Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Rhetoric vs. reality in the Synod’s working document

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 09, 2024

Some Catholics may be reassured to learn that the working document for 2024 meeting the Synod on Synodality does not touch the most controversial issues that have been debated during months of preparations for the October session. But a closer reading of the instrumentum laboris reveals a frightening gap between the aspirations of the Synod organizers and the realities of Vatican governance under the leadership of Pope Francis.

Furthermore, the instrumentum does not provide a clear answer to the question that countless Catholics have been asking: What exactly does “synodality” mean? The closest approximation of an answer comes in the statement that synodality “involves reciprocal listening, dialogue, community discernment, and creation of consensus.” If a synodal Church is first and foremost a listening Church, we can expect that in October, Church leaders will once again be enjoined to listen to proposals for radical change in Catholic teaching and Catholic practice. So the fact that controversial issues are not addressed directly in the instrumentum is no guarantee that they will not be addressed during the October session.

What is left unsaid

True, the word “homosexual” does not appear anywhere in the instrumentum laboris. The document insists on including women in Church leadership, but specifically states that the question of ordaining women as deacons will not be addressed at the October session.

But these are not the only words conspicuously absent in the 30-page preparatory document. There is also not a single mention of marriage: surely a crucial document for the Church to address today. And when words such as “sin,” “sacrifice,” “salvation,” and “redemption” are also missing, the reader should realize that this document omits a hefty portion of the message preached by Christian evangelists throughout the ages.

Since the topic of the document is synodality, it is perhaps even more disturbing that the instrumentum says nothing about the “Synodal Path” that the German bishops’ conference has chosen to follow: a path that leads away from established Catholic doctrine and discipline. On the contrary, the instrumentum urges “recognition of episcopal conferences as ecclesial subjects endowed with doctrinal authority….” So if the German bishops make one doctrinal judgment, and the universal Church another, how does the synodal, listening Church help the puzzled faithful to find their way?

Again, it is true that the instrumentum laboris does not endorse any major change in Catholic doctrine or discipline. But the document does strongly endorse the call for some sort of changes, saying: “Without tangible changes, the vision of a synodal Church will not be credible.” In October, then, we will undoubtedly hear more calls for dramatic change. The working document may not endorse such calls, but it invites them.

Theory vs. practice

Synodality, the instrumentum stresses, entails consultation with the faithful at all times, at all levels, in the decision-making process of the Church:

It is difficult to imagine a more effective way to promote a synodal Church than the participation of all in decision-making and taking processes. (67)

Here the idea of synodality (at least as it is understood in this document) conflicts with the traditional Catholic understanding that the governance of the Church is properly the work of bishops, who as successors to the Apostles enjoy a special charism of discernment. That tension is acknowledged in the Vatican document:

The aim of synodal ecclesial discernment is not to make the bishops obey the voice of the people, subordinating the former to the latter, nor to offer the bishops an expedient to make decisions that have already been taken seem more acceptable, but rather to lead to a shared decision in obedience to the Holy Spirit. (70)

But now the rhetoric of the instrumentum conflicts quite directly with the reality of Vatican leadership. Who decided to remove the question of a female diaconate from the October agenda? Not the thousands of Catholics who met in preparatory sessions, but the Synod leadership—to be specific, Pope Francis. Who set up ten study groups to address specific issues, while the Synod fathers discuss generalities? Again the organizers; again the Pope. For better or worse, the Pope and his direct subordinates have kept a tight rein on the process of consultation—or, you might say, the limits of “listening.”

More to the point, the process of consultation recommended so strongly in the instrumentum laboris is certainly not the governing style of Pope Francis. He has not consulted the laity before summarily removing Vatican officials and even diocesan bishops from their offices without any explanation. He did not listen to the pleas of the faithful when he took action to suppress the traditional Latin Mass. He did not even explain himself to prominent members of the College of Cardinals who asked for clarification of key doctrinal issues in Amoris Laetita.

Similarly, the instrumentum suggests that “the drafting of canonical norms can also be a place to exercise a synodal style.” (104) Yes, it could be. But Pope Francis—who has made the emergence of a “synodal” Church a key goal of his pontificate—has set a record for altering canon law unilaterally, issuing one motu proprio after another, often without even consulting the Vatican offices directly involved in the changes.

Yet nowhere is the gaping chasm between rhetoric and reality more evident than in the working document’s references to the need for accountability in Church leadership. Recognizing the damage that has been done by years of scandal, the instrumentum says:

A synodal Church requires both a culture and practice of transparency and accountability, which are essential to fostering the mutual trust necessary for walking together and exercising co-responsibility for the sake of the common mission. (73)

And again:

While the practice of accountability to superiors has been preserved over the centuries, the dimension of accountability of authority to the community must be recovered. (77)

These are admirable sentiments. But are they anything more than sentiments? The instrumentum laboris appeared as one ranking Vatican official testified in a British court that he had knowingly signed a fraudulent invoice in a bid to avoid negative publicity. (How did that work out?) At a time when the Vatican’s former auditor general is still seeking acknowledgment that he was wrongly forced to resign because he was exposing corrupt practices. At a time when Vatican workers wonder aloud whether the Vatican is willing to implement the labor-management practices that Pope Francis has recommended to others.

The working document for the Synod on Synodality pleads for the development of a “listening” Church. But is the Vatican listening?

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: Randal Mandock - Jul. 14, 2024 7:01 PM ET USA

    Let's consider the word "all" in the citations above (see n. 67). It was my experience earlier this year in a diocese-wide listening session that not all points of view went beyond the small group level, points of considerable importance to seriously-devoted faithful (e.g., reverence for the Eucharist, sanctity of spaces where the Eucharist is present, overuse of laity at Mass, no provision for reception kneeling, proper education, etc.). Not all participants, nor points of view, were considered

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jul. 12, 2024 1:18 PM ET USA

    The instrumentum laboris is a smoke-screen to keep good Catholics from realizing what’s happening under the hood of the “synodal process.” Holy Father Bergoglio, true to the spirit of Juan Peron, uses the rhetoric of liberation and populism, but keeps the power to control events to himself and a tiny circle. As Mr Lawler writes, the contradiction between his actions and the words of his own official documents has been noted over and over again! As one Argentinian friend says, “¡púchicas!.”

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 10, 2024 5:44 AM ET USA

    Quote: "Countless Catholics have been asking: What exactly does “synodality” mean?" I'm afraid that the answer to that question is no different than one given by Humpty Dumpty 150 years ago: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." But where is the voice of the multitude of Successors of the Apostles??? Qui tacet consentire videtur [He who is silent appears to consent] - St. Thomas More.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jul. 09, 2024 6:43 PM ET USA

    So, the Instrumentum Laboris appears to be nothing more than a lot of nice words put there for public consumption.