Published October 2, 2023
A Note from the Editor
During Synod-2014, the first of two such international meetings to discuss the Catholic Church’s response to the crisis of the 21st-century family, Cardinal George Pell expressed grave concern about the performance of the Vatican Press Office and suggested that alternatives to the official spin would be important when the second Synod on the family met a year later. Thus these Letters from the Synod were born at Synod-2015 and have continued at subsequent Synods. Their aim is to offer to a global readership an example of what our predecessor, the original “Xavier Rynne,” writing during Vatican II, described as theological journalism.
The goal has been to inform, not titillate. So, over the next four weeks, Letters from the Synod—2023 will explore the deeper issues involved in the Catholic Church’s current experiment in “synodality.” Concurrently, Letters will provide a forum in which Catholics from different states of life in the Church an opportunity to address those gathered here in Rome under the rubric, “What I Would Say to the Synod”—an opportunity that will also be afforded to some who, while not Catholic, understand the Catholic Church’s importance at this moment in history.
We hope, in this way, to provide a service to a Church of “communion, participation, and mission,” always keeping in mind that this is Christ’s Church, not ours, and that it is the Risen Lord Jesus who must always be at the center of the Church’s proclamation and witness. Writing recently on the Jesuit-sponsored America website, a young Catholic claimed that “our Church is just that: ours.” Well, no, it isn’t. Such claims tend to empty the Church of its supernatural character as the “earthen vessel” (2 Corinthians 4:7) of God’s grace at work in the world, for the world’s salvation. Letters from the Synod—2023 will always keep that basic Christian truth in mind. Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat.
Xavier Rynne II
What, Exactly, is this “Synod”?
The Annuario Pontificio, the Holy See’s yearbook, is one of the most important Vatican publications, including detailed information on the officials of the Holy See and the Roman Curia, on the membership of the College of Cardinals, on the global episcopate, and on every diocese and religious institute in the world. The 2023 edition clocks in at a hefty 2,278 pages, within which is a wealth of data on institutional Catholicism, the world’s largest and most complex religious body.
Because the Annuario is an official publication, produced by the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, nothing in it appears accidentally. And so alert readers of the signs of the times (Vatican subdivision) understood that something of potential consequence was afoot when, on p. 1,058 of the 2023 Annuario, what had been identified for decades by the title Sinodo dei Vescovi (Synodus Episcoporum)—the “Synod of Bishops,” in the yearbook’s standard Italian/Latin—was transformed into the Segreteria Generale del Sinodo (Secreteria Generalis Synodi), reflecting the change in nomenclature in Pope Francis’s 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, which restructured the Roman Curia. What had once been an episcopal body—the Synod of Bishops—seemed to have become a bureaucratic entity: a General Secretariat. But a General Secretariat of what? Well, of “the Synod” (indexed as such, “Sinodo,” on p. 2,272 of the Annuario). But the Synod of what?
Matters were not clarified by the recent publication of certain critical materials produced by the Synod’s General Secretariat. The Instrumentum Laboris (working document) for Synod-2023 carried the banner headline, “XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” while the “Informational Sheet” on Synod-2023’s schedule and methodology referred to the “XVI General Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.” This latter document was distributed to all of Synod-2023’s official participants, which include about a hundred lower-order clergy, religious women, and laity in addition to more than 270 bishops (and five dozen “facilitators” of the Synod’s small-group discussions, none of whom is a bishop).
In what sense, then, is Synod-2023 a “Synod of Bishops,” the Instrumentum Laboris and the Informational Sheet notwithstanding? What did the Instrumentum Laboris mean when it referred to “. . . the Synod . . . in which the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will take place”? Is Synod-2023 a kind of synodal sandwich, with a Synod of Bishops taking place within “the Synod”?
Whatever all of this may mean, it seems rather different than what Pope Paul VI had in mind when, on September 15, 1965, he issued the apostolic letter Apostolica Sollicitudo, “establishing the Synod of Bishops for the Universal Church” as an expression of the collegiality of the world episcopate defined by the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, one of the Second Vatican Council’s foundational texts.
Nor does the Synod-2023 hybrid seem to be what is envisioned in the Code of Canon Law, where Canon 342.1 offers a precise definition: “The Synod of Bishops is a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops.” True, Canon 346.1 envisions members of “clerical religious institutes” as members of a Synod. And, of course, the pope can, as he chooses, designate other members of a Synod, including lay members (as Pope Francis further stipulated in his 2018 apostolic constitution, Episcopalis Communio). But it is not at all clear how a Synod demographically configured like Synod-2023 is an exercise in “episcopal communion” (the title of Francis’s apostolic constitution), unless, as just suggested, there is a “Synod of Bishops” which functions somehow as the inner core of “the Synod.”
