The Greatest Catholic Event Since Vatican II?

Several voices – mostly close to Pope Francis and the organizers of the Synod on Synodality – declared the assembly, before the fact, the most significant event in the life of the Catholic Church since Vatican II. The official organizers, however, sought to rein in expectations, perhaps because the Synod has deliberately been structured to put the “nice” stuff first – conversation, listening, mutual respect – reserving the harder sayings for next October’s meeting. Then again, several of the officially selected speakers suggested, as one of them put it, “When we reach the consensus that the Church is constitutively synodal, we will have to rethink the whole Church, all the institutions, the whole life of the Church in a synodal sense.”

If that were to happen, it still wouldn’t necessarily be the greatest Catholic event since Vatican II. For that honor, I’d nominate the election of John Paul II and the way that changed both the Church and the course of world history. But the Synod might well be the most ambitiously radical event – and, at the same time, the most utterly wearying.

My family tells me I have a higher-than-average tolerance of pain, for good, but also for bad (I sometimes wait too long to deal with problems.) But I confess that – whether radical, or the “greatest event since Vatican II” – I left the Synod early last Friday. I’d had enough and went home. Saw nothing much was about to happen. Felt totally exhausted by the sheer dreariness of a month-long conversation that could have been done in less than a week. Several bishops I spoke with in Rome confessed to feeling the same.   

Prior to this Synod, I never dreamed that I would say this, but even the controversies and attempted infidelities, the rigging and manipulations, of the previous synods in the Francis era were more varied, interesting, and substantial than this one. You can meet one line of reasoning with another, and Deo volente, maybe reach something like a portion of the truth. With this one, you wandered in a fog that, for all its strict structuring and regimented march through various modules and discussions, seemed to go nowhere. 

And to judge from the final document, released late Saturday in Rome, the appearance was very close to the reality.

The only “news” for those hoping for the usual litany of changes – on LGBTs, women, married priests, etc. – was that there was no news, except the failure of the false expectations that the Synod had, intentionally or not, created.

Just some samples from the usual suspects:

The Washington Post: “The document failed to even mention the phrase ‘LGBTQ+,’ as used in preliminary materials.”

The New York Times: “Progressives who once hoped that the synod would create momentum for things like reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q.+ Catholics said the meeting had failed to move the institution.”

The Wall Street Journal: “Vatican Synod Report Plays Down LGBTQ Issues, Disappointing Progressives – Official report calls for more research on the possibility of ordaining women deacons.” [Emphases added]


Ah, yes, “played down,” more “research” needed, things “failed to move.” In the progressives’ perspective, the Holy Spirit (aka the God of Surprises) delivered the wrong surprise.

Some more hopeful progressive voices characterized all this as a “postponement,” which it may very well be, but only in a quite specific sense. Because the Vatican spokesman Paolo Ruffini has confirmed that the same delegates will return next October to continue the synodal discernment process. 

If that process is conducted fairly, it’s difficult to see how this same group will provide any greater satisfaction to those whose expectations have been raised by this confused “walking together.”   

It’s not just the participants who are confused. At this late date, they’re still calling for further clarification of what “synodality” means. In recent weeks, for example, Pope Francis has denied that same-sex unions can be blessed, but also encourages priests to find ways to bless homosexual couples if, in individual cases, it can be done without giving the impression that it’s the equivalence of marriage. He’s also said that the ministerial priesthood is only for men – and that this is not an injustice toward women – but also that the question of women deacons can be studied (again).

It’s no wonder that Left Catholicism, as represented by outlets like the National Catholic Reporter, are left open-mouthed: “Pope Francis’ high-stakes summit on the future of the Catholic Church concluded on Oct. 28 by postponing action on the possibility of ordaining women as deacons and failing to acknowledge deep tensions that surfaced in a month of debates over how the global institution should care for its LGBTQ members.”  [Emphases added.]

The event was, indeed, “high-stakes” for some groups, and for the pope himself since he’s invested so much in a “synodality” that has left God’s Faithful People even more confused, more divided, more angry.

New Ways Ministry, whose cofounder Sister Jeannine Gramick had a smile-filled meeting recently with the pope, opined that the synod report “disappoints by simply reaffirming the hierarchy’s status quo.” 

Pope Francis, of course, can do whatever he wants with these interim results, or with next October’s final gathering. Changing the “status of the hierarchy” still seems to be the Great White Whale of the synod-intoxicated. As one of the theological experts told the synodal participants last week, “I can assure you, once the firm foundation of the synodal life is laid – I repeat – once the firm foundation of the synodal way of life is laid, those things [the hot-button issues] can be built up on that.”

In the meantime, over the next year the average Catholic might do well to keep in mind the words of that wise old fellow, G. K. Chesterton: “Men will walk along the edge of a chasm in clear weather, but they will edge miles away from it in a fog. . . .One can meet an assertion with argument; but healthy bigotry is the only way in which one can meet a tendency. . . . Against this there is no weapon at all except a rigid and steely sanity, a resolution not to listen to fads, and not to be infected by diseases.”

*Image: Interior of Saint Peter’s, Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini, after c. 1754 [The Met, New York]

You may also enjoy:

Russell Shaw’s On the Matter of Synods

Stephen P. White’s A Synod of Shattered Expectations

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.