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A Synod of No Surprises

Passing through the D.C. Metro recently, I noticed a (muted) Pride-Month poster – rainbow strips peeping between black bands – and a caption that read something like, “The Metro Authority believes that transportation is for everyone.”

Washington PR consultants doubtless did very well out of this ad campaign – as “consultants” of all kinds tend to do in our society – speaking out bravely against a view (Public transportation for white Christian nationalists only?) held by absolutely no one. But unlike the Instrumentum Laboris (IL), the Vatican’s recently issued Working Document of the Synod on Synodality [1], at least the D.C. Metro does not believe that the central value of transportation is transportation itself. The Metro actually embodies the once-obvious human view that the value of transportation means moving in predictable ways from one place to another, towards a specific goal, for an identifiable reason.

The IL opens with a proclamation: “The People of God have been on the move since Pope Francis convened the whole Church in Synod in October 2021.” Really? Meetings have certainly been held. Long and windy and vague texts produced. All this, it’s said, better to preach the Gospel.

But what is that Gospel? The human alienation from God due to sin and God’s unmerited grace in redeeming us in Jesus Christ. The Synod leaders say they don’t want to touch on doctrines or settle disputes within the Church, but only to find a way of “walking together” in our differences. But we’re not talking about the differences between Franciscans and Dominicans. Current divisions amount to different Gospels.

Our colleague Fr. Gerald Murray sharply analyzed the moral and theological vagaries and heresies in the document in his column last Saturday (here [2]). And the all-but-total absence of the sin/salvation crux. There’s no need to go over that material again. But there’s a preliminary question raised by the Working Document.

How is it that, after what has been billed, by the synodally intoxicated, as perhaps “the widest consultation in human history,” there’s not a single surprising word in the document’s more than 27,000 words? Some have said that the question of polygamy is new, but it was already present in Amoris Laetitia. (¶ 53)

The U.S. Military recently announced [3] that it has developed a “tactical bra” for female soldiers, after consulting 18,000 of them. This is the kind of democratic pettifoggery and high-end gaslighting that’s everywhere these days. What did those 18,000 know about designing female clothing, and after the first, oh, 20 or so, was there much else to be learned? Wide consultation sounds like openness and “listening.” It serves a political purpose, to be sure. Substance? Not so much.

The IL waxes enthusiastic in passages like this: “For many, the great surprise was the experience of being listened to by the community, in some cases for the first time, thus receiving a recognition of their unique human worth that testifies to the Father’s love for each of his sons and daughters.” If that really happened, good for them. But one can’t help suspecting – given the bureaucratic creakiness of the whole process – that this passage reflects more the hopes of the synodal staff than any major shift for “many” of God’s people.

The IL could have been written exactly as it now stands two years ago when the People of God allegedly got “on the move.” At this point, we can also predict with near-perfect accuracy what the results will be two years from now when the consultations end. We’ve seen it all before in prior synods. It’s all rather tired – especially if the Church is supposed to have been following a God of Surprises and experiencing the new outpouring of the Holy Spirit – neither of whom, on the evidence of the IL, seems to have had much new input.

Insofar as there is identifiable meaning to the IL – mostly about listening and learning from one another and from the Spirit in prayer – one might walk together a bit of the way with the Synod (Despite the 1970s-ish instructions of “The conversation in the Spirit,” above). The IL disavows any intention to resolve conflicts and divisions except by continuing the conversation. But ultimately choices have to be made – and already are, following a predictable path, as in Pope Francis’s departure from Catholic practice on Communion for the divorced and remarried. Will, say, unending conversations over LGBTQ+ have no effect on morals?

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio to America, made some revealing comments at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Orlando earlier this month. He admitted, “It may be that we are still struggling to understand synodality.” And he used an interesting image about what the synodal difference will mean for the Church.

We’re used to using the GPS now to go from one place to another, he said, following instructions, turn by turn. The synod, he claimed, is more like being handed a compass, which points us in the direction we should go, but requires each of us to carefully observe many details around us as we make our way.

One doesn’t want to accuse the nuncio of “backwardism” in advocating for pre-Conciliar technology, but his image does raise several questions. Are we all just going to be inventing our own routes now? Or has much already been discovered about the way? Merely following the general directions of a compass can lead you to swamps, dead-ends, wild animals, unclean spirits, and who knows what?

The synodalists have assured us that the great truths of the Faith are settled and that the main problem we now face is only to discover a new way of “being Church” via dialogue and listening. Does this really reflect the Catholic understanding of fallen human nature, let alone the history of the Church or the secular world? A compass is a handy tool in the right hands. But as the guide to the “synodal process,” it’s likely to lead us to re-discover – and quite quickly – that you can’t fool God or Mother Nature.


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.