There was a time when Synods were blessedly boring affairs. Priests, bishops, cardinals, even popes would catch up on their sleep, or correspondence. It’s said that Pope John Paul II even sketched out a book while the proceedings of one such event droned on. Pope Francis has decided to make them much more active – and contentious – affairs.
Just yesterday, Cardinal Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, questioned the “loyalty and honesty” of Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. After the tumultuous 2015 Synod on the Family, Chaput was elected to the Council of the Synod of Bishops (basically the planning committee) with the most votes for any single candidate by the bishops of the whole world. His recent offense? Substantial criticisms of the Working Document intended to guide the month’s proceedings.
Pope Francis’ own latest document on synods, the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio  (Italian, no English yet) seems to aspire to make them almost perennial, like sessions of Congress or Parliament. That text also at least seems to devolve some authority to bishops meeting as a body – an authority that can even become part of the Church’s magisterium – if approved by the pope.
That may look, to some, like a good development, a kind of opening towards decentralization and democracy in a Church that, in many respects, resembles an elected monarchy. But caution is called for. In the modern world, we’ve made a shibboleth of democracy, though wise heads – from Aristotle to America’s Founding Fathers to several modern philosophers – have long warned that carefully thought out institutional arrangements are needed to make such things work.
There’s some doubt whether that kind of clarity has been brought to bear on things as this Synod opens. On Monday, at a Vatican presentation of the Synod on Youth, it was even unclear what the procedures would be for the bishops to vote. Would it be on the overall final document, a text produced by a small group of drafters chosen in advance and – as thirteen cardinals protested in a letter to the pope before the previous synod – therefore easily manipulated to produce a desired outcome? Or will there be real debate on specific provisions and paragraphs as in the past, thus allowing the bishops meaningful input into what such a document will say – and not say?
That such basic questions have not been considered – and resolved – well in advance of the process that begins today does not bode well for the outcome. Other, less trusting voices in Rome suggest that gaps in procedure have been left, not out of inattention, but on purpose, so that the final products may be massaged as desired. One of the desired outcomes – again, say the darker voices – is that something on accepting (i.e., “accompanying”) LGBTQs and beyond will appear for the first time in a Vatican document, with the approval not only of the pope but of bishops from various countries.
There is further reason for worry. We’ve seen how multiple Protestant bodies have essentially abandoned Christian moral teaching through the influence of popular assemblies. And this is not only a matter of the conclusions that they reached – inevitable as they almost are once you take current culture as the standard and Christian tradition as malleable.
The mere fact that the Church debates, at the very highest levels, “the value of homosexual relationships,” Biblical teaching on divorce, the very words of Genesis “male and female he created them,” contraception and abortion, and other such hot-button questions raises an even larger issue. Is Christian teaching ultimately just a series of time-bound, historically conditioned guidelines, changeable as social conditions change? Or – as we have always believed – is it the revelation of the eternal in time, a communication from God that seeks to guide us out of the murkiness of a world darkened since the Fall? And unfixable by approaches that falsely give the impression that what we face are merely practical human problems?
These are all serious and foundational questions. And when you add into the mix – as is the case this month – questions about how to reach young people whose specific views and general mentality have been almost entirely shaped by a toxic culture that finds nothing normative in God, nature, or human nature, it’s not hard to see the potential for explosions, intended and unintended.
Even in the best of circumstances, it would be hard to see how we would get from where young people currently are to the fullness of the Catholic faith. And we are far from the best of circumstances.
Several members of the pope’s C-9 cabinet of Cardinals themselves have problems as large as the rest of the Church. And the failed efforts at the simplest reforms: financial transparency, accountability for sex abuse, and the mere administration of the Vatican, don’t exactly inspire confidence that Rome can lead us towards a better future.
And as if all this were not enough, there’s a lot of pressure on the American delegation to the Synod. Unlike in the past, there seem to be fewer bishops on hand who will press for traditional teaching against well-entrenched forces seeking innovations and worse. Not all the American delegates can be counted on, but despite all our problems at home, we still have a vital and viable Church, at least for the moment. That’s not the case in many parts of the world today. Our bishops will have a lot riding on their shoulders.
Pope Francis has asked Catholics to pray the Rosary every day this month “in communion and penance, as a people of God, in asking the Holy Mother of God and St. Michael the Archangel to protect the Church from the devil, who always aims to divide us from God and among us.” And we might also pray that those charged by God Himself with the responsibility to bring us all together do not add to the already large divisions that trouble the whole Church.