Reflections on Synod-2018

Published October 29, 2018

First Things

This article by EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel appeared in LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2018, #19, on October 29, 2018, which was published on the Web sites of First Things, The Catholic Herald (London) and The Catholic Weekly (Sydney).

The fifteenth ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, convened by Pope Francis to reflect on “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” is now history—unless you subscribe to an extreme notion of “synodality,” advanced by some bishops last week, which hints at an ongoing synodal process that will presumably include, in due course, the Parousia, the Last Judgment, and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Some good things happened in Rome this past month. Catholics from all over the world got to know each other’s stories and experiences, which helps shake all of us out of our comfort zones. Catholicism today is genuinely “catholic” in the sense of “universal” or “global,” and to live that, not just think or read about it, is a bracing and revivifying experience of solidarity. It can also be sobering, as when you’re told by an impressive African bishop that one of his seminarians was recently murdered and that he’s had to close several parishes because of the threat of massacres when large groups gather in his strife-torn country, Cameroon. Synods are also opportunities for catching up with friends in the great Catholic family. There was even some serious reflection on what makes for effective evangelization of young adults: in the Synod’s language-based discussion groups, in some eloquent interventions in the synodal general congregations, and in the Synod’s “Off Broadway” venues, including restaurants, coffee bars, and in more than one wonderful Roman gelateria. (I think it a safe bet that no one loses weight at a Synod, despite a lot of walking around.)

These affairs always take time to digest, so what follows is a mosaic of impressions that I hope will give readers of these LETTERS a little more sense of what happened during Synod-2018 and what it might portend for the Church’s immediate future.

The Smuggler Synod?

In 449, Emperor Theodosius II summoned an ecumenical council, which was to be led at Ephesus by Patriarch Dioscorus I of Alexandria. The Church was bitterly divided over complex theological questions of the relationship between the human and the divine in Christ: “Monophysites” held that Christ had only a divine nature for which his humanity was a kind of disguise, while the anti-monophysites affirmed two natures, divine and human, in the one divine person of Christ—the formula eventually adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 after an intervention by Pope Leo the Great. Theodosius’s council was a failure, as many bishops declined to attend; and ever since, what was intended to be “Ephesus II” has been known in much of the Christian world as the “Robber Council,” or “Robber Synod.”

It is an open question whether this month’s exercise will come to be known as the “Smuggler Synod.” For there was a lot of smuggling going on before and during Synod-2018.

The smuggling began in the Synod’s preparatory phase. A “pre-Synod” meeting of young people in March 2018 was thoroughly rigged, according to the accounts of some brave souls who were there because the Synod managers either misidentified them or wanted them as cover. Working sessions were conducted long into the night, the goal being to get inserted into the meeting’s final document a number of progressive Catholic approaches to human sexuality. One discussion group leader banned an opening prayer before the group’s meetings—what had been proposed was a joint recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Doxology—saying that this might make the non-Catholics present uncomfortable. The Synod managers and the new Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life trumpeted this meeting as a great advance in “listening”; it was an exercise in manipulation and spin.

Then there was the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris, or working document. Into it was smuggled the phrase “LGBT youth,” which had not appeared in the pre-Synod meeting’s reports, claims by Synod general secretary Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri notwithstanding. Other language more redolent of the New York Times op-ed page than the Catechism of the Catholic Church got smuggled into the Instrumentum Laboris, which also included a lot of mind-numbing, down-market sociology, organized in what one Synod father described as a “manic-depressive” schema that lauded young adults on one hand and then lamented the sour state of everything (including young adults) on the other.

The auditors appointed for the Synod—lay people, in the main, and many of them young adults—were carefully chosen (or smuggled in) to reflect the priorities of the Synod managers. Smuggled out, so to speak, were representatives of successful, global young adult initiatives like FOCUS and the World Youth Alliance. Thomas Andronie, one of the Official Young Adults and head of the lavishly funded official youth organization of the German Church, gave a blistering speech in a synodal general congregation in which he essentially proposed reconstructing Catholicism as Lutheranism. Unofficial young adults, orthodox and vibrantly evangelical, had an impact “Off Broadway,” but their virtual exclusion from the Synod’s official proceedings was an example of the smugglers erecting a Trumpian wall around the Synod’s official work, presumably for fear of ideological contamination.

