A Synod is not a Democracy

Not all that many years ago, whenever a synod took place in Rome, almost no one noticed. If you went to the trouble, you could find perfunctory, brief accounts of a day’s speeches in one or another Roman publication, usually the Vatican’s own L’Osservatore Romano. One sage priest, who had been to every one of them, remarked of the experience that they were not worth the trouble and should be eliminated. Another, equally perturbed by the vacuity of the proceedings, called them a World Youth Day for bishops. It was no grand surprise when a camera caught John Paul II dozing during one session.

It was Paul VI who set up the whole modern system of synods towards the end of the Second Vatican Council – essentially advisory meetings called by the pope, usually every three years, in which he invited certain bishops to help him see to “the good of the universal Church.” Typically, these were on Church-y subjects like strengthening the faith, priesthood, evangelization, catechesis, reconciliation, the consecrated life, bishops. Inside Catholicism stuff.

No more, and considering the wild scramble to understand what’s going on in the current Synod – along with the 2014 preparatory synod, the only ones in which there are no daily reports about what was discussed by the Synod Fathers – one almost longs for a return to the boring days of the past. Previous synods did not much directly touch upon matters that directly affect people’s daily lives. And that’s looking more and more desirable. No changes proposed about the pastoral care of the many divorced Catholics. No discussions about welcoming language to people in same-sex relationships. No impression given that Catholic doctrine is a matter of majority voting, like some partisan public policy debate.

And also not such vigorous or obvious politicking, so much so that the Holy Father had to warn, in his unusual intervention of Tuesday morning, about participants adopting a “hermeneutic of conspiracy” against one another. What he meant by this rather esoteric phrase is that the bishops should not be looking at one another as, perhaps, involved in advancing certain private interests or in manipulating the process – a charge that has been made against the committee running the Synod and, by some, against the pope himself.


We now know, for example, that thirteen cardinals of a traditional bent petitioned the Holy Father Monday with their concerns that the Synod rules seem to have been crafted to lead the whole process towards “openness” to controversial changes in pastoral practices. The public accounts of what they said are not particularly accurate, according to people well informed about the effort, who for the moment don’t wish to speak on the record. But it doesn’t happen every day that thirteen important cardinals resist, as a group, not only specific proposals but the whole structure of the synodal process.

And in fact, the problem may go even deeper than the way this particular synod has been organized, though that may mean more than one headache for several future popes. If you pay careful attention to the way that the secular media – who generally know little and are not very curious about the Church – report on Catholic matters, you will very quickly see that the world regards Catholic teaching as a set of “policies,” not revealed truths given us by God to which we must be faithful. Whether by design or not, the Church has given the impression in its way of conducting to this Synod that the bishops of the world can just decide, after a couple of weeks of discussion in Rome, to permit what amounts, in real-world terms, to Catholic divorce or acceptance of homosexuality.

Any real Catholic knows that is not true. Cannot be true. And Pope Francis explicitly warned against regarding the synodal process as similar to some democratic debate: “the Synod is not a parliament in which to reach a consensus or a common accord, in which there is recourse to negotiation, to deal-making, or to compromise: indeed, the only method of the Synod is to open up to the Holy Spirit with apostolic courage, with evangelical humility and confident, trusting prayer, that it might be He, who guides us, enlightens us and makes us put before our eyes, with our personal opinions, but with faith in God, fidelity to the Magisterium, the good of the Church and the Salus animarum. [“Salvation of souls”]

Those are well chosen words. But as PR people will tell you, there can be a huge gap between what is said and what is communicated. It’s been one of the frustrations in trying to understand the papacy of Francis that so many people feel confused what about what he says and does. I myself believe he wishes to go ahead with allowing Communion for the divorced and remarried (without annulment). And that he wants to take away, as much as possible, any stigma towards homosexuals, without accepting homosexual acts as such. He believes, it seems, that he can do these things as a way of reducing some of the reflex rejection of the Faith and attracting some back to the Church.

But it was already clear in the 2014 Synod that what the world hears in all these moves is that these hot-button issues “are being debated” at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. And for most people in our culture, unfortunately, that means they’ll probably prefer to wait until the “policies’ of the Church turn in their preferred direction.

