranks. But with the German hierarchy evidently ready to push the issue, eventually some clear response will be necessary.

Bishops speaking out

As the heat of controversy rises, and the danger of a runaway Synod mounts, how will ordinary bishops respond? Will they remain silent even in the face of a possible schism? Or will they exercise their proper role in defense of the faith?

A few outspoken bishops have clearly chosen the latter path. Bishop Thomas Paprocki, having written the provocative essay Imagining a Heretical Cardinal, explained to The Pillar that “I think the reason I did this is because this debate has become so public at this point that it seems to have passed beyond the point of just some private conversations between bishops.”

Complaining about restrictions on the traditional Latin liturgy, Archbishop Hector Aguer, the retired head of the La Plata, Argentina archdiocese, charged that the Vatican crackdown reflects “an ideology that canonically becomes a tyranny.” Despite constant Vatican references to “synodality,” he remarked, “the authority of the bishops has been curtailed in an essential area of their munus as successors of the Apostles.” Here the Argentine archbishop was not only making a plea for the traditional liturgy; he was also pleading for a restoration of true synodal government!

During the first few Christian centuries, public disputes among Catholic prelates were not at all uncommon. The Church grew quickly during that era; the controversies did not discourage converts. In fact the angry debates were a sign that people cared about the truths of the faith. In those times the most heated debates involved Christological issues; today the hotly contested subjects are moral teachings. But again the health of the Church—not to mention the salvation of souls—requires clarity. Do our bishops care deeply enough to break their pattern of silence?

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: ewaughok - Apr. 01, 2023 10:04 PM ET USA

    Thanks for tying the loose ends together in these posts. But we can see what’s coming: it’s a slow motion train wreck. This sort of schism has become commonplace among Protestants (e.g. Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.), but so far the Catholic Church has been spared by the grace of God. Now it looks like it’s about to happen here as well. May God not let it! Pray and fast like never before!

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 31, 2023 10:20 PM ET USA

    Fulton Sheen famously said, "If you do not live what you believe, you will end up believing what you live." I think, that phrase explains the subversive to the Catholic Faith and morals ideologies behind the "Synodal Path," and what is happening with the German and other Western bishops.