Letters from the Synod—2023: #12

Published October 27, 2023

First Things

The Synod’s “Letter to the People of God” and Related Matters

The Letter of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to the People of Godis a treacly Hallmark card that would give Karine Jean-Pierre and the White House Press Office a run for their money in the spin-control sweepstakes. Taking the Letter at face value, one might think that Synod-2023 has been a profound spiritual experience, almost a new Pentecost, for everyone involved. In fact, many—including some of the Catholic Church’s finest minds and most evangelically effective bishops—have experienced it as an exercise in manipulation and infantilization (their terms, not mine). When the Te Deum is sung tomorrow afternoon at the end of the formal proceedings, many will feel a sense of relief that it’s all over—and a sense of dread about going through a similar exercise next October, when the second assembly of this Synod on Synodality convenes. 

Good things have happened here over the past month, to be sure. There has been a revitalizing, hope-filled, and happy experience of the universality of the Church and the solidarity that exists among those committed to the Lord, the Gospel, the authentic interpretation of Vatican II by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the New Evangelization. Friendships have been made that will be sustained throughout this year, and various networks of dynamic orthodoxy will get further linked in preparation for Synod-2024. We have celebrated together, at daily Mass and in the Divine Office, that “great . . . cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that includes Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II, the North American Martyrs, the Little Flower, the evangelist Luke, the mystics Margaret Mary Alacoque and Faustina Kowalska, and the apostles Simon and Jude. For the past two weeks, we have heard in the Liturgy of the Word, here in Rome, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which is always a moving experience. There have been moments of bravery in the Synod’s general congregations, small group discussions, and press conferences, just as there has been an experience of fellowship and support among many of us writing and broadcasting and blogging about Synod-2023.

But the good news is not all the news there is. 

The Danger of “Conversation in the Spirit”

The Letter to the People of God predictably included an enthusiastic endorsement of the Synod’s primary methodology: “Using the Conversation in the Spirit method, we have humbly shared the wealth and poverty of our communities from every continent, seeking to discern what the Holy Spirit wants to say to the Church today.” This is, frankly, nonsense on stilts.

To begin with, the composition of the discussion groups that were guided by this method (or frog-marched, in some instances) was changed regularly. Was this to prevent coalitions of opposition to the Synod general secretariat’s plans for the Synod’s outcome (signaled in its Instrumentum Laboris or Working Document) from coalescing? Whatever the intention, the shifting dramatis personae of the discussion groups precluded the members of any group from getting to know each other well, thus enabling them to speak freely, and even in criticism, of what they were hearing. 

Then there were the limitations placed on the length of interventions in the small groups: limits rigorously monitored by a facilitator with a timer, to the point where one participant said that he felt like an egg being soft-boiled. Logorrhea was a serious problem at previous synods. But it is simply absurd to expect an experienced bishop in a complex pastoral/historical/ecumenical situation to discuss the challenges facing his local Church in four minutes: absurd and insulting. 

But neither serious intellectual engagement with serious issues, nor frank debate about them, is what this methodology promotes: rather, the emphasis is on “what you feel” rather than “what you think,” and on listening rather than engaging. The (obviously false) premise here is that all feelings are worthy ones and that all opinions on matters doctrinal, theological, and pastoral are equal. They aren’t, however. Some feelings bespeak spiritual, even psychological, distress, not Christian maturity. Some opinions are ill-informed. Others are just plain wrong. The biblically grounded notion that some in the Church are teachers and should be respected as such (cf. Ephesians 4:11) is strikingly absent from this methodology. 

Moreover, reporting on the small-group discussions to the whole synodal assembly was discursive, not analytical: “This is what was said,” not “This is what was said that gained consensus” or “This is what was said that made sense.” The synthesis document that will come out of this first synodal assembly will thus be a mélange of what-was-felt and what-was-said, not a reflection of any consensus reached after deep reflection and crisp debate among people with the competence to make serious judgments about the teaching and practice of the Church.

The constant, wholly unwarranted, but clearly deliberate celebration of this “Conversation in the Spirit” method coming from the Synod general secretariat and its journalistic mouthpieces suggests that the method—which also flattens out the divinely-mandated hierarchical structure of the Church as taught by Vatican II in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentiumis likely to be recommended to the whole Church as the approved method of consultation and decision-making at every level of Catholic life, from the parish on up. This is a prescription for chaos leading to doctrinal and pastoral incoherence. Yet one even hears concerns—and not from the Catholic lunatic fringe—that such a method could be imposed on a future papal conclave.

