Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Synod working document: a recipe for confusion

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 20, 2023

“A synodal Church is a listening Church,” proclaims the instrumentum laboris, the preparatory document for the Synod on Synodality. The theme of listening—to the Holy Spirit, to the people, to the needy, to the disaffected—is the overarching message of this document. To listen is to be synodal, and synodality is the announced goal of the entire process for this Synod.

But what is synodality? That is the question that Pope Francis has set before the Synod. The bishops who gather in Rome in October (along with the non-bishops who, curiously, will account for 21% of the voters in this “Synod of Bishops”) have the unenviable task of defining that term, and explaining how it should be lived out in the Church.

So the goal of the Synod is also the topic of the Synod; the participants are asked to be guided by… the thing they are asked to explain. This is a recipe for confusion.

What is ‘synodality’?

The instrumentum laboris (IL) makes a bid to elide this confusion by describing “synodality” as a process, and asserting that the long process of consultation that finally begot this lengthy document is itself a stellar example of synodality: “A term as abstract as synodality has thus begun to be embodied in a concrete experience.”

Perhaps so. But until we have defined what synodality is, and how it works, how can we be sure that the preparatory meetings embodied its virtues? The IL answers that question indirectly by saying that participants in that process—sometimes found it exhilarating. “For many, the great surprise was the experiences of being listened to by the community, in some cases for the first time…”

Good: some people felt that their voices were heard. But how could we know whether the right voices were heard—that these voices represented the movements of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church? Rather than addressing that question, the IL repeatedly boasts about the variety and breadth of consultation, rejoicing in the number of questions that have been raised rather than seeking answers.

Synodality, as it has been traditionally understood, involves the way the Church, as an institution, resolves questions. A synod is a meeting at which prelates discuss issues of doctrine or policy. Thus synodality is a process, not a program. But this Synod on Synodality, from its inception, has been designed to raise new questions of doctrine and policy (and to revive old ones), in the apparent belief that by debating contentious issues, we will somehow learn how we should debate them. In other words the organizers of the Synod have decided that we should play the game before defining the rules. This is a process that lends itself to manipulation.

A self-congratulatory process

The IL portrays this Synod as a watershed moment in the history of the Catholic Church, and extols the vision of Pope Francis, who set the topic and approved the parameters of an unprecedentedly long and exhaustive Synod process. “The People of God have been on the move since Pope Francis convened the whole Church in Synod in October 2021,” reads the opening paragraph of the document.

The first section of the IL summarizes some of the most prominent results of the deliberations that began in 2021, with meetings first at local, then diocesan, then national, and finally continental levels. Of course it would be impossible to convey all the thoughts that were shared in all those meetings, but the IL does provide a quick overview:

The journey so far, especially the continental stage, has made it possible to identify and share the particular situations experienced by the Church in different regions of the world. These include the reality of too many wars that stain our world with blood leading to a call for a renewed commitment to building a just peace, the threat represented by climate change that implies a necessary priority of caring for the common home, the cry to oppose an economic system that produces exploitation, inequality and a throwaway culture, and the desire to resist the homogenizing pressure of cultural colonialism that crushes minorities.

These themes, which the authors of the IL tell us summarize the concerns of Catholics from all over the world, neatly match the themes that Pope Francis treats in his public statements: world peace, climate change, economic inequality. Even the terms used in the IL—such as “throwaway culture” and “cultural colonialism”—might have been taken from papal speeches.

Conspicuously missing from the IL, on the other hand, are concerns that might have been expressed by tradition-minded Catholics, such as the prevalence of divorce, or acceptance of legal abortion, or the decline of reverence in the Eucharistic liturgy.

A preference for change

The IL does recognize the existence of “certain tensions” within the Church. But consistent with its overall approach, the document declines to confront those tensions directly, instead suggesting more dialogue: “We should not be frightened by them, nor attempt at any cost to resolve them, but rather engage in ongoing synodal discernment. Only in this way can these tensions become sources of energy and not lapse into destructive polarizations.”

Sometimes, the IL concedes, the “tensions” that were evident in preparatory consultations involve issues of doctrine that have already been settled, such as the impossibility of ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood. Yet even in those cases, the document resists the notion that settled questions might be settled:

The fact that questions continue to emerge on issues like these should not be hastily dismissed, rather, it calls for discernment, and the Synodal Assembly is a privileged forum for so doing,

The language used throughout the document betrays the same reluctance to defend Church doctrine. The word “homosexual” does not appear in the IL; instead the authors use “LGBTQ+,” embracing the term preferred by the sexual revolutionaries. The word “marriage” appears three times in the document: twice in reference to polygamous unions, once to inter-faith marriages, never to Christian marriage. Words such as “sin” and “redemption” are nowhere to be found.

Perhaps the reason for this approach can be found in the IL’s statement that “synodal life is not a strategy for organizing the Church, but the experience of being able to find a unity that embraces diversity without erasing it, because it is founded on union with God in the confession of the same faith.” But what is that shared faith, and how can we resolve questions about what the faith demands of us?

To define the proper meaning and exercise of “synodality,” we need first to understand what are the basic, fundamental, non-negotiable principles on which our Catholic faith is based. On the basis of those principles—the doctrine of the Church—we might discern a way to settle divisive disputes. If the Synod on Synodality follows the guidance of the instrumentum laboris, and neglects the fundamental issues to focus on the hot-button issues, it is doomed to failure.

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: patrickjohnjohnson5151 - Jun. 29, 2023 7:35 AM ET USA

    Prelates like Hollerich, who reveal their preference for scientism over Catholicism in statements like, "I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this [Church] teaching is no longer correct", fundamentally undermine the core remaining appeal of the Catholic Church; its claim to authority teaching eternal Truth. People want to read St Augustine, St Teresa, St Edith Stein and understand when they talk about resisting sin for love of Christ that it's the same faith we share.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jun. 22, 2023 11:43 PM ET USA

    The document is right in that this is not an attempt to organize the church, but rather an attempt to disorganize it! I am grateful to Mr. Lawler once again for parsing the document so its concerns are clear. Bergoglio does not want to center the church on Jesus, though he sometimes homilizes about it, but wants to de-center it, focusing on a contemporary group of issues, separate from Catholic doctrine. Eventually, the goal is to undermine doctrine absolutely, and the Church becomes empty.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jun. 22, 2023 1:33 PM ET USA

    My guess is that the Synod on Synods will go the way of the Synod on the Amazon. The Pope will read it, not change basically anything, ask for further discussion on the issues brought by the IL, and incorporate the IL to whatever document he issues. The result will be more confusion, the mark of the current pontificate.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 21, 2023 3:30 PM ET USA

    It doesn't seem that Francis came up by himself with these ideas which have real potential to cause further harm and division in the Church. The idea of "a listening Church" is directly opposed to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ: "Go, therefore,* and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Bartenders and shrinks are better suited for sessions of passive listening.