Sherlock Holmes’ “dog that did not bark” is something of an overused cliché in public matters. But there are times when the absence of something that ought to be there – and loud – is the strongest evidence of what has really been going on. Witness the extraordinary consistory, which ended yesterday evening with a Mass celebrated by the pope in St. Peter’s for the Cardinals, who spent the past two days in private discussing the present and future of the Church.
It usually takes some indirect sources to sort out Vatican events like this, and people who follow them know how to put together the basic picture from various bits and pieces. This time, however, the fragments are few and add up to very little. It would be distressing to think that is the only result of what the Cardinals and the Holy Father just spent their time doing.
Still, that may very well be the case.
The official spokesmen haven’t spoken much. What we’ve mostly been told are the usual PR cliches: that the pope invited the participants to speak out frankly. But when you even have to say that, who ever really does it?
And we’ve also been told that there’s been “diverse” and “vigorous discussion.” But about anything of urgency, since the two main topics seem to be who, under the new rules, gets to run various offices in the Roman curia – i.e., the Vatican bureaucracy – and what to do for the next Jubilee Year, which is three years away?
One question that seems to have surfaced among at least some of the Cardinals – though it’s hardly anything unique to the consistory and has been raised for years – is what exactly is synodality?
As many have pointed out long before these recent days, synodality is both empty of any concrete content and the same time seems to be intended to be so broad as to engulf the whole life of the Church. Indeed, in the way that the “synodal process” has extended invitations to lapsed Catholics and even those outside the Faith, it’s hard to say where it stops or starts. And whether it has any definite contours at all.
So here we are well into the “synodal process,” having finished the “national phase,” and moving into the “continental phase” for the entire next year until the Synod on Synodality actually meets in October 2023. And almost two hundred of the most powerful and experienced figures in the Church still are uncertain as to, in the simplest terms, what it’s all about?
For all the efforts there have been, it doesn’t seem to be much about what Pope Francis emphasizes otherwise: that the Church should be outward-looking, going into the peripheries to bring the Good News. Instead, the past few days seemed very much inward-looking.
Meanwhile, there are some much sharper questions in play, if you make the slightest effort to look out.
The Church is being persecuted in China, Nicaragua, and Nigeria among other countries. And even in the historically Christian nations in Europe and the English-speaking world, Christian institutions like hospitals and schools, and the very churches themselves, are being widely and repeatedly pressured to abandon their historic teachings – sometimes even by the Church’s own political figures, doctors, educators, and pastors.
Did any of those immediate challenges or a dozen others it would be easy to name come up as the Cardinals talked about how the Vatican should function and what should be its focus between now and 2025?
Even the outlets close to Pope Francis don’t seem to have heard that dog bark.
America, “The Jesuit Review of Faith and Culture,” consulted some Cardinals who wished to remain anonymous, yet ventured that a main theme of the consistory was “’how all the baptized are called to be evangelizers’ and that they should do so through ‘acts of charity, closeness, tenderness, and especially by listening.’”
The National Catholic Reporter strained quite hard and detected some praise for the efforts to clean up Vatican finances.
But did the mere fact of the Cardinals meeting as a body, and face to face, after a long interval, at least have some value?
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the argument – which we heard often in the runup to this week – that consistories are important because, among other things, they give the Cardinals a chance to get to know one another. Especially when there’s an elderly pontiff in clearly slipping health, they all need to be looking around and thinking about who will take his place.
Some of that does happen, of course. But after seven years of not meeting as a group, how much did the Cardinals really get to know one another in just the four or five days they spent together?
I don’t want to deny the importance of even brief personal meetings that may lead to more extensive acquaintance. But here’s a cautionary tale.
Until about twenty years ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio wasn’t known much outside of Argentina; he didn’t travel a lot and such international stature as he did have was primarily among Latin Americans. In 2001, however, he had to fill in as Relator General of that year’s Synod of Bishops when New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan had to return home following the 9/11 attack.
Cardinal Bergoglio made a good impression as “a man open to communion and dialogue,” primarily because of the balanced and nuanced summation he gave at the end of the synod. That got some other Cardinals thinking that he might be the man to follow St. John Paul II. According to reliable reports, he was the second largest vote-getter in the 2006 conclave, after Joseph Ratzinger.
It was only revealed later that the impressive summation he delivered in 2001 was actually written by someone else. He merely read the text. The impression the Cardinals had received, therefore, could justly be characterized as somewhat misleading.
So here we are after another large Vatican gathering. No closer than before to facing up to the real challenges as our global civilization and our Church experience one crisis after another. We may have rearranged the offices a bit and cleaned up some of the grosser financial improprieties. But the overall result seems to be that we’ll continue along with what we’ve come to accept as business as usual.
*Image: Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) c. 1518 [Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]