Thus one of the tasks in the year ahead will be for bishops’ conferences and others to register with the Synod general secretariat the concerns they have about this method. At the same time, concerns should be raised about the thoroughly skewed way in which the speakers who framed every segment or “module” of the Synod’s discussion were chosen, and about the way the speakers at the Synod’s general congregations were recognized and given the microphone. In both these instances, more than one Synod participant was reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which, it will be remembered, it became clear over time that “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”


The Synod roster included dozens of “experts,” and it seems likely that a similar cadre of carefully-chosen “experts” will be present at Synod-2024. That the “experts” seemed rather monochromatic in their theological perspective was probably to be expected. As in the selection of non-elected appointees to the Synod, the Synod’s managers, having failed to get what they wanted from Synod-2015, Synod-2018, and the Amazonian Synod in 2019, weren’t taking chances this time. What was perhaps not so much expected was how some of these “experts” spent time lobbying Synod participants on various agendas. One in particular kept trying to sell the false bill of goods that the U.S. bishops are deeply divided: which is simply not true, except in the sense that a fraction of the American episcopate (including those who never win elections to anything, including synods) is out of step with the overwhelming majority. In light of this experience, it would be useful for bishops’ conferences to press the Synod general secretariat for the appointment of experts to Synod-2024 who reflect the theological perspectives that animate the living parts of the world Church. The result of such interventions may be negligible, but the effort should be made so that the process of stacking-the-expert-deck can be challenged publicly next October. 

The Jubilee Year of 2025 will include a celebration of the 1700th anniversary of the first ecumenical council, Nicaea I, which wrote the Creed the Church affirms at Mass on Sundays and liturgical solemnities. It might be remembered that the most notable “expert” at Nicaea I was the Cyrenaic theologian and heresiarch Arius, whose teaching continued to divide the Church for centuries after that first ecumenical council affirmed the divinity of Christ. 

An Opportunity Missed

The Letter to the People of God laments the fact that “war rages” in many parts of the world. But the Letter fails to acknowledge that these wars did not just happen but are the results of genocidal aggression (Russian) and genocidal terrorism (Hamas and other Islamist maniacs). Perhaps even worse, at a historical moment when the cry “Kill the Jews!” has escaped the circle of Hell in which it might be thought to have been consigned, the Letter, which notes the importance of ecumenical and interreligious inputs into the synodal process, does not forthrightly condemn today’s foul wave of anti-Semitism and express the Church’s solidarity with the Jewish people. 

This was a two-fold opportunity missed: first, the opportunity to reach out to those “older brothers” in faith (as John Paul II described our Jewish brethren) who have been traumatized in recent weeks; and second, the opportunity to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s understanding that the Jewish People and the people of the New Covenant are both subjects of divine revelation, which links us in a bond that Catholics do not share with other world religions or belief systems. 


According to the Letter to the People of God, the Synod heard the “cries of the earth.” This is Gaia-speak, and it should stop. Catholicism is not pantheistic, and any sense that the planet “speaks” is a woke diversion from serious consideration of environmental issues. Unfortunately, this language was also heard in some “Conversations in the Spirit.”

Attending to the Victims of Sexual Abuse

No one should doubt that the grave sins and crimes of clerical sexual abuse continue to be a significant obstacle to the New Evangelization, as do the failures of some Church authorities to get to grips with this crisis. Thus the Letter to the People of God rightly calls the Church to listen (as the Church in the U.S. has done) “to those who have been victims of abuse.” But how, one must ask, will this call sound to the victims of Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, who, having been dismissed from the Society of Jesus, has now been incardinated in the Diocese of Koper in Slovenia? The innumerable curiosities (to put it gently) of this tawdry and scandalous affair and its handling by the Diocese of Rome and its bishop are neatly summarized here.

The Pope and the Synod

Many pre-Synod commentaries described this two-stage Synod on Synodality as the “signature” initiative of the present pontificate, and the rather brief synodal Letter to the People of God manages to cite Pope Francis seven times. Yet the pope, the Synod’s president, has been largely absent from the Synod’s sessions, although during this month he has found time to meet with pro-abortion activist and actress Whoopi Goldberg (who gave him some souvenirs from Sister Act and told the pontiff that she was trying to “bring the nuns into the 21st century”) and with an LGBTQ ministry/lobby that the U.S. bishops formally declared not to be Catholic. At one of the Synod’s last general congregations, though, the pope (during whose pontificate vocations to the priesthood have fallen dramatically in the United States and elsewhere) offered a few gratuitous insults to today’s seminarians. It is unclear what the point of all this may be, but it is hard to see in it an effective exercise of the Petrine ministry of confirming the brethren in faith (cf. Luke 22:32). 

The Long Game?

