Which Future for the Church?

A formerly evanescent creature called “Synodality” has been spotted with increasing frequency in these last days of the Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment (to give the synod its full working title). The bishops vote on the final document later today – and several crucial questions remain in play.

The cynical among observers in Rome say that the emergence of “synodality” as a theme at this late hour is no accident. The explicit LGBT language that was in the Working Document, written prior to the Synod, was effectively blocked early in the process by the firmly expressed opposition of dozens of African bishops and others from around the world.

The first draft of the final document still contains a paragraph about young people being confused and wanting “clear and open” discussion of male and female, sexual orientation, etc., which – if it survives into the final document – could still perpetrate great mischief.

Which is why the Synod Fathers must stand strong when they vote this afternoon against this fallback language as well, because it’s clear that this is a Trojan Horse. Some of the most prominent figures in the Vatican hope to pursue what they are calling a deeper “elaboration” of these themes in anthropological, theological, and pastoral terms.

Anyone familiar with the past two papacies might think we already have quite a rich, profound, and faithful “elaboration” of such matters in the Theology of the Body, Familiaris Consortio, and institutions like the original John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family.

As we’ve seen in the way that the JPII Institute has been re-configured, however, it wouldn’t be wrong to think that the elaboration spoken of here may really be more of a repudiation of all that – and the Church’s long tradition on sex, marriage, and family.

In a papacy that often proceeds by way of ambiguities, this language – which means everything and nothing – simply cannot be allowed to stand. Though it was a clear victory for Catholic orthodoxy that stronger terms have been defeated, this formulation potentially authorizes everything that was feared at the beginning. And that some powerful figures within and outside the Vatican are still pushing.

And they are not stopping even there. Some of them have suggested finding a way to claim that the Working Document, which contained the explicit LGBT language, be described as still somehow operative, despite the later deliberations of the bishops and the final document.

But to do this would be to say that there was no real need for the Synod. If the preoccupations of those who proposed themes for the bishops to explore continue in force, even if the bishops didn’t want them to be included at the end of their work, everyone might just as well have stayed home.

And perhaps this is why there is now such a strong drive towards strengthening the idea of synodality as a more frequent, almost regular gathering. Despite Vatican denials, this looks more and more like turning synods into a periodic legislature, or – worse – something resembling the many Protestant Synods dating back to the beginnings of the Reformation, wherein Catholic things may be debated and, deliberately or not, thereby put in doubt.

You only have to imagine what a young person casually aware of the Synod on Youth has been hearing. It’s something like: the Catholic Church is discussing how to welcome gays – “accompanying,” if they ever hear the term, suggesting that the Church doesn’t feel any great urgency that they change their lives. Instead, the Church feels an urgency to meet them halfway now, with the other half to be reconsidered later.

There are rumors – perhaps true, perhaps not – that the need to promote synodality is why Pope Francis himself, contrary to synod statutes, took part in the drafting of the final document the other evening. According to the rules, the synod is supposed to present the deliberations of the bishops to the pope, who may either accept or reject – even just ignore – them.


Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a close ally of the pope on these matters, admitted at a briefing yesterday that synodality wasn’t much present in the original documents. Asked about the difference between collegiality and synodality, he argued that collegiality is the normal state of things for the pope and bishops.

Just as Jesus gathered his Apostles around him, from the early days of the Church, it was understood that the pope and bishops constituted a “college” of those entrusted with an authoritative administration of the Church.

Synodality, Schönborn said, is a much broader term that seems to include everyone in a kind of “walking together.” So pope, bishops, priest, religious, lay people old and young, are all synodal in some novel sense. At the same time, he explained, being synodal does not do away with traditional offices and authorities.

But all this sounds very much like shifting responsibilities and making the Church more horizontal. To begin with, ever since Paul VI put forward the idea of occasional synods, they have always been called, as the current one also has been, a synod of bishops.

The Church can always have dialogues with others, Catholic and not. The original notion was to have some members of the college of bishops meet to advise the pope on emerging questions, not to suggest that matters of faith or morals were up for redefinition, as the Protestant synods often did.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, with whom I rarely agree, said some things the other day that are not only true but important – though maybe not in the way that he meant them. First, he confessed that he was tired, after three weeks of the Synod, of being constantly asked about “the same things,” meaning homosexuality, as if it were the central moral concern of Christianity.

Me too. If you dip into the work of the great saints, doctors, confessors, etc., you’ll find little about the subject because – unlike some modern Christians – they could take it as a given that followers of Jesus would have nothing to do with it. Their true interests lay elsewhere.

And that made his second point more poignant: “The Church has to change to something different.” He specified that he meant that documents and debates are all well and good, but that, in the end, all the energy needs to be transmitted to Church structures, offices, meetings, etc. (Or so the simultaneous interpreters put it on the fly.)

This response brackets, however, the question of what is going to be transmitted and what it will do to the Church. It’s difficult to see how anything that has so far come out of the Synod on Young People will restructure, let alone save – the German Church.

By contrast, Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, commented that he’d learned a few things about the need to incorporate young people more into the workings of the Church. But at that meeting with young people both in Ireland and at the Synod, he had been particularly struck by how much, in an uncertain world with many things changing so fast, young people are looking for something stable, reliable, trustworthy – precisely what a Church confident of its truth can provide.

So we will see the outcome of these two alternatives by the end of the day. Will the bishops choose a Church of change that is coming to resemble the society it’s meant to evangelize, or will it present itself as the age-old infallible Bride of Christ?


*Image: Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck (bottom center panel of the polyptych), 1432 [Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium]. Depicted on the bottom right are the Apostles, kneeling, with popes and bishops standing behind. All adore the Lamb of God.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.