That would, to say the least, not advance Pope Paul VI’s goal in creating synods, to serve “the good of the universal Church.”

  • Tim

    Pope Francis does not seem to understand that Synods are advisory bodies not part of the Magisterium.

    • MarcAlcan

      Among other things he does not seem to understand or maybe refuse to.

  • Morton

    One of the 13 was surely Cardinal Pell, God Bless him. Saw a summary of his 3 minute intervention translated into French on Polish Bishop’s Conference website. He made his 3 minutes count. Not sociology but the word of God should be the starting point said he. Then he went straight to the synod’s procedure with some blunt questions.

    • MSDOTT

      No longer can we see those translations. Today, revealed on Rorate Caeli: Balderisseri reminds (through a tweet)
      “The bishops can publish their own texts, but they can’t (they just can’t, that’s it) the texts of others…”
      Rorate Caelie says : “Well, it must have worked, because the President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Gadecki, had made available on Wednesday a summary of the interventions of many Synodal Fathers (on the first day, in French). After the new threat, it disappeared ….”

  • I have to say that I am noticing your articles are developing a sober and acute analysis on the Pope and the Synod he called.
    To me, Pope St. John XXIII calling VII [it is reported “under inspiration”], the pontificate of Bl. Paul VI and its impact on the life of the Church, and now Pope Francis and the confusion he sows, all appear to be orchestrated and conducted by the evil one, judging by the fruits.
    Good for the 13 cardinals and may God bless his Pauls in the face of Peter.

    • Ginor68

      I have also read that Pope John XXIII never envisioned the direction and extreme changes made by Paul VI on the VII Council.

      • Apparently before his death, it is said he wanted to stop the council.

  • Tanyi Tanyi

    I am so glad that Robert has now said clearly what Francis wants to do. Many Catholics have had this feeling all along, but we were always told we should trust the Pope to maintain the orthodox faith. How did we get someone who cannot defend the Faith on the Chair of Peter? Francis uses his homilies and speeches to castigate those trying to be faithful to the teachings of the Bible. He behaves as if those who reject the teachings of the Church are victims of a tyrannical Church that is without mercy. His appointments have been systematic, calculating towards one direction, as it is now clear. Personnel is policy. Francis is just afraid of the backlash from faithful Catholics. The whole Synod thing is a sham of what he already agreed to do with Kasper. He thought the Bishops will come to Rome and rubber stamp his disposal of the Bible and Tradition. Lutherans and Anglicans have done what he wants to do. How many people have they attracted to those Churches? What is the color of the sky in the world of Francis?

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      ” His appointments have been systematic, calculating towards one direction…”

      There are two sides to that coin. Pope Leo X once remarked that to make an appointment is to create a dozen malcontents and one ingrate.

      • SD

        So many homosexual supporters are appointed. That means that who is a malcontent? The faithful?

  • Tom Frederick

    Liberals in the Church are better at crafting and propagating a lie than the Truth.

  • Manfred

    Thank you for your continuing coverage of the Synod, Robert. There will never be a chance to dispute what occurred at this Synod and what the Pope;s intentions truly are.
    The reason the media, secular and religious are at the Synod is to see the Church change Its teachings. Why else are they spending fortunes to keep their correspondents in Rome for a month?

  • Florian

    Oct. 9th. As much as I respect Robert Royal and faithfully read his columns, he cannot clearly say what Pope Francis wants to do, nor can anyone else. As for this statement:

    ” ..one almost longs for a return to the boring days of the past. Previous synods did not much directly touch upon matters that directly affect people’s daily lives. And that’s looking more and more desirable.” Is a Shepherd really called to ignore matters that touch members of his flock? I am with Pope Francis…go out to the peripheries Shepherds of God, people of God…people are suffering terribly. Try to understand the concerns and fears of your flock and help them. Walk with them in their pain and confusion; accompany them in their doubts. This is what a Shepherd does. Sure, we can go back to the ‘boring’ days where rules were given out and expected to be obeyed…rules and regulations. How many are brought into the loving embrace of Christ and His Church in this way. As far as what is being communicated to those outside the Vatican, this is always going to be a problem. People either don’t have time to go to the source or they don’t know about the Source. No reason why Priests and Pastors can’t help their people to learn what is actually happening. Pope Francis’ letter after the Synod last year in which he speaks of the need for balance between justice and mercy is exquisitely beautiful, clear and pastoral. But people only get the media sound bites…such as the now famous statement: “Who am I to judge?” The Vatican needs a really crack communications team…men and women faithful to Christ, His Church and the teachings of the Church who will now how to transmit the truth with clarity and compassion…but to long for a time when the gatherings of Bishops/Shepherds would ignore matters that touch their flock is not the answer.