Nor does this form of “Synod” seem to have much to do with the synodal governance of either the Eastern Catholic Churches or the Orthodox Churches of the Christian East. In the run-up to Synod-2023, it was said more than once, and not least by the pope himself, that the Catholic Church was recovering a lost element of itself by rediscovering a “synodality” that Eastern Christianity had never lost. But the “synodality” on display on the earlier local, national, and continental phases of this multi-year “Synod on Synodality”—and that will be on display this month in Rome in what some have whimsically described as the Synod on Synodality’s “planetary phase”—does not seem akin to synodal church governance on the Eastern Christian model.
Thus Bishop Manuel Nin, Byzantine Catholic apostolic exarch in Greece and a member of Synod-2023 by papal appointment, told the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin that if “synodality” is understood as a way of being the Church in which “everyone, lay and clerical, act(s) together in order to arrive at some ecclesiastical, doctrinal, canonical, (or) disciplinary decision, whatever it may be, it becomes clear that such synodality does not exist in the East.” For the synodal experience of the Eastern Churches is “associated with the exercise of authority, pastoral ministry, service within the Christian Churches, which talks place in the assembly of bishops belonging to a particular Church and headed by a patriarch, archbishop or metropolitan.”
It might be suggested, then, that one of the most important tasks of Synod-2023 will be the clarification of its own specific character and authority—which would in turn help clarify just what is meant by those chameleon-like terms “synodality” and “synodal Church.” For absent such clarity, those usages risk becoming cover for a variety of ideologically-driven agendas.
On the morning of October 2, a group of cardinals, one from each continent, released five dubia, or questions, which they had sent to Pope Francis on August 21 and to which they had not received a reply. The dubia were made public because the authors—Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Robert Sarah, and Joseph Zen, SDB—believe that, in these questions, they have identified some of the key issues of doctrine and pastoral practice that have arisen along German Catholicism’s “Synodal Way” and in the two years of discussions leading up to Synod-2023: issues of which the entire Church should be aware. We publish the dubia here in the spirit of parrhesia—frank discussion—to which the Holy Father has called the Church, and in the hope that the discussion the dubia are intended to deepen throughout the world Church will be of assistance to Synod-2023 as it begins its work on October 4.
(Clarification: The dubia below are those submitted to Pope Francis on July 11, 2023. These dubia were then reformulated in a simpler form by the five cardinal-signatories in a letter to the pope of August 21. That letter, which has received no response, was sent by the cardinal-signatories after receipt of what they regarded as an inadequate papal reply to the original dubia. The original dubia were then appended to a letter to the faithful from the cardinal-signatories, released on October 2 to foster a more thorough discussion of the profound issues confronting Synod-2023—which is our goal in publishing them here. For further information, see here and here.)
Xavier Rynne II
- Dubium about the claim that we should reinterpret Divine Revelation according to the cultural and anthropological changes in vogue.
After the statements of some bishops, which have been neither corrected nor retracted, it is asked whether in the Church Divine Revelation should be reinterpreted according to the cultural changes of our time and according to the new anthropological vision that these changes promote; or whether Divine Revelation is binding forever, immutable, and therefore not to be contradicted, according to the dictum of the Second Vatican Council, that to God who reveals is due “the obedience of faith” (Dei Verbum 5); that what is revealed for the salvation of all must remain “in [its] entirety, throughout the ages” and alive, and be “transmitted to all generations” (7); and that the progress of understanding does not imply any change in the truth of things and words, because faith has been “handed on . . . once and for all” (8), and the Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but teaches only what has been handed on (10).
- Dubium about the claim that the widespread practice of the blessing of same-sex unions would be in accord with Revelation and the Magisterium (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2357).
According to Divine Revelation, confirmed in Sacred Scripture, which the Church “at the divine command with the help of the Holy Spirit . . . listens to devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully ” (Dei Verbum 10): “In the beginning” God created man in his own image, male and female he created them and blessed them, that they might be fruitful (cf. Genesis 1, 27-28), whereby the Apostle Paul teaches that to deny sexual difference is the consequence of the denial of the Creator (Romans 1, 24-32). It is asked: Can the Church derogate from this “principle,” considering it, contrary to what Veritatis Splendor 103 taught, as a mere ideal, and accepting as a “possible good” objectively sinful situations, such as same-sex unions, without betraying revealed doctrine?
