A (Perhaps) Modest Proposal about the Next Synod

I want to propose that, instead of criticizing from the sidelines, conservative Catholics need to get actively involved in creating a synodal Church. But before making my case, I realize that I must acknowledge the strong arguments against it.

According to Religion News Service, synodality has “seemingly failed to grab the attention of American Catholics.” The RNS writer offers no evidence to support that claim. Nevertheless, the impression is strong that – at least so far – the response of many if not most ordinary Catholics to synods and synodality has run the gamut from lukewarm to indifferent.

And if that is the case, it isn’t hard to see why. The obvious explanation is the utter banality of the process now underway in local churches in the United States and other countries, which might best be described as the Church engaged in talking to itself about itself. Given the present state of the world, it’s as if a doctor were to hole up in his office and concentrate on examining and treating himself while ignoring the mob of sick people pleading for attention out in the waiting room.

This spirit was perfectly captured by an “initial assessment” issued in February by the Vatican synod office – a document replete with self-parody. After proclaiming, “The Church is on the move!” the document went on to declare that “the laity (organized or not) and consecrated life in particular are showing great enthusiasm, which is being translated into a myriad of initiatives promoting consultation and ecclesial discernment.” No evidence of such enthusiasm or the “myriad of initiatives” was provided, but in the present synodal context, this can only mean that the more we talk to ourselves about ourselves, the more we have to say.

Do not doubt it though:  the machinery of synodality has been put in place, and now it is whirring, clacking, and thumping away. And from all that clatter, in October 2023 will emerge a bishops’ synod on synodality. That gathering in turn can be counted on to urge Pope Francis – as he intends it to do – to move ahead with his program of creating a synodal Church.

To do what? In fairness, it must be admitted that synodality will have accomplished something eminently worthwhile if it tamps down Catholic clericalism by involving lay people more or less routinely – and, let’s hope, meaningfully – in decision-making and governance. But will it do that? And to what end if it does? One synodality salesman, talking up the “listening sessions” being held in his diocese, had this to say: “The journey is the point, not the destination.” Some people may think that’s swell. I just cringe.

The big fear about synodality in many people’s minds, however, is that it will lead to something resembling Germany’s Synodal path – lay progressives and episcopal progressives collaborating on a familiar, not to say shopworn, agenda of progressive innovations: married priests, women priests, blessing same-sex unions, moral permissiveness on sexuality generally, and so forth. In a National Catholic Register interview with Edward Pentin, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, described those promoting this agenda as “secularized people” who retain the name Catholic for the sake of the positions and perks it brings them while “in reality they don’t believe what the Church is saying.”

All of this – self-referential posturing on the one hand, systematic repudiation of orthodoxy on the other – is why many conservative Catholics want nothing to do with synods and synodality. And it is also why they need to be involved. For if they aren’t, a takeover of synodality by resurgent progressives could result.

Is that a fantasy? Recently I saw a man wearing a Call-To-Action tee shirt, and the sight brought back memories – not happy ones either. The original Call To Action was a notorious 1976 event (thanks to machinations by bishops’ conference Washington staff, part of the hierarchy’s observance of the U.S. bicentennial) at which a group more than half made up of church employees endorsed the progressive wish list of that day. That included endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment, returning laicized priests to ministry, ordaining women and married men as priests, keeping an open mind on homosexuality, approving contraception, and giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages hadn’t been annulled.

The bishops received the CTA proposals with thanks, passed them along to a committee, and allowed them to die a quiet death there. Subsequently, a loose grouping of Church liberals assumed the name Call To Action and spent the next several years pushing the agenda.

I have no idea who the man in the CTA tee shirt was, where he got the shirt, or why he was wearing it. But seeing him was a reminder that there are people still around who carry a torch for Call To Action-style Catholicism, as well as many others too young to know anything about the events of 1976 who nevertheless share the same view of where the Church should be headed. Both groups, I venture to say, would be happy to use synodality as a vehicle to forward the progressive agenda, much as counterparts in Germany have been doing.

Jeff Mirus at Catholic Culture has spoken of the “loony positivity” of those who “hope to use it [the synodal process] – once again – to make the Church less faithful to her mission.” He’s right. But even a synod skeptic like Mirus concedes that the “outlandish mechanism” of synodality has at least some potential for accomplishing something worthwhile.

That possibility and the all too real danger of a progressive takeover are why conservative Catholics need to be active participants in the synodal mix.


You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Who Needs Synodality?

Anthony Esolen’s Where the Light Doesn’t Sine

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.