The smugglers really got their act into high gear in the Synod’s last week. As Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, both noted with some vigor, there had been very little discussion of “synodality” in the Instrumentum Laboris, in the general congregations, or in the Synod’s discussion groups; and there was no serious push for including a lengthy discussion of this seemingly arcane topic in the Synod’s draft final report. But presto! There it was, and it elicited a spirited debate between the proponents of “synodality” (who never seemed to be able to define precisely what that meant, besides a lot more meetings for everyone—or chosen everyones—to attend), and those who objected on several grounds: that the concept was theologically nebulous, susceptible of manipulation, and in tension with the teaching of Vatican II on the role of bishops in the Church; that a discussion of “synodality,” whatever it meant, had nothing to do with Synod-2018’s topic, “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment”; and that, as “synodality” hadn’t been a major issue in the general congregations and discussion groups, it shouldn’t figure prominently in the final report. Was another agenda being smuggled into the Synod at the last minute?

And then there was the draft final report’s claim, in nomine synodalitatis (as it were) that the Final Final Report was to be read in continuity with the Instrumentum Laboris, which in previous Synods had been deemed (and by Cardinal Baldisseri, no less) as the “seed” that “dies” so that the final report might be born. This struck more than one Synod father as an attempt to smuggle into a now-expanded Synod work product (i.e., the Final Final Report + the Instrumentum Laboris + who knows what else) the “LGBT” language that had been severely criticized in the Synod’s general congregations and discussion groups, as well as other notions dear to the Synod managers. And why was a document (the Instrumentum Laboris) that had been staff-prepared being granted some sort of permanent and authoritative status in a Synod of Bishops? Vigorous opposition led to this absurd notion of a working document incorporated as an interpretive device into an ongoing synodal process being modified in the Really Final Draft Final Report (RFDFR), which only spoke of the “diversity and complementarity” of the Instrumentum Laboris and the Final Report.

Local-Option Catholicism?

As discussion of the “synodality” paragraphs in the RFDFR intensified in the Synod’s last forty-eight hours, Anglophone and African bishops began to sense that the rude beast slouching through the Synod’s final week, wearing a sandwich-board identifying it as “Synodality,” might signify an effort by the Synod managers, presumably with the acquiescence of the pope, to remake the Catholicism of the future into a local-option federation of national or regional Churches with differing (and perhaps even conflicting) theologies and pastoral practices.

To bend toward the charitable for a moment, it’s just conceivable that at least some proponents of “synodality” may be trying to give a new expression to the diversity of charismatic gifts in the Church described by St. Paul in the first reading at Mass on the Synod’s last working day:

And he gave some as Apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood to the extent of the full stature of Christ…(Ephesians 4:11–13).

In other words, some proponents of “synodality” may be imagining that this often-vague concept is a response to the complexity of a Church in which 1) all the baptized are recipients of the Holy Spirit’s gifts and thus “protagonists” of the Church’s life; 2) there is episcopal governance by Christ’s will; and 3) there is a pope with supreme authority, also by Christ’s will. No serious student of either theology or history will deny that there have been different and legitimate attempts to “order” this complexity over two millennia, some of them more successful than others in advancing the Church’s essential mission of evangelization. So discussion of how to keep all those moving parts moving in the same direction is welcome—as long as it is open and honest.

But those are precisely the qualities missing from the rushed discussion of “synodality” at Synod-2018. The topic was smuggled into the Draft Final Report after virtually no discussion in the Synod itself; the voting on the relevant sections of the Really Final Draft Final Report on Saturday was marred by the Synod general secretary’s refusal to have the third part of the RFDFR translated before the vote; and the impression was thus created that this entire business was being bulldozed through by the Synod managers in a thoroughly, er, unsynodal manner.

Moreover, the references to multiple tiers of “synodality” in the RFDFR and thus the approved Final Report seemed to some bishops—again, Anglophones and Africans—to open the door to local-option Catholicism. Thus the Extraordinary Synod on Amazonia next year could “synodally” decide that ordaining mature married men (viri probati) to the priesthood is pastorally important and request the pope’s approval of that practice, which the pope would then give in recognition of the principle of “synodality.” Or the German bishops’ conference (perhaps joined by the Austrian and Belgian bishops’ conferences) could “synodally” decide to have some form of liturgical blessing for so-called “same-sex marriages,” which practice would also receive a nihil obstat from the Bishop of Rome, recognizing those local Churches’ “synodal” authority.