- Dubium about the assertion that synodality is a “constitutive element of the Church” (Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio 6), so that the Church would, by its very nature, be synodal.
Given that the Synod of Bishops does not represent the College of Bishops but is merely a consultative organ of the pope, since the Bishops, as witnesses of the faith, cannot delegate their confession of the truth, it is asked whether synodality can be the supreme regulative criterion of the permanent government of the Church without distorting her constitutive order willed by her Founder, whereby the supreme and full authority of the Church is exercised both by the Pope by virtue of his office and by the College of Bishops together with its head the Roman Pontiff (Lumen Gentium 22).
- Dubium about pastors’ and theologians’ support for the theory that “the theology of the Church has changed” and therefore that priestly ordination can be conferred on women.
After the statements of some prelates, which have been neither corrected nor retracted, according to which, with Vatican II, the theology of the Church and the meaning of the Mass has changed, it is asked whether the dictum of the Second Vatican Council is still valid, that “[the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood] differ essentially and not only in degree” (Lumen Gentium 10) and that presbyters by virtue of the “sacred power of Order, that of offering sacrifice and forgiving sins” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 2), act in the name and in the person of Christ the Mediator, through Whom the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect. It is furthermore asked whether the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which teaches as a truth to be definitively held the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women, is still valid, so that this teaching is no longer subject to change nor to the free discussion of pastors or theologians.
- Dubium about the statement “forgiveness is a human right” and the Holy Father’s insistence on the duty to absolve everyone and always, so that repentance would not be a necessary condition for sacramental absolution.
It is asked whether the teaching of the Council of Trent, according to which the contrition of the penitent, which consists in detesting the sin committed with the intention of sinning no more (Session XIV, Chapter IV: Denzinger Hünermann 1676), is necessary for the validity of sacramental confession, is still in force, so that the priest must postpone absolution when it is clear that this condition is not fulfilled.
What I Would Say to the Synod
Monsignor Michael Nazir-Ali was born in Pakistan in 1949. He was the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion when, in 1984, he became Bishop of Raiwind in his native country. After coming to England because of threats on his life, he worked in several ministries and then served as Bishop of Rochester (the former see of St. John Fisher) from 1994 until 2009. In addition to degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, Dr. Nazir-Ali holds a doctorate in theology and was awarded a Lambeth DD in 2005.
In 2021, Michael Nazir-Ali entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham by Cardinal Vincent Nichols in 2022, in which year he was also named a Prelate of Honor of His Holiness by Pope Francis.
Msgr. Nazir-Ali has decades of experience with synodal processes and their effects in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. When Letters from the Synod-2023 asked him for an essay outlining what he would say to those gathered in Rome this month, he suggested that the remarks he made at the annual meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences on October 28, 2022, would fit the bill. A summary of the key points in those remarks, provided by Dr. Nazir-Ali and lightly edited for continuity of style, follows.
Xavier Rynne II
It is Christ who makes the Church, who renews the Church and reforms the Church. In Ephesians we are told that “Christ fills his Church with all his fullness (pleroma).” In Colossians, we are told of “Christ who is in us, the hope of glory.” At the same time, it is characteristic of St. Paul to say that “we are in Christ” (the En Christo formula).
. . . this being in Christ, and Christ in us, has to do with us personally. But it also has to do with the Church, with our standing as God’s people in the Church. We are in Christ grafted as a branch onto the vine, and Christ is in us, feeding, making, and renewing us. This . . . happens in the Church through the transmission of the Apostolic Tradition: how it is transmitted from generation to generation, culture to culture, person to person. It may be done well or badly, wholly or in part, but it is going on. People receive this Tradition (paradosis), and sometimes people notice particular elements in it, for example, God’s liberation of people in the Exodus. It is no surprise that this trajectory is noticed by the enslaved and oppressed and is widely expressed, for example, in the African American tradition. William Temple used to say that the definitive commentary on St. John’s Gospel will come from India, where their philosophical tradition will help them notice things others do not notice. Pope St. John Paul II spoke about the “feminine genius” and the perspective of how women read the Bible from which men can learn. (Perhaps, they could also learn from men how to read the Bible!)
How, then, does then does this Tradition engage with change, with new issues and new questions . . . even if not all claims to new knowledge are true?