Some weeks before the Synod convened, a bishop with a good knowledge of the cast of mind in the Synod general secretariat expressed the concern that, beneath the “hot button” issues on which the world media was fixated, the deep game being played at Synod-2023 was ecclesiological: to begin a Long March toward a fundamental alteration in the governance structure of the Church, out of which would come, eventually, the changes desired by progressives in Catholic doctrine and pastoral practice. As has been noted in this space before, this was the tack taken within the Church of England, where it led to doctrinal incoherence, pastoral lassitude, moral corruption, and the breakdown of ecclesial communion within Anglicanism. In brief, the long game was to reconfigure the Church as a strange new kind of congregationalist polity, in which the formal structure of governance by bishops would be retained, but the effective exercise of governance by bishops would be eviscerated by endless processes of “dialogue” and “discernment” leading to “consensus”—a consensus that would almost certainly reflect the ambient public culture rather than the Gospel. No one who has experienced the “Conversation in the Spirit” methodology, or heard about its actual functioning from those put through that particular wringer, could now dismiss this as an unwarranted concern about the Catholic future. 

That concern has intersected, in a bizarre way, with another, which raised its ugly head in Pope Francis’s 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), which reconfigured the Roman Curia in such a way that lay men and women could conceivably lead curial dicasteries. This change was influenced in no small part by the Jesuit canonist, Gianfranco Ghirlanda, now a cardinal. For decades now, Ghirlanda has been beating the drum for separating governance authority in the Church from Holy Orders, and particularly from the fullness of Orders in the episcopate. Governance authority, Ghirlanda seems to argue, comes from papal appointment, period. 

If I understand Ghirlanda correctly, his theory contradicts the teaching of Vatican II on the nature of the office of bishop while concurrently turning the Church into a papal autocracy of the sort that might make the most tyrannical tsar blush. Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, clearly teaches that the munus regendi, the authority to govern, is conferred by valid sacramental ordination to the episcopacy. Communion with the Bishop of Rome is necessary to exercise that authority licitly (say, in a diocese), but the authority is sacramental, not a mere matter of rescript from the papal tsar, and the sacramental character of the authority is its foundation. 

During a break in the August 2022 conversations among cardinals that followed that month’s consistory, Cardinal George Pell asked Gianfranco Ghirlanda whether his theory, as embodied in Praedicate Evangelium, meant that a lay woman (or lay man, for that matter) could one day be prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith or even prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops. Oh no, the newly-confected Cardinal Ghirlanda replied, that would never happen. To which Cardinal Pell replied, “The question is not whether it could happen. The question is whether it can happen.”

Thus the ecclesiological confusions of the moment (reminiscent of Father Antonio Spadaro’s famous declaration that “2 + 2 can make 5 in theology”) raise a question: Do de facto congregationalism + papal autocracy = “synodality”? At either end of that equation, it is the bishops—whose rightful authority in the Church, as individuals and as a College, Vatican II sought to restore—are the losers. This serious divergence from the authoritative teaching of the Second Vatican Council will need to be addressed between now and Synod-2024.

Christ and the Kingdom

I mentioned a moment ago the satisfactions of hearing the Letter to the Romans read, here in Rome, during Holy Mass. Over and over again in that greatest of Pauline theological treatises, the apostle insists on the irreducible and fundamental truth of the basic Christian kerygma: salvation from sin and death, which is the consequence of sin, comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and faith in him alone. Yesterday, the gospel passage that followed Paul’s instruction included Luke 12:49, where Jesus says, “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” 

The Letter of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to the People of God ends with the affirmation that Jesus is “our only hope!” True enough. But what “Jesus” has been met here at Synod-2023? The Christ who seems less the incarnate Son of God who came to cast fire on the earth than a Galilean practitioner of Carl Rogers’s humanistic psychology? Or the Christ-in-full of the Scriptures and the Catholic tradition, who is both demanding teacher and gentle shepherd, and who begins his public ministry with the frank call to acknowledge our need for forgiveness and a radical change of heart: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14–15). 

The basic sociological fact of Christianity and modernity in the late-modern and post-modern worlds is that the Christian communities that have offered the Rogerian Christ are moribund or dying, while the Christian communities that have proposed Christ in full are living, vibrant, and making a difference in their societies. Synod-2023 never got to grips with that fact, and neither has the present pontificate, in which those who preach Christ in full are too often deplored as rigid and backward-looking. It would be helpful in going forward, then, if the focus of the “synodal process” would shift to a close, careful examination of the living parts of the world Church—and an analysis of why there is life in Christ there. 

Which might have something to do with living as if it were true that the Kingdom of God is at hand.


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