And before long, the Catholic Church would have been deconstructed into a simulacrum of the Anglican Communion, a lot of which is dying from, among other things, a surfeit of “synodality.”

Against charges sure to emerge from the portside of the Barque of Peter, it must be underscored that these are not the concerns of Ultra-Traditionalists at war with Vatican II. Rather, they are the entirely legitimate concerns of some of the Church’s most dynamic bishops, all of whom are proponents of the New Evangelization. What they see in this local-option Catholicism is a prescription for utter incoherence leading to evangelical failure.

The Magic Kingdom Against Itself

Denizens of the Holy See and friendly observers sometimes refer to the reality inside the Leonine Wall as the “Magic Kingdom,” a gentle dig at the Vatican’s sometimes puzzling ways. During Synod-2018, however, the Holy See sometimes seemed to be working against itself, one hand not knowing what the other was doing.

One example of this was the Draft Final Report’s use of the language of “sexual orientation,” which strikes many Americans as a merely descriptive phrase, but which has a very different valence or connotation in international organizations where the Holy See is determined to play a role. For years, Vatican representatives have worked hard to keep “sexual orientation” out of international treaties, covenants, reports, etc., because they know that this usage opens the door to international legal approval of (and insistence on) so-called “same-sex marriage,” transgenderism, and so forth. Yet here was that very same language in a draft Synod final report, and no complaint seems to have been heard from the Secretariat of State. Had there been a change in Vatican policy, such that the Holy See now had no objection to the use of the language of “sexual orientation”? If so, why? And if not, why didn’t Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, explain why this language had long been considered a red flag by the Vatican?

Criticism of this usage from other quarters led to its being modified in the Really Final Draft Final Report. But the sense that there is a disturbing degree of chaos behind the Leonine Walls these days was reinforced.

Another instance of a lack of coordination (not to mention oversight by the Secretariat of State) involved the RFDFR’s rejection of “all forms of….discrimination” against people who experience same-sex attraction. The sentiment is unexceptionable but the language, as one Anglophone bishop consistently pointed out, was dangerous and the text should deplore “all forms of….unjust discrimination.” Why? Because, the bishops explained, bishops have to make all sorts of “discriminations” or judgment calls in their ministry, e.g., in choosing teachers for Catholic schools. Suppose a teacher in a Catholic school files a civil suit claiming “discrimination” because he or she has been relieved of their position after entering into a same-sex “marriage”; would that person not be able to cite the Synod’s final report in his or her favor, unless the report distinguished between legitimate, prudential choices and “unjust discrimination”?

These may seem minor points, but they are quite real in everyday pastoral life, and the fact that that’s not recognized says that Those In Charge are not as on-the-ball as they should be.

Previous Engagements

A great deal was made of the fact that two bishops from the People’s Republic of China, Guo Jincai and Yang Xiaoting, would be attending a Synod of Bishops for the first time. Both bishops had once been excommunicated (one as recently as mid-September), because they had been illicitly ordained. They were warmly welcomed by Pope Francis in his homily at the Synod’s opening Mass, and proponents of the Vatican’s recent deal with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops lauded the two Chinese bishops’ presence as a first fruit of that arrangement and a step toward the deeper unity of the Church.

Then, after ten days or so, the Chinese bishops left, pleading previous engagements at home. One could only wonder what those engagements might be.

It then turned out that the two bishops had been proposed by the Chinese communist party (which now has supervisory responsibility for religious bodies in China) and then accepted by the Vatican. That sequence, plus their premature departure, seemed to signal that the “first fruit” of the new Vatican/China deal might be a bit rotten, as many had feared. One also wonders what impression all this made on young adults in China who are pondering the Catholic Church and its message. If the message conveyed by this subplot is that the Church is another puppet of the Chinese communist party and the Chinese government, it is difficult to see how evangelization in China will be advanced among the young people who were supposed to be the Synod’s primary concern.

Meanwhile, within ten days of the bishops’ return to China, the Chinese authorities destroyed the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Dongergou (Shanxi province) and Our Lady of Bliss, also called Our Lady of the Mountain, in Anlong (Guizhou province). No word has yet been received from Bishop Marcello Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies, on whether these demolitions have caused him to reconsider his description of China as a country that brilliantly embodies Catholic social doctrine.

