If you wanted two words to describe the Synod on Synodality, the event that begins today in Rome, it would have to be deep confusion. Unless you wanted to add a third, deliberate. Because it’s been clear from a series of concrete measures that what’s been said is not what’s going to happen. And what’s going to happen has not been said. Yet there’s a method, of a sort, to this madness.
To begin with, the very format of this Synod is already a kind of deliberate confusion – and for a reason.
On the one hand, we have been told by the very highest synodal authorities – from the pope on down – that synodality is a recovery of an ancient dimension of the Church that was preserved in the East but had been lost in the West. This is to assume, as really cannot be assumed, that this is a truthful statement of intention. Because. . .
On the other hand, we have the words of the exarch (leader) of the Greek Catholic Church – part of that very Eastern tradition (though in communion with Rome) – warning:
if the West understands synodality as a place or as a moment where everyone, laity and clergy, act together in order to arrive at some ecclesiastical, doctrinal, canonical, disciplinary decision, whatever it may be, it becomes clear that such synodality does not exist in the East.
Historically, this is correct beyond question. That’s why when synods began to be held after Vatican II, they were synods of bishops, in conversation with the pope, which is to say of those with the apostolic authority to govern, teach, and sanctify. That’s the Eastern tradition that we’re being told was lost in the West.
The new configuration, which has been conjured out of thin air by people shaped by some unfortunate cultural currents in recent decades, suggests that the further claim by the Roman organizers – that the synod is not a democratizing of the Church – is not merely a historical mistake about tradition. That much is obvious. The only question is why?
The synod will not exactly be a parliament – as Francis has said. But it’s going to function like one except that, at the end of the day, the non-hereditary monarch that we call the “pope,” can use or ignore the deliberations, however he wishes. And we already have some hints of what that will mean, in several concrete ways, though we’ve been told not much important will be decided this month. (October next year may be a different matter.)
There have already been pre-emptive pronouncements (confused or ambiguous to be sure) about crucial changes. Five Cardinals – now six with the concurrence of Cardinal Müller, and seven because the late, great Cardinal Pell was in agreement before he passed away – Cardinals from every continent, put questions (dubia) to the pope that were answered by the new head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, with surprising swiftness. (Cardinal Burke revealed at a public lecture in Rome last night that there are other Cardinals who silently support their questions.)
We will be digging into the specifics in coming days and weeks, but it’s worth noting at the beginning some clear facts.
Most flagrantly, it now seems that “blessing” same-sex “unions” will be at the discretion of local bishops and priests, meaning that it will be mandatory once those figures begin to come under pressure from local activists and the secular media.
The arguments, such as they are, from Cardinal Fernández, are duplicitous – no other word will do. He speaks, oh so carefully, of marriage, of course, as our Scriptures say, only between a man and a woman. And we’ll need to be sure, wherever such “unions” are blessed, that there should be no confusion on that score.
But what then is being blessed, other than sexual activity forbidden by both Jewish and Christian traditions since the very beginning? While pretending not to.
Neither Cardinal Fernández – nor we – are quite so dense as to think otherwise. He knows, as will anyone with an ounce of sense reading this, that if such unions are blessed, it’s a step towards acceptance of homosexuality, Scripture and tradition notwithstanding. The progressive theologians’ guild may labor to keep the flimsy distinction between marriage and “unions” alive, but they – and we – know the inevitable destination of this fabrication.
The secular media will be quite happy to tell us as much – they already have – just as everyone in the Vatican is already quite aware.
Cardinal Fernández has also spelled out – though there are supposed to be no agendas in the “walking together” that begins today – that by a pastoral application of attention to circumstances, what even Amoris Laetitia dared not say directly is now regulative: that those re-married without an annulment may consult their own consciences and, after deep self-examination, possibly, present themselves for Communion.
As a dear friend, now long dead, used to joke, it’s remarkable how when people “wrestle with their consciences” (modern style), they – not conscience – so often win. The Church once understood this, not only in a high theological sense, but in practice. And not only about divorce.
Then, consider this. Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., was specially chosen to lead a retreat over the past few days for the participants in the synod, at which he’s waxed enthusiastic about gay priests, women’s ordination, and the whole progressive agenda. The German bishops, heretofore only mildly rebuked by Rome, have nothing on him.
But this is merely a prelude to “walking together,” dear reader. No hidden agendas. Just an opportunity to reflect as Christians, together, on the future path of the Church.
You don’t have to be a Catholic scholar to see, beyond all doubt, that all this is evidence, not just the musings of people who are prone to nervousness – “backwardists” in our pontiff’s uncharitable view – over changes in the Church. We’re being led to believe that things that were no part of our tradition, were even considered gravely sinful, until the last 50 years or so, are essential to being “merciful,” i.e., Catholic in our time.
The deepest question behind all these specific questions remains: What is Synodality? The philosopher Stefano Fontana, speaking at the same conference with Cardinal Burke and our Fr. Gerald Murray yesterday evening in Rome, put forward the thesis that the goal is a Church perpetually in Synodality. That nothing will remain solid; everything will be in constant process of revision to respond to the “times.”
“Synodality,” then, by its nature cannot be defined, not even in the sense of being ambiguous. It will turn the Church into an institution that does not defend and promote the teachings of its Founder, Jesus Christ. A “synodal” Church, which the current pope seeks, will not only be in motion this month and next year, but perpetually. No one today can say what it really means, because it will be in perpetual self-definition.
These are just some preliminary notes about the deep questions in play over the next four weeks, which we will be following closely at The Catholic Thing.