John Henry Newman’s views on the development of doctrine are crucial for us. . . . You know these things, but just to remind you: in this process of development, of engaging with the new, the Gospel at all costs must remain and must be conserved in all its fullness. Creation, redemption, and reconciliation with the One from whom we have become alienated: these aspects of the Good News can never be compromised. And so the engagement with what is new must have a conservative action on the past. That is why in documents of the Church there is a constant reference back to the councils of the Church, the writings of the Fathers, and papal encyclicals and exhortations—the past can give us resources for the present and the future.
Then we have continuity of principles. For example, the Church has always been opposed to the killing of children—infanticide—and is committed to the principle of the sacredness of the human person at every stage of life. We grapple with this in the new issues surrounding abortion-on-demand and experimentation on the human embryo. The principle remains the same as we engage with the new. This also affects how we deal with end-of-life issues, with so-called “assisted dying” or euthanasia, whether voluntary or involuntary.
Finally . . . in making decisions today, we must be aware of their consequences for the future. There can be a slippery slope. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the 1967 (liberalized) abortion law was passed for exceptionally hard case cases. Now it has become a free-for-all, with even the possibility of “do it yourself” abortion at home! Likewise, the promotion of euthanasia or assisted suicide started with the very hard cases of those with terminal illness and unbearable pain; now, parts of Europe are euthanizing children who are depressed. . . .
Once this engagement with the new happens, how do we know that we are remaining faithful to apostolic teaching? The Vincentian Canon states the principle of universality: semper, ubique, et ab omnibus—what has been believed always by everyone and everywhere. This is a reasonable way of asking about fidelity to the Apostolic Teaching. However, at one time, nearly the whole Church had become Arian and Athanasius, contra mundum, was left almost alone in defending orthodoxy in the East. So universality alone cannot be a sufficient criterion.
Some people say the Bible must be the standard. Now the Bible is not other than the Apostolic Tradition. The Bible stands within the stream of Apostolic Tradition, but it is once-for-all and unchangeable. As Dei Verbum (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) teaches, it is that by which the Church orders the whole of her life. Scripture does not contradict Apostolic Tradition, and Apostolic Tradition does not contradict Scripture but interprets it and is its living manifestation in the Church.
This is why the study of the Scriptures is primary in the Church’s work. Scholars look behind the text of the Scripture, for example, to see what the oral traditions were of the narrative that we find in its finished form. Experts examine and compare manuscripts and ancient translations to establish a critical text of the Scripture. Commentaries give us the background, the intention of the writers and present-day application of the truths of the books of the Bible. All of this is most important. But scholars don’t have the last word. Having taken account of scholarship and the history of a text’s interpretation, the Church, by means of the teaching authority entrusted to it, has the last word as to what the text means.
The whole of revelation must be related to culture and context. When Christians do this, they do it as a people who embody this revelation in their engagement with culture and context. By culture, I mean the habits, customs, worldviews, and values of a people. By context, I mean their socio-economic situation. Lamin Sanneh, the Gambian Catholic theologian, who came from a Muslim background, held that Christian revelation is completely translatable into every culture. He used to compare this with Islam, which is also a universal and missionary religion, but in which there is a kind of residual “Arabicness” in its every manifestation. This is not true of Christianity. There is no sacred language in Christianity. There are the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek but no sacred language as such. The New Testament was originally written in Greek, even though the language of Jesus was Aramaic. So we have translation to begin with! The New Testament was translated into Aramaic/Syriac nearly a hundred years after some of its books had been written. So the tasks of inculturation are continuing ones, as the Church meets cultures with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as preached and lived by the Church.
Are there any limits to inculturation?
Pope St. John Paul II, in his encyclical on the continuing missionary mandate of the Church, Redemptoris Missio, speaks of two limits. The first is the nature of the Gospel itself: no authentic inculturation can compromise the Gospel core of creation, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and eschatology. The second limit is that inculturation has to be such that you and I can recognise the same faith in one another. In Pakistan, inculturation tends to be in forms familiar to Islam, in language, in simplicity of style, and in forms of devotion. Across the border in India, you have flowers, music, color, art, etc., used as a matter of course in divine worship. Will Pakistani Christians have difficulty in recognizing Christianity in India and vice versa? This should not be allowed to happen.
Some speak of criteria for inculturation, rather than limits: how the mind of Christ relates to culture and context, how it is transmitted to a culture and context, making the Gospel intelligible, inspiring and informing people as to how the Gospel enables us to live a new life in Christ. Authentic inculturation points to a unity in diversity. But such diversity cannot be sheer diversity. The diversity must serve the unity and the unity the diversity. In other words, the diversity has to be legitimate: it feeds the unity and does not detract from it.
