Getting Serious about the Synod

In the heyday of Liberation Theology, the movement’s theorists often argued that it wasn’t enough for the Church to care for those wounded by political and economic injustice – roughly what Pope Francis has called a “field hospital.” Liberation demanded inquiries into why bodies are floating downstream and forays upstream to find, and deal with, causes. Liberation Theologians weren’t very good at this. (Most Church figures aren’t, because their training is not in political philosophy, economics, or security matters.) They often applied what were already clearly simplistic, discredited Marxist categories to situations in Latin America, and elsewhere in the developing world, where Marx’s “scientific” socialism didn’t really fit.

All this came back to mind as I was thinking about the Instrumentum Laboris, the “Working Plan,” for the October Synod on Synodality, which is being written over the next several days in Rome. (I’ll be in Rome later this week and hope to report on the process and the results, which will be presented at a press conference on Thursday). It reminds me of Liberation Theology because the overall approach to the Synod, so far, seems to be trying to address current challenges to “walking together,” without much inquiring into how and why it is that, at this juncture, we face such radical questions. Whatever its shortcomings, Liberation Theology would never have settled for such superficial  treatment.

Instead, most of the synodal commentary is cast in immediate personal terms drawn from some of the most dubious sides of current culture in the developed world: Terms like “inclusion,” “barriers,” “marginalization,” “disempowerment” – specifically as they relate to LGBTQ+, women, and the divorced and remarried without annulment, which is to say groups of interest to the secular media and an increasingly intrusive and anti-Christian state.

At the same time, there are large claims being made about the workings of the Holy Spirit in the synodal process, despite the confusions and contradictions that have everywhere marked the synodal meetings.

No one has asked for my advice about the Instrumentum Laboris – and I’m quite happy not to have been asked. But if I were, a few basic suggestions might avoid some of the more glaring problems.

First, speak sparingly about the Holy Spirit. According to an Authoritative Source, the sin against the Holy Spirit is the one that shall not be forgiven. Whatever He meant by that, the Church has to be careful in claiming divine inspiration, especially for meetings in which even participants often enough wonder what they’re doing, to say nothing of the downsides of committee work.

Already a century ago, the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats – who knew a bit about using words – noted a problem that has only grown since:

“The Holy Spirit is an intellectual fountain,” and did the Bishops believe, that Holy Spirit would show itself in decoration and architecture, in daily manners and written style. What devout man can read the Pastorals of our Hierarchy without horror at a style rancid, coarse, and vague, like that of the daily papers?


A second point follows: while it’s good for people to listen to one another – as the synod seems never to tire of repeating – it’s even better to listen to the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis has rightly called the Christian Deity a “God of surprises.” But it would be truly surprising if the Spirit were only an echo of the secular world – itself in deep disorder and turmoil these days. Ever since the Apostles received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church has understood as its mission not only to listen to people “where they are,” in the current jargon, but to teach – because the Church itself has been taught, by the Spirit.

Has the Church been teaching for the past half-century and more? We had a great series of encyclicals from St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But how much of that made its way into Catholic parishes, schools, and formation programs? And how strongly has the Church fought the threat to families owing to the miseducation and outright evil being taught by the modern state – which is also seeking to spread its errors to the world?

I myself would also go a little lighter on the subject of joy; joy is a central part of belief in Christ, but so is the understanding that life in this world is a struggle. Evangelical friends tell me that their churches often wear themselves out trying to keep up a happy face all the time.

For similar reasons, I’d also moderate the emphasis on the dignity of all human beings. Any Catholic can agree with that – from conception to natural death –  but when it slides into considering everyone’s opinions as of equal value in dialog, we’re not only outside the Faith, we’re outside the wisdom of human experience.

The Canadian and U.S. Bishops recently released a 40-page report on the North American “continental phase” of the Synod on Synodality, which will be used – along with other continental reports – in Rome this week to prepare the Working Document. A good editor might have condensed the material to 5 pages. And the words “redemption,” “repentance,” “mercy,” “forgiveness,” let alone eternal matters like Heaven Hell, never appear. And there’s only one allusion to how we’re all “broken and sinful.” So what are we listening to the Spirit for, other than a better social life in the Church? Doesn’t eternity deserve some consideration?

Yet mixed in with the usual secular concerns as outlined above, there occasionally peek out other, possibly more fruitful points. You hear a much more universal voice of ordinary Catholics in observations like this: “There are tensions between letting the popular culture enter into the life of the parish. There is a tsunami of culture threatening to overwhelm us.” And following from that is the general desire for real formation in how to dialogue within the Church and how to evangelize externally. I noticed a similar desire in the 2018 Synod on Youth; young people who are starting their lives and asking the Church to be taught how to live out the Faith – and not getting much of an answer.

The bishops themselves actually make some sharp observations, beginning with, “People don’t know what the Synod on Synodality is for. They don’t understand the purpose, couldn’t grasp what was trying to be achieved.” And: “Some polarizations arise within the Church, whereas others originate in the wider society and are transposed into the Church.” There are ongoing debates inside the Church, of course. But it’s hard not to see the current craze over LGBTQ+ questions, for instance, as mostly driven by forces outside Scripture and tradition. The Church might do a better job working with sexual minorities. But it cannot be the Catholic Church – much as several Cardinals leading the Synod would like – by ignoring Biblical teachings or pathetically trying to raise doubts about things that have been decided for millennia.

So it was not entirely a surprise that there was also this in the report:

The bishops were grateful for the spiritual conversations and prayer that were present throughout the synodal endeavor. They also noted that this aspect, and its relation to ecclesial discernment, is vital for living the way of the Church that avoids the polarizing habits of the wider society in North America. “If we are going to be people of dialogue, we have to first have a dialogue with God; synodality needs to be based on a dialogue with Scripture and the Lord.”

There’s classic Catholic wisdom and realism in those words. We’ll know later this week whether somewhat cooler North American heads will influence the global Working Plan, or whether the agenda will be set by stormy winds coming out of Germany.


*Image: Pope Francis pets a tiger during an audience with circus members in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, June 16, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

You may also enjoy:

Mr. Royal’s Who Needs Synodality?

Russell Shaw’s Concerning “Synodality”

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.