Cleaning the Slate or The Missing Pope

At a dinner during the Synod’s final week, the Polish bishops at Synod-2018—Stanisław Gądecki, archbishop of Poznań, and Grzegorz Ryś, archbishop of Łódż—wondered aloud why there was no reference in the draft final report to the teaching or experience of John Paul II, the most successful papal youth minister in modern history and the author of the Theology of the Body, Catholicism’s most developed (and persuasive) answer to the claims of the sexual revolution. Similar questions were posed to me by Cardinal Kamimierz Nycz and his auxiliaries when I met with them in Warsaw during a brief visit there during the Synod. Thanks to an amendment proposed by the two Poles, the Theology of the Body did get a mention in the Really Final Draft Final Report (as did the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Still, the questions the archbishops raised were not misplaced, and one possible answer to them sheds further light on the Church’s immediate future.

The first thing to be noticed about this attempted airbrushing is that it is quite out of character in high-level Church documents. Vatican II made copious references to the magisterium of previous popes, especially Pius XII. In their magisterium, John Paul II and Benedict XVI made similar, extensive references to the work of their predecessors. This was not simply a question of good manners; it had a serious theological purpose, which was to demonstrate that, even as the Church’s thinking and teaching develops, that developed thought is in continuity with what has gone before, even as the Church’s experience and reflection leads it to draw new meanings from the treasure chest of the Deposit of Faith.

This now seems to have stopped. Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation completing the work of the Synods of 2014 and 2015, only quoted John Paul’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Familiaris Consortio, in a bowdlerized form. John Paul’s encyclical on the renewal of Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, has virtually disappeared in the present pontificate. Now comes Synod-2018, which struck concerned Synod fathers as a deliberate attempt to marginalize the pope who reinvented Catholic young adult ministry in his extensive pilgrimages and in the phenomenon of World Youth Day (which other Synod fathers actually proposed eliminating).

No one is entirely sure what is going on here. But it is not beyond the bounds of propriety to suggest that, in today’s Rome, there is a devaluing of continuity coupled with a misunderstanding of the development of doctrine and a fascination with papal autocracy. More-than-hints of that were already evident at Synod-2014 and Synod-2015, and one prominent proponent of Pope Francis’s style of governance has even suggested that his “discernment” is independent of Scripture and tradition—a species of ultramontanism that would make Henry Edward Manning and Alfredo Ottaviani blush. The problem has now come into clearer focus, and it was deeply disturbing to more than a few of the bishops at Synod-2018.

On Just Not Getting It

The Synod’s final report has a very weak statement on the sexual abuse crisis and its deadening effects on the evangelization of young adults, despite strenuous efforts from Anglophone bishops to get the Synod to make a strong statement of apology and contrition and a pledge of serious reform. The pushback against this came from, among others, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Synod’s general secretary, but it also reflected the obtuseness of Vatican officials and Latin American bishops who continue to insist against all the evidence that much of this crisis is a media-generated attack on the Church.

The weak statement makes itself even weaker by identifying only one causal factor—clericalism—in the sexual abuse of the young by priests and bishops. To be sure, “clericalism” in the sense of a warped idea of sacerdotal or episcopal power, and “clericalism” in the sense of a caste protecting its own, are both involved in this crisis. But over the past few months, the diagnosis of “clericalism” as the root malady here has too often been a means of dodging the hard, empirical fact that the overwhelming majority of this abuse in the U.S. (and, it seems elsewhere) has involved sexually dysfunctional clergy preying on young men. That form of denial is unworthy of a Synod and will likely make it more difficult to address clericalism, the burning issue of chastity in Holy Orders (and indeed in all states of life in the Church), and the crisis of confidence in Church leadership to which too many in Rome seem determinedly oblivious.

The New Evangelization vs. The Museum

Several contributors to these LETTERS have remarked on the fault line in the Church between bishops confident in the power of the gospel and committed to its unambiguous proclamation, and bishops who seem to have been worn down by the Zeitgeist of the postmodern West and are seeking some sort of truce or accommodation with the reigning cultural powers. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the former are from the living parts of the Church, while the latter, in the main, come from those sectors of the world Church where Catholic practice has been dying for decades. One hopes that the experience of spending a month with the former will energize the latter. But when one hears a bishop saying that secularization is a good thing because it gets us out of the mindset that Catholicism can be genetically transmitted, one’s hopes start to flag. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade arguing that Catholicism-by-osmosis is over and that friendship with Jesus Christ has to be proposed and offered; but that doesn’t mean I think the kind of aggressive secularization one sees in, say, parts of western Europe or Québec is on the side of the angels. Those pressures are only “helpful” if they’re met by bold, confident evangelization that also pushes back against attempts to drive believers to the margin of society.