The Catholic Church has been very fortunate, under God’s providence, to maintain the whole deposit of faith. This is not to be taken lightly; it is very important to give it our full attention. And the Catholic Church has not only maintained the sacred deposit of faith, of which Scripture is a norm, but also the sacred ministry. . . . The Church is the servant of the Word and not its master. These two aspects must be kept together. The laying on of hands is not just mechanical. It is the transmission of the whole of the Apostolic Tradition which must be proclaimed, safeguarded, engaged with culture and context, and passed on.
Coming now to synodality: How does the sacred ministry engage with the sacred deposit in a changing world while involving the whole People of God? In the question of synodality, or walking together in the way, the first requirement must be about worshipping together, praying together. If the Church is not a praying Church, it will not be an authentically synodal Church. In particular, we should be able to celebrate the Eucharist together, in its remembering, recalling, proclaiming, and feeding. Synodality is not only about activism. It is about participating in Christ’s body and blood, which has been given from the very beginning and which makes and renews the Church. Here, preeminently, the sacred ministry is related to the sacred deposit (of faith), as the former makes available the latter.
Synodality is also about consulting. But in this consultation, we have to be quite careful about what we are doing. Those who are being consulted also need to be catechized, perhaps even evangelized. If not, the consultation will simply be a reflection of the surrounding culture. The ecclesial dimension of the consultation has to be maintained , its ecclesiality has to be respected. Thus the consultation must prioritize the natural manifestations of the Church in the family, the parish, the diocese, and the episcopal conferences. Consulting with the people is different from coming under pressure from “activist” groups. We must make sure that the consultation is of a theologically educated priesthood and catechized laity.
Thirdly, the sensus fidelium is not just what the laity and priesthood may think at any one time. It has to be informed by what the Apostolic Tradition always has taught and it must articulate the mind of the Church throughout the ages, as well as the mind of the Church around the world today. The sensus fidelium has to have both a synchronic (the time in which we live) and diachronic (across the ages) aspect. Both need to be kept together if we are to have a rounded sense of the sensus fidelium. Finally, in its definitive form, the sensus fidelium must be articulated by those who have authority to teach.
Synodality also has to do with discipline in the Church: with saying, in the end, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Exclusion, whether from the Eucharistic life of the Church, or from exercise of ministry, cannot be merely punitive; it always has been and must be for the sake of restoration and restitution.
As to decision-making, we cannot just consult. A time comes for making decisions. Something has to be said finally about many issues: priesthood, marriage, family, the dignity of the person, the stewardship of creation, etc.
The pattern of an authentic council is to be found in Acts 15. The missionaries come back, and they say that the Gentiles are coming to faith. The apostles and presbyters come together and decide what must happen. They then associate the whole Church with how the message is to be communicated and who is to do it. Some decide what to say; others are consulted about how the message is be sent, and who to send. We can call this “differentiated synodality.”
Bishops gathered together have a particular charism to express the faith of the Church and its moral teaching. The Bishop of Rome, with the college of bishops, has a particular service to declare what the whole Church must believe and do. This was seen, for example, in the Council of Chalcedon, which was deadlocked on the question of the nature of Christ; then Leo the Great’s teaching, in the form of his Tome, arrived and broke the deadlock. Here we see differentiated conciliarity, the bishops together with the Bishop of Rome, assisted by clergy and laity, fulfilling their allotted tasks.
When the bishops meet in Rome [in October 2023], they will have to make some decisions regarding the issues we are facing. Once again, the bishops will have to say that certain things are excluded. Not everything the people want will be given. This has to be handled sensitively from the beginning, so that false expectations are not raised.
. . . Don’t put all your faith in structures. The Church is renewed by movements of faith and a deeper experience of God. By moving out to the desert, the monastic tradition renewed the whole Church. In the Middle Ages, the parish clergy often could not preach; so when the Franciscans and Dominicans arrived they were so popular because they preached outside when they could not preach in the churches. And in this way the Church was renewed.
The modern missionary movement is often criticized for its paternalism and feelings of cultural superiority, but we cannot forget the sacrifices that were made for the sake of planting the Church in so many parts of Asia, as the missionaries’ predecessors had done since the time of the Apostles. We are the beneficiaries of these movements of faith and of the Spirit.
Of course, we need good structures. But renewal comes with allowing the Holy Spirit to bring newness among the people. Such renewal can then also bring reform and renewal of the structures so that they serve the mission of the Church.