    • StatusQrow

      Every ordained priest and bishop—as well as the Pope—is both teacher and pastor, or shepherd. As teachers they ought always to preach the ideal; that means the rules and regulation need to be clearly, consistently and unrelentingly taught,

      It is as Shepherds that they minister to those “in pain and confusion and doubts” embracing them as persons—not in their sins, but in spite of their sins—bringing them the Sacraments where that’s possible and showing them the love of Christ in all of these things. It does not mean indulging them in their sins.

      Who am I to judge? That’s a loving question if it means: how can I presume to know how hard this person tries in his heart to serve God, however he may understand Him?

      That same question is an expression of utter betrayal if it means I look and see someone committing an act that the Church teaches is sinful and shrug as though I don’t recognize the objective sin. And it’s an even greater betrayal when one tries to change Church teaching to conform with “what people do.”

      Shepherding is about forgiveness of sins, not muddling their recognition.

  • Maria

    We are witnesses of a great schism in the Roman Catholic Church.
    The Pope, Vicar of Christ, is only infallible in matters of Dogma.
    In the matters of this Synod and what the Pope is saying, he is fallible.
    Anything that is secret and not written down is not believable.
    The Pope can easily correct this confusion which I respectfully say, Pope Francis has created.
    Stand in front of the faithful and speak in English just exactly what you mean. Simple words not words with double meanings.
    As reported on EWTN, Synod of the family today, The Pope is accusing some of the Bishops of hermeneutics, which is science of Scriptural translation. I believe it is the Pope who is guilty of this “hermeneutics” (Hermes = the patron deity (god) of speech.
    The act of homosexuality is a sin. The Church does not accept civil unions because to do so would be to accept the sin.
    The Holy Sacrament of Marriage is being used as a ruse to say that there are new kinds of “families” homosexual civil unions.
    The United States Catholics are being used as if we hate other human beings, homosexuals, which is not true. We follow our Church teaching and God’s Law that it is a sin for a man to be with a man and a woman with a woman or any of these with animals.
    If any people are being mistreated it is the faithful of the Church for believing the truth, and we are being assaulted verbally and in other ways by militant homosexuals. Now with the help of our Church.

    • The Pope, Vicar of Christ, is only infallible in matters of Dogma.
      Not clear what this means.
      Cf. Infallibility and the charism of infallibility that Christ endowed his Church with in matters of faith and morals contained in the deposit of faith that he left to his Church via the Apostles, who the [Pope and] Bishops are successors.


    A commenter on Fr. Z’s blog puts it well:

    “A pope bluntly stating or advocating heresy would not be the worst case scenario. A pope who affirmed Christ’s teaching in word, but who allowed those teachings to be gutted in practice would be the worst outcome. It would scandalize the faithful, keep many potential converts from converting (they’re looking for Truth!), and confirm many sinners in their sin. I can’t fathom a worse outcome- it would truly be a case of wolf discipline cloaked in sheep doctrine”

    From my perspective I truly fear this worst outcome the commenter mentions above. We must keep doctrine and praxis aligned. The new annulment procedures have already skewed the alignment. These new procedures are ‘wolf discipline cloaked in sheep doctrine’. I fear more wolf discipline will be the result of the Synod.

    • Alwaysright

      Whatever “softened” language Pope decides to use, it will be heralded as “doctrine”. That is how liberals have change the rules. For example, communion on the hand: the Church states that communion in “the tongue” can not be denied (Memoriale Domini) , but many parishes has been instructing children to receive the Eucharist only in the hand—ignoring the truth .