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Vatican document on ‘synodality’ prefigures a confusing Synod [News/analysis]

September 07, 2021

News/analysis by Phil Lawler

The preparatory document for the next meeting of the Synod of Bishops, released on September 7, is a lengthy and puzzling reflection on “synodality,” the topic that the Synod will discuss. Unfortunately, the document prepared by the general secretariat of the Synod—which is accompanied by an even lengthier handbook—will leave readers uncertain of what “synodality” means. So the outcome of the Synod process is unpredictable, and likely to entail more than a small amount of confusion.

But perhaps that is the intent of the Synod organizers.

Hoping for surprises

Near the beginning, the preparatory document confidently says that the Holy Spirit will guide the Synod, and participants should be “remaining open to the surprises that the Spirit will certainly prepare for us along the way.” That eager expectation of “surprises” will excite those Catholics who hope for major changes in the Church, but unsettle those who long for stability and continuity—particularly continuity in matters of doctrine.

In a perceptive analysis of the preparatory document, Ed Condon of Pillar remarks:

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.

The deliberative process

“Synodality” is a term that Pope Francis has invoked repeatedly as the ideal form of Church governance. The Vatican document explains that synodality means “journeying together,” supplementing the pastoral leadership of the hierarchy with “the authority of the sensus fidei of the entire People of God, which is ‘infallible’ in credendo.” So this meeting of the Synod of Bishops involves a complicated process, beginning in October with consultations at the diocesan level and culminating in 2023 with an assembly of the world’s bishops.

How will these diocesan consultations be conducted? The preparatory document leaves that question open—as it appropriate, no doubt, if the objective is a decentralized process. The Vatican underlines “the decision to initiate a process of listening, dialogue, and community discernment, in which each and every person can participate and contribute.” As the diocesan sessions begin, in just a few weeks, active Catholics will be able to judge for themselves how well Church leaders have arranged to welcome their participation.

Active Catholics are not the only ones whose opinions will be considered, however. The Synod secretariat advises Church officials that they should be particularly anxious to solicit advice from “Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith.” Even non-Catholics might take part: “no one—no matter their religious affiliation—should be excluded from sharing their perspective and experiences.”

Against ‘clericalism’

If “synodality” is set up as the goal for this deliberative process, the preparatory document also warns against an attitude to be avoided: “clericalism.” Once again the term is not defined, and different participants in the process can condemn “clericalism” in their own favored guises. The preparatory document leaves no doubt, however, that clericalism is the force that must be overcome:

The whole Church is called to deal with the weight of a culture imbued with clericalism that she inherits from her history, and with those forms of exercising authority on which the different types of abuse (power, economic, conscience, sexual) are grafted.

No one is likely to defend “clericalism,” however it is defined. But does the passage above seem to suggest that the evil influence of “clericalism” is found in the history of the Catholic Church and the exercise of hierarchical authority? The preparatory document does not discourage that interpretation, saying that we live during a “crucial transition in the Church.”

As Ed Condon observes (in the analysis cited above), a similar process of consultation, combined with a hostility toward clericalism and a clarion call for reform, produced the “Synodal Path” that the German bishops have chosen to follow, involving some radical challenges to fundamental Church teaching.

The actual topics put forth for discussion in the preparatory document—styled, in characteristically grandiose prose, as “Ten Thematic Nuclei to be Explored”—are broad and vague enough to be unobjectionable. But the disorganized process of the Synod consultations threatens to produce a jumble of opinions and recommendations—some useful, even prophetic; some dangerous, even heretical.

In the end, in October 2023, the question of “synodality” will be resolved, appropriately, by the Synod of Bishops, the deliberative body of the hierarchical Church. Between now and then, the challenge for Church leaders at every level, during the unwieldy process of consultations, will be to reconcile the free-wheeling process of discussions with the unchanging doctrine of the Catholic magisterium. The preparatory document actually recognizes this challenge, and warns that the different sources of Church authority—the sensus fidelium and the hierarchical magisterium—“must be held together in a coherent way; otherwise a counter-testimony is transmitted, and the Church’s credibility is undermined.”


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  • Posted by: Retired01 - Sep. 09, 2021 11:02 AM ET USA

    Confusion seems to be the modus operandi of this pontificate. Under the cover of confusion much damage is being done to the Faith.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Sep. 08, 2021 10:44 AM ET USA

    is this, “must be held together in a coherent way; otherwise a counter-testimony is transmitted, and the Church’s credibility is undermined”, saying that heresy will be witnessed, that they would be against Christ not for Him.....??? Are you aware of any writing, talks, etc, that speak to why we say so often, 'this is the Church Teaching', instead of 'this is Christ's, God's, Teaching in the Church'??? Why is the focus man and not the Spirit of Truth who leads man, Shepherds and Sheep???

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 08, 2021 4:01 AM ET USA

    The way Francis handled his past "synods," turned his back on the Catholics in China, let Catholics in Germany be scandalized by their own bishops blessing the sins of sodomy, and Catholics around the globe blocked from attending their favorite Latin Mass, seem to indicate that all the upcoming "surprises" are being concocted in advance and will have nothing to do with a "process of listening, dialogue, and community discernment, in which each and every person can participate and contribute."