A month in Rome also sheds light on another facet of this fault line between the emboldened and the beaten-down, and that is laziness—what I came to think of as the Museum Complex during my work in the Eternal City on Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches. I was reminded of it during the Synod’s first week when I was near Piazza del Popolo for lunch with two friends. I was a bit early, so I strolled up the Corso to that magnificent square. There are five churches in the immediate vicinity (meaning within two square blocks or so), and every one of them (including those with some splendid Caravaggios) was locked tight at 1 p.m. and would remain so for the next three or four hours. A friend to whom I commented on this replied that Santa Maria del Popolo is “almost never open.”

I had the same experience in the Piazza Santi Apostoli last week. Walking toward the world’s best rigatoni carbonara at the Ristorante Abruzzi, I had hoped to be able to pray for a few moments at the Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles. It was locked tight at 1 p.m. (having been closed by then for an hour) and wouldn’t re-open until 4 p.m. During those four hours, like up the Corso a Piazza del Popolo, hundreds if not thousands of tourist and shoppers would pass attractive and historic churches—none of which would open its doors in welcome to them, suggesting the possibility of prayer. It’s the Museum Complex at its worst: the Church as custodian of an architectural and artistic patrimony, rather than the Church as evangelizer.

Given the Italian passion for pranzo and the post-luncheon riposo, I could imagine these churches being closed for an hour or two. But four hours? What does that say about the Roman Church’s idea of itself? Has the Vicariate of Rome gotten the memo about the New Evangelization? What is happening to Pope Francis’s idea of a “Church permanently in mission” in his own diocese?

The Most Disliked Man in Rome?

It really is time for Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the 78-year old General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, to hang up his spurs.

After an initial show of bonhomie on the Synod’s first working day, Cardinal Baldisseri reverted to the petulant, bullying style that has marked his interactions with members of both the Synod general council and each Synod’s working commissions since his appointment five years ago. His intransigent refusal to have documents translated into languages other than Italian is both an obstacle to real discussion and a means of manipulation and control. He consistently refused to let members of Synod-2018’s drafting commission have draft materials in electronic form, complaining about “leaks” from English-speakers. He stormed out of a meeting of this synod’s communication commission after a heated discussion of translations, saying on his way out the door that “Next time it will all be in Latin!” As noted above, he would not provide translations of the key third part of the Really Final Draft Final Report (which included the most extensive discussion of “synodality”), and no one thought this simply a matter of time-pressure. Further, and as also noted previously, he resisted a strong statement on clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance in the RFDFR, seemingly clueless about the gravity of the crisis throughout the world Church.

None of this contributes to comity or collegiality; and whatever “synodality” means, it isn’t advanced by such boorish behavior. The cardinal’s aggressive stubbornness is also an insult to bishops who are every bit as much successors of the apostles as Baldisseri, but whom he nonetheless treats as if they were refractory kindergarteners, especially when they insist that they know their situations better than Baldisseri does (as on the abuse crisis). If Pope Francis is serious about making the Synod of Bishops work better, he will thank Lorenzo Baldisseri for his services and bring in a new general secretary—right away.

After the Exhaustion

The Synod process seems designed to wear everyone down, thus making it easier for the Synod’s mandarins to get their way. So it’s not surprising that there’s a sense of deflation at the end of Synod-2018. There are also more than a few worries about how the Church is going to weather the rough seas into which it is being steered. Still, there was some very good work done here this past month. New networks of conversation and collaboration were built. Nothing completely egregious got into the Final Report, thanks to some hard and effective work. New Catholic leaders emerged on the world stage.

And there were, as always, many experiences of fellowship, and the grace that flows from the Holy Spirit through solidarity in a great cause.  In that sense I’ve been glad to have been here. And like others, I suspect, I’m grateful that Synod-2018 has given me a clearer understanding that business-as-usual is not an adequate model for the next months and years of Catholic life.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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