Symptoms of the Synod 2023 II – 19 October 2023

The premise of our “Symptoms of the Synod” chronicle is that no one knows what “synodality” means, so the best approach is to simply observe the symptoms of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church. Only then can an attempt be made to diagnose what the underlying phenomenon really is.

Even Pravda Doesn’t Know the Truth

Decades ago,  in the pre-digital age, L’Osservatore Romano, was often called “Pravda” by wags in Rome. The Russian word for “truth” had a certain ecclesial resonance, but it was the Cold War context that gave the significance. Pravda was the official organ of the Kremlin, and so if you wanted to know the official line on Soviet news and propaganda, you had to know what was in Pravda.

In the internet age, when all papal texts are available immediately, L’Osservatore Romano is now irrelevant and ignored. But a source of official views and propaganda is still useful, and so the Holy Father’s fellow Jesuits at America magazine have stepped up as the new Pravda. Their Vatican correspondent, the unfailingly pleasant and genial Gerard O’Connell, is the court stenographer for the pontificate.

His colleague Colleen Dulle wrote a long defense of the synod against mischief makers out to undermine “the most extraordinary event since the Second Vatican Council.” The stakes are high indeed! But toward the end of the apologetic, even Dulle acknowledged “the open-endedness of this synod and the general difficulty of communicating what synodality itself means.”

If even Pravda doesn’t know the truth, who else might?

The Truth About Pope Francis

Father Tom Reese, former editor of America, writes that “for Pope Francis, the synod is about a new way of being church.” That might explain why those who already know one way of “being church” might find it hard to be something else.

Fr. Reese indirectly suggests that Pope Francis himself might be the problem. In an appreciation of the retreat preached by Father Timothy Radcliffe before the synod opened, Reese writes that “Radcliffe the Dominican did very well explaining Francis the Jesuit.”

How can it be that, after ten years, Pope Francis still needs to be explained to highly intelligent people? Can one imagine St. John Paul II or Benedict XVI needing to be “explained” after years in the chair of Peter? If something perpetually needs explanation, like synodality, it may be that the problem is not with the explainers, but the inexplicability of the thing itself.

Reese’s column included this endearing bit of history:

When the Jesuits are in real trouble, they know they can turn to the Dominicans for help. When the Jesuit superior general Lorenzo Ricci died in Castel Sant’Angelo in 1775 after being imprisoned by Pope Clement XIII, it was the master of the Order of Preachers who was willing to preside at his funeral when no one else in Rome wanted anything to do with the Jesuits. Dominican masters have presided at the funerals of Jesuit generals ever since.

I knew of the tradition of the Dominicans inviting a Franciscan to preach on 8th August (Dominic’s feast day), and the Franciscans inviting a Dominican to preach on 4th October (Francis of Assisi). But I didn’t know about Dominicans and the funerals of Jesuit generals. It’s a nice bit of Catholic tradition.

Secrecy and Embarrassment

Fr. Reese, generally an enthusiast of this pontificate, is not happy about the “incomprehensible” secrecy that Pope Francis has imposed on this synod’s discussions. The Holy Father does not “understand” media strategy, and he “does not like the press, especially the Western media.”

The unusual degree of secrecy has been defended as a way of leaving space for frank discussions. But it may be a way to avoid embarrassment. Recall that at the 2015 synod on the family, Panamanian Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán was arguing for relaxing sacramental discipline regarding divorce. He observed that “Moses gives consent to the people, he yields. . . .Might Peter not be as merciful as Moses?”

It was an ecclesiastical howler of an argument, that the Church should reject the teaching of Jesus in favor of Moses. It was painfully embarrassing to the Holy Father and those who favored his position. The Polish bishops reported the comments, at which point the synod secretariat galvanized itself. . .to order the Polish bishops not to report what other prelates said. With this bloated synod containing hundreds of voices, many of little-known provenance, secrecy hides from wider view what are likely a good number of embarrassing interventions.

Walking Together, Acting Alone

We do know a little of what is said inside, thanks to those carefully selected to speak at press conferences. One such was Archbishop José Miguel Gómez Rodríguez of Manizales, Colombia, who told the press  “the time has arrived when we all have to ask ourselves ‘What is up to me to do?’; and I believe that that is synodality.”

So synodality, after a good bit of walking and talking together, discussing and discerning, depends upon strong decisive personal action: What must I do?

On the other hand, perhaps synodality means not acting on my own at all. Herewith another bishop.

“Yes, I have my own inclinations and things I would like to see happening, but if I’m really entering into the synodal process, I leave those aside,” said Zdenek Wasserbauer, auxiliary bishop of Prague.

Synodality means strong personal action. Synodality means setting aside my own actions.

Wasserbauer added this about what freedom means in the synodal process on synodality: “If an opinion is expressed with which I absolutely do not agree, that no one gets mad, that everyone can freely express their own conviction, their own persuasion.”

If that’s synodality, many of the early ecumenical councils would not qualify.

Synodality in Sin City

Synodality may have stalled at Nicaea, but it is moving and shaking in Nevada.

Popes, on their own and exclusive authority, have been creating dioceses and archdiocese for millennia. Recently Las Vegas got the upgrade from diocese to archdiocese, due to rapid population growth since it became its own diocese in 1995.

The nuncio, Cardinal Christophe Pierre, was on hand for the inauguration of the new metropolitan see and attributed this new development to. . .what? Inward immigration, the increasing cultural acceptance of gambling, climate-changing air conditioning which makes luxurious living in the desert possible?

No. Cardinal Pierre said the growth of Vegas “is the outcome of Synodality.” That would have been news to Moe Green in The Godfather.

Synodality is on a roll in Sin City. But what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.

Walking Out

The two bishops from mainland China permitted by the communist regime left the synod early. The same thing happened in 2018, when the Chinese bishops approved to attend – and welcomed emotionally by Pope Francis – departed early. As with all matters related to the Chinese communist regime, lies abound. At first it was reported that the bishops had to return home to attend to “pastoral matters”. Then it came out that their visas were only granted for ten days. In any event, the message from Beijing was abundantly clear. The Chinese communist regime can yank the Vatican around, and the Vatican is pleased to be yanked.

As an aside, if bishops were really permitted to depart for “pastoral reasons” back home, the synod hall would empty faster that you could say “Module B worksheet questions.” Many a bishop would prefer tea with the Altar Guild rather than endless hours in small group discussions on ecclesial structures.

The Long Walk to Rome

The major synodal symptom of the week in Rome took place outside of the synod hall. Pope Francis granted an audience to the leadership of New Ways ministry, founded by Sister Jeannine Gramick. New Ways was examined and found wanting nearly forty years ago by Rome, and the U.S. bishops made clear that its approach to homosexual ministry was not consistent with Catholic teaching. But Pope Francis has a fondness for New Ways and Sr. Jeannine, and so scheduled a high-profile audience right the middle of the synod. New Ways was ecstatic as one would expect, from this papal favor which once was “unimaginable.”

“In 1984, the Vatican required that [the founders] separate themselves from New Ways Ministry,” the organization reports on its website. “They continue ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics with the knowledge of the Vatican under the auspices of their religious orders.”

The audience was intended to send a signal. A “new way of being church” is afoot, as New Ways has been promoting for the better part of fifty years. It has been long walk, but they have now arrived in the corridors of papal power in Rome.

Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is a Canadian priest, Catholic commentator, and Senior Fellow at Cardus.