Symptoms of the Synod 2023 IV – 30 October 2023

Part I of the planetary phase of the synod on synodality for synodal Church has now concluded, with a welcome whimper following a combustible bang. Planetary phase Part II now rises on the horizon for October 2024. The excitement in Rome, as weary delegates fled the Vatican for their flights home, was less than palpable.

The final synthesis document, available at the moment only in Italian, was a significant step back from the official working document on issues of greatest media interest. Liberal publications eager for a change in Church teaching on homosexuality were disappointed that the word itself was not even mentioned in the report. After two years of preparatory work preparing for a significant step toward Catholicism reimagined as liberal Anglicanism, it was a major setback.

Still No Diagnosis

The premise of our “Symptoms of the Synod” is that the entire process can only be observed in its outward manifestations, as no one can say what synodality actually means. Three plus weeks of chewing the cud in Rome did not get the job done. 

The synthesis report was bold, to be sure, stating that synodality belonged alongside papal primacy and episcopal collegiality in the life of the Church. As to what it actually is though, the best the report could come up was this:

Synodality can be understood as the walk of Christians with Christ and toward the Kingdom, together with all humanity; mission-oriented, it involves coming together in assembly at the different ecclesial levels of life, listening to one another, dialogue, communal discernment, consensus-building as an expression of Christ’s making himself present alive in the Spirit, and decision-making in differentiated co-responsibility.

If that all seems rather far from how Christ expressed himself in the Gospels, or how the Spirit moved in the Acts of the Apostles, not to worry. At the top of the to-do list for next year’s omnium gatherum is to figure out what synodality means. The synthesis recommends that there should be “theological work to deepen, terminologically and conceptually, the notion and practice of synodality.” 

Theology may be a good place to start. After two years of relying on sociology and management theories, perhaps it is time to ask if the Theos might find some logos in it all. 

The report notes that the International Theological Commission did one of its big studies on synodality back in 2018. The folks over at the ITC are pretty bright, so perhaps they figured it out but didn’t tell anyone, and they will this time if the synod managers ask nicely. But maybe they didn’t figure it out, and even their theological wattage is insufficient to the task. In which case, synodality remains the Snuffleupagus of the Catholic Church; despite claims that it is real, it remains maddening elusive. One day, hopefully by next year, Synoduffleupagus may show itself. 

It’s not just here at Symptoms that synodality may analogized to a mystery illness. The youngest delegate at the synod, Wyatt Olivas of Wyoming, asked the Holy Father to sign a sick note so that he might be excused from classes upon his return home. Recuperation is in order. 

Should Bishops be Non-Bishops?

As this synodal assembly included lay people, religious and priests as voting members, there was much debate about whether it was, properly speaking, a synod of bishops, or something else. It also gave rise to a rather strange way of speaking. The participants included “bishops” and “non-bishops.” Given that the Catholic Church has about 6,000 bishops out of some 1.3 billion members, it seems odd to define the larger category as not being the smaller. Perhaps it would be better to call the bishops “non-laity.”

There were points of hilarity in the synthesis report. One point concerned exactly some of those non-laity: “it is necessary to carefully examine whether it is appropriate to ordain the prelates of the Roman Curia as bishops.” 

One imagines that the curial bishops who permitted that suggestion to be included were doubled over in laughter at the very idea that the serried ranks of the Roman Curia would ever give up their prized episcopal rank. 

Recall the heady days of the new Pope Francis, meek and humble of heart? He announced that, henceforth, he would no longer award the title of monsignor to priests. No more clericalism, no more careerism, no more ambition, no more privilege. The Roman Curia swung into action, and quickly arranged that parish priests would not be eligible for the honorific and fancy dress until age 65. But priests in the Roman Curia would still get it as a matter of course, even if in their thirties. 

Pope Francis learned the lesson. Earlier this year he had his master of ceremonies ordained an archbishop. He is the fellow who stands at the pope’s side during liturgical celebrations and points to right page in the book. His flock consists of the assembled altar servers. 

In the Roman world, the ecclesiastical upgrade from non-bishop to bishop will not be laid aside, no matter what synodality comes to mean.

Signature Moment

While one observer described the whole process as a “decaffeinated synod,” there was certainly a jolt in the final days. Many observers have styled the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church – parish to planetary stages inclusive – as the signature initiative of this pontificate. The signature moment of this synod came on that Wednesday afternoon when Pope Francis delivered an extemporaneous excoriation of clericalism.

That is by now long routine; the Holy Father takes particular care to denounce, regularly, the manifold ills of priests. It was the timing of this denunciation that left even the most fevered papal partisans slack-jawed in horror. 

On Wednesday morning (25th October) news broke that Fr. Marko Rupnik had been returned to priestly ministry in a diocese in his native Slovenia. In June, the famous artist was expelled from the Jesuit order in the aftermath of a series of stomach-churning allegations of sacrilegious sexual abuse of religious women. The Rupnik case was notorious because he got unusually favorable treatment in Rome, the kind of treatment which has been extended to other notorious abusers who were close to Pope Francis. The outrage was immediate and widespread, as it appeared that senior figures in Rome had arranged a soft landing for Rupnik. Given that he is the most infamous (ex-) Jesuit in the world, it is impossible to imagine that Pope Francis was not kept informed.

Thus all of Wednesday afternoon Pope Francis would have heard that, in the synod hall, his staunch allies – to say nothing of his critics – were aghast and incredulous. As the stench of this case clings to the Jesuits who hold influence in the papal court, Pope Francis knew that his own reputation was on the line. Hence his unexpected address that same afternoon to the synod assembly.

He lambasted the “scourge” of “clericalism” which “defiles” the Church and “enslaves the holy, faithful people of God.” And then he spoke with righteous indignation about priestly scandal. 

His comments were not precisely about Fr. Rupnik: “It is enough to go into the ecclesiastical tailor shops in Rome to see the scandal of young priests trying on cassocks and hats, or albs and lace robes,” the Holy Father added.

(The real sartorial news of the synod was, in fact, not young priests but an elderly nun. Sr Jeannie Gramick, a longtime dissenter on Catholic moral teachings, popped around for a friendly chat with Pope Francis. To the bemusement of all, she appeared in a veil, not her usual deportment. Who knew that the ecclesiastical tailors in Rome offered rentals?)

Everyone else had a different scandal in mind.

All day Thursday, with headlines detailing the appalling Rupnik spectacle, all of ecclesiastical Rome was murmuring about what Pope Francis had said on Wednesday evening. The courtiers delivered the message. On Friday morning, the Holy Father reversed course and decreed that Fr. Rupnik would be prosecuted after all. A dissembling statement that fooled no one was issued by the press office.

Thus first came the bang of Friday morning, followed by the whimper of the synthesis report on Saturday night. 

And then everyone went home. 

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