A Roman Weekend to Remember

Note: Robert Royal is in Rome this week and will be submitting several reports on the Synod on Synods, as well as other Vatican developments. As in the past, The Catholic Thing will be doing extensive coverage of this synod over the next two years and bringing you regular analysis of the most important events. 

Rome is unusually quiet these days. Few tourists. And their absence even seems to have calmed (somewhat) the (normally) loud Romans themselves. Crossing a street in Italy’s capital used to be something like a bullfight: you had to gauge how close you could come to the charging beasts if you wanted to live to fight another day. But – is it just my own illusion? – in the absence of crowds, even Roman drivers show a certain – dare one say? – calm. It’s all unexpected, unnatural, and almost soothing, unless you care about what’s going on in the global public square and more particularly in the Vatican.

This weekend, Rome hosted the “Pre-COP26 Parliamentary Meeting,” which is to say the meeting before the 26thmeeting of the Conference of the Parties to the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (pause for breath) scheduled later this month in Scotland. Pope Francis was supposed to be in Glasgow, but the Vatican recently announced he won’t, perhaps for health reasons.

Caring for Creation is serious business, involving our stewardship of the planet, which God commanded in the first pages of Genesis. (1:26-28) However much radicals activists have distorted that responsibility, a proper environmentalism reminds us of our relationship to the Creation and the Creator. Genesis also says in the same passage “male and female he created them” and “be fruitful and multiply.” That part of the divine commission rarely turns up in environmental confabs, even when Christians participate – to say nothing of the Holy See’s own efforts at “integral human development.”

Strange things get said at these events. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in Rome, too, this weekend and asserted in her keynote address (official text here) to Pre-COP26 :

Science, Science, Science – the answer to so many challenges, whether it’s climate, COVID, or computing, whatever – the answer to so much.  Sometimes in Congress, they say to us, ‘It’s either science or faith.’  No, that’s not a choice.  Science is an answer to our prayers. . . .


Either the Speaker gets a lot of mail from the most radical sectors of anti-science Christian Scientists, or – more likely – this is pure self-congratulatory fantasy. Who has ever said that prayer alone will solve climate problems or COVID or [!] computing?

She also met with Pope Francis over the weekend. They discussed the usual policy trinity – climate, refugees, human rights. Details have not been forthcoming, but they emerged all cheery.  It’s clear they stayed within safe bounds, and avoided the hard questions like the human rights of the unborn, who are being killed – not by global temperature changes decades in the future, or occasionally at present in chaotic migrations – but by the tens of millions, deliberately, worldwide.

The most worrisome event in Rome this weekend, however, was the preparatory meeting for the Synod on Synods. An event intended to define what its own nature ought to be suffers from a certain self-referentiality. And other signs of where this is all going are so far not good.


In his address for the opening of the synod (read here), the pope warned about three risks:

1) “there can be a certain elitism in the presbyteral order that detaches it from the laity; the priest ultimately becomes more a ‘landlord’ than a pastor of a whole community as it moves forward.  This will require changing certain overly vertical, distorted and partial visions of the Church, the priestly ministry, the role of the laity, ecclesial responsibilities, roles of governance and so forth.”

2) “A second risk is intellectualism. Reality turns into abstraction and we, with our reflections, end up going in the opposite direction.  This would turn the Synod into a kind of study group, offering learned but abstract approaches to the problems of the Church and the evils in our world.”

3) “Finally, the temptation of complacency, the attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 33) and it is better not to change.”

This does describe certain dangers, but is the Church really too vertical, too intellectual, too complacent today? You might have said that of parts of the Church 70 years ago. Today, it seems truer to say it’s lost hierarchical authority, its own rich intellectual heritage, and – far from being complacent – is thrashing around not knowing where to turn.

Pope Francis looks to the Holy Spirit, he says, to fix things, but he’s also expecting the Holy Spirit to restructure the entire Church in ways he personally finds congenial: “moving not occasionally but structurally towards a synodal Church, an open square where all can feel at home and participate.” [emphases in original]

It’s difficult to believe such goals are real, however. There’s expansive language about being inclusive:

we have taken some steps forward, but a certain difficulty remains and we must acknowledge the frustration and impatience felt by many pastoral workers, members of diocesan and parish consultative bodies and women, who frequently remain on the fringes.  Enabling everyone to participate is an essential ecclesial duty!  All the baptized, for baptism is our identity card.

This creates the expectation that everyone, including people who have left or are outside the Church, should – or will – have a voice in such deliberations. The hundreds of thousands of baptized who attend the Traditional Latin Mass and think it has something to contribute to the Church Universal can already expect that their voices will be given far less weight than those of “consultative bodies and women.”

There’s recent evidence, too, that the document limiting the use of the TLM was being prepared before the bishops of the world were consulted, and that the consultation did not produce the results the Vatican claimed. It would be naïve to think that this sort of thing won’t happen again as the synod unfolds. And to far more of the baptized than TLM supporters.

So here we are,  at a major threshold, at the beginnings of an initiative to change the Church even more radically than did Vatican II.

Let’s pray, then, with Pope Francis that the Holy Spirit indeed takes things very much in hand this time.


*Image: Party in a Garden with Roman Artists by Michelangelo Cerquozzi, c. 1640 [Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany]

You may also enjoy:

Bob Royal’s Lost in a Dark Wood: Final Thoughts on the Amazon Synod

Stephen P. White’s Synodality is What You Make of It

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.