On Synods Then and Now


Published August 8, 2022

First Things

On July 29, La Civiltà Cattolica published an interview with Pope Francis that warrants a careful reading. The Holy Father’s words that I noted with special interest involve synodality and dialogue:

In 2001 I was a relator for the Synod of Bishops . . . I remember that the opinions were collected and sent to the general secretariat. Then I gathered the material and prepared it for the vote. The secretary of the synod came to see me, read the material and told me to remove this or that detail. There were things he did not consider appropriate and he censored them. There was, in short, a pre-selection of material. There was little understanding of what a synod is . . . 

It seems fundamental to me to repeat, as I often do, that the synod is not a political meeting nor a committee for parliamentary decisions. It is the expression of the Church where the protagonist is the Holy Spirit. If there is no Holy Spirit there is no synod. There may be democracy, parliament, debate, but there is no “synod.” If you want to read the best book of theology on the synod, then re-read the Acts of the Apostles. There you can clearly see that the protagonist is the Holy Spirit . . . 

It is important above all that dialogue be extended. Dialogue is never superfluous among media professionals and certainly also with bishops. Exchange, confrontation, and dialogue are fundamental for communication.

Now it so happens that I staffed, on site in Rome, a bishop-delegate to three different synods. In 2015 and 2018, I also provided help to nearly a dozen other Anglophone bishop-delegates from three different continents. Their experience did not quite match the hopeful remarks offered by the Holy Father above. Consider the words (found here) of Philadelphia’s then-Archbishop Charles Chaput, who himself served a term on the Permanent Council of the Synod of Bishops:

The first synod I attended, back in 1997, focused on the Americas. I was one of the delegates directly appointed by Pope John Paul II. It was a great experience, my first real participation internationally in service to the universal Church. It was there that I met then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio from Buenos Aires. He was an impressive man and made good contributions to the discussion. We sat near each other because we’d been appointed archbishops at about the same time. The synod led me to seek out a much closer relationship with the Churches in Mexico and Latin America, and Latino Catholics in the United States.

The other two synods—in 2015 on the family, and 2018 on young people and the faith—were very different. I was a delegate from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference and much more experienced, so I probably sensed the political dynamics of a synod more clearly. 

I was very disappointed by what I saw as manipulation of the synods and their agendas by elements within and outside the Church. Instead of being occasions for an honest exchange of ideas, both synods were dominated by efforts to re-engineer the direction of the Church. Synods should be places where people speak freely and are anxious to listen to others. But both were exercises of power rather than efforts to arrive honestly at a common position through listening and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Neither of those synods encouraged or gratified me. In fact, I was deeply scandalized by the political maneuvering that took place in both. The one on the family was a very important synod with some very sharp tensions. The one on youth lacked some important voices and seemed to miss many opportunities to say anything significant, or deal with the real issues of the Church in our time. 

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth revisiting the “Affair of the Thirteen Cardinals.” For those with a rusty memory, 13 cardinals drafted a private letter to Pope Francis during the 2015 synod expressing their concern about the manipulative tone of the proceedings. The letter was fraternal, respectful, and entirely within their job description as close advisers to the Holy Father. It was never meant to be public, yet it was leaked by sources unknown to discredit the cardinals and undercut their concerns.  

But the cardinals were hardly alone. At the same 2015 synod, Glasgow’s then-Archbishop Philip Tartaglia drafted a similar private letter, filial and respectful in tone—and I know this firsthand, because he showed me the final text shortly before he delivered it—with the same serious concerns. Tartaglia handed it personally to the Holy Father, who accepted it irritably, dressed him down rudely for writing it, and then walked away. Tartaglia, an affable, faithful man, returned distressed and deeply shaken. In practice, “dialogue” turned out to be brief.

The atmosphere of the 2018 synod was not significantly different. The issue of “synodality” arrived ex nihilo on the agenda toward the end of the proceedings; a surprise that had nothing to do with the synod’s theme of faith and young people.

Hagiographers of the current pontificate may find my comments here unfair, or worse. If so, their flackery does the Holy Father no service. The virtues of mutual fidelity and mutual obedience in a marriage—qualities I’m quite familiar with after 52 years with a wedding ring—never exclude candor, and when necessary, some very sobering criticism. Exactly the same applies in ecclesial life. Along with the Holy Father’s wise suggestion that we read the Acts of the Apostles, we might also profitably take a look at Galatians 2:11–14. Love is not always sweet. Francis has repeatedly called for honesty, openness, and dialogue in the Church. I admire his words, and I trust that he means them. This column is an example of what those words involve and actually mean. I pray for Pope Francis every day and also, if somewhat more reluctantly, his entourage. But love, genuine love, requires truth. It has little use for servility or unwarranted praise.

The synodal process the Church has embarked on—if done well, and honestly, and without the “hermeneutic of rupture” that has dogged Catholic life since Vatican II—can lead to a renewal of Christian faith. Given recent history, it won’t be easy. But we urgently need that renewal.  

May God grant the Holy Father the wisdom and skills to help it happen.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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