Seriously, Synodal?

One of the reasons the current push for synodality worries many people is that it doesn’t seem to have any clear goal – or limits. The official documents and pronouncements seem to hope that the synodal process itself, in its stated ambition to consult widely with people from all over the world (with what success or authenticity remains to be seen), will somehow, against the odds, come up with the program of what the Church now needs globally.

It’s not cynical, merely realistic, to believe that a process like this cannot possibly speak to the different situations of the Church in Europe and America, Africa and Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. And therefore, that if you wanted to bet on the outcome, you’d probably do best to place your money on the Synod Committee ultimately resolving things largely in the direction that Germany is currently going, though not quite so radically. Meanwhile, serious members of the Church who are open to helpful changes – of which more below – find the vague but massive “restructuring” now being proposed as quite far distant from their daily needs.

The lack of clear direction has plagued the recent run of synods. The two on the family were supposed to deal with The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World but wound up embroiled in things like the value of gay relationships and Communion for the divorced and remarried. The Synod on Youth – take it from someone who was there for the plodding whole of it – did engage some young people by bringing them to Rome, but never really found its footing. Young Catholics, obviously, are in much the same position today as they were before the event. And the Amazon Synod, which would have been better if it had been held in or near the Amazon and dealt with regional problems regionally, looked like it was meant to be a stalking horse for more general changes in the Church. But besides the outrages of Pachamama, any honest observer would have to say that the Church in Rome and in the Amazon have not been much changed by the synodal agons of those embattled weeks.

Which is why this deliberately open process also may not change very much, though it will be good to keep an eye on all sorts of actors aiming to do considerable mischief.


Striking a very different synodal note, a trustworthy and thoughtful friend remarked earlier this week that, like Fran Maier in his column today, he’s finding it easy to be angry these days, much harder to look for something else to say and do while Rome fiddles. As he put it:

When I think of my day-to-day responsibilities as the father of a large family, I find that I cannot get an inexpensive Catholic education for my children that is sound in doctrine. I cannot find a parish where the liturgy is celebrated with reverence and the preaching is edifying. I cannot find good examples among the bishops of the kind of person I want my children to be.  The hierarchy itself seems completely captured by secular trends and authorities.  What we need are steadiness and the patient application of John Paul II’s plan for the new millennium, not an ever-shifting agenda and the revival of the absolute worst constructions of the “spirit of Vatican II.”

Reliable observers in Rome say that the last week or so has been a kind of whirlwind, a whole year’s activity in a single week as one put it.  But it would be difficult to say that this flurry of activity speaks to the kind of down-to-earth, everyday concerns my friend expressed. The Church is a vast entity, bigger even in a variety of ways than China or India. It addresses all sorts of people and many of the world’s problems of necessity. But its main mission is evangelizing. And when it evangelizes, it does so best in concrete circumstance like affordable and authentic Catholic education, beautiful and inspiring worship, ongoing formation at the diocesan and parish level. In how many places within the Church’s global presence can Catholics say that these fundamental, indispensable things are going on?

The formal name of the Synod on Synodality is For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission. The Holy Father warned about the abstractions of intellectuals in his opening address to the synod this week. It’s hard not to peruse the synod’s own texts and not come to the conclusion  that “communion, participation, and mission” are precisely the kind of airy abstractions that will not lead to the more personally engaged Church that the pope has elsewhere expressed a desire to promote.

Our constant friends “listening” and “dialogue” are prominent in the discussions at this stage as well. But this has been a constant drumbeat in the previous synods, which involved a far smaller and more manageable number of people. And the results of those sessions, usually quite divided, were then shaped by the synod committee in ways that could have been predicted before the process even started.

You can read the whole “Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality” here. And if you’re a glutton for punishment you can give the more extensive “Preparatory Document” a try. They both display the familiar mix of weak social science and vague ecclesiology that has lately marked deliberations in  the Church. But you can’t help also noticing the artwork, which gives the whole the feel of a children’s book or the kind of “art” prevalent after Vatican II. For such a serious and ambitious initiative, and in a world vastly changed from the world of the mid-1960s, such painful throwbacks to a less than high point in recent Church history do not bode well for a renewed Church.

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.