Published September 21, 2022
I was traveling on September 19, and was delayed in reading the National Synthesis prepared by U.S. bishops in advance of Rome’s 2023 Synod on Synodality. That didn’t stop my email from filling up with comments throughout the day. Among them: “The conference is living in a fantasy,” the report’s “sycophancy is scandalous,” the text is “beyond ridiculous,” “everyone associated with it should be embarrassed,” and “I recognize almost nothing of my experience of the Church in it.” A friend described it as “a compilation of shallow complaints. There’s no experience in the text of the mystery of God’s grace and love. It’s not the ‘Church’ that faithful Catholics participate in daily. . . .Bishop [John] Stowe could have written it himself without any help or consultation.”
The Stowe reference requires some background.
John Stowe, bishop of Lexington, KY, serves on the six-man U.S. bishops’ synod team. Readers may remember him for breaking with his brother bishops on the Equality Act; his involvement with New Ways Ministry; criticizing students wearing MAGA hats at the 2019 March for Life; and apologizing to a teacher who had been fired from a private Catholic school for her same-sex marriage. Stowe’s service on the synod team obviously does not invalidate the synodal process or the resulting text. But neither does it inspire confidence.
When I did read the text of the National Synthesis the day after its release, I found that diocesan consultation efforts were impressive. Intentions were admirable. Portions of the final document have real merit. But overall, the text is crippled by tone and focus.
Having spent a year or two in therapy myself as a teen, the language has a familiar therapeutic ring. This starts early and continues throughout. The first section – “Enduring Wounds” – captures the theme of the entire document. It’s a warm bath in varieties of victimhood, marginalization, “pain and anxiety,” and vulnerability, with the unborn tucked in among LGBTQ+ and other concerns. Listening, healing, walking together, accompaniment: the vocabulary of the current pontificate understandably dominates throughout. But the effect is reminiscent of post-sweetener fatigue.
In a text of more than 6,300 words, the name “Jesus” appears four times: three of them in the introductory letter from Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville. The word “Christ” appears nine times; four of them in the same letter. In a sense, this is appropriate and shouldn’t surprise. The text is not a missionary document, but a kind of sociology-lite data report.
The authors take pride in the fact that the comments of some 700,000 Catholics from across the country fed into the National Synthesis. But the data collection was loose and unscientific, and the results reflect barely 1 percent of the official U.S. Catholic population. Worse, the document’s cavalcade of complaints and distress is not only alien to the lives of millions of faithful U.S. Catholics; it also embodies exactly the kind of prejudices against the American Church, her experience, and her culture that seem to pervade current Roman leadership. The report leaves the reader with the uneasy feeling that it tells the Vatican’s 2023 synod organizers what they already think and want to hear. Regrettably, that same kind of predetermined spirit marked both the 2015 and 2018 synods.
I’ve offered concerns about the synodal process in the past, but some are worth revisiting here.
First: The civil war in the Church over the meaning of Vatican II obviously isn’t over. The Council released a huge amount of centrifugal energy. The pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were essentially the countervailing, centripetal response, focused on restoring clarity, order, and continuity in Church life while incorporating the new spirit and insights of the Council.
Synodality, by its nature, tends back in the opposite direction – devolution of decision-making and decentralization of authority. In that sense, it’s a return to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In a time of confusion and intense pressure on key Church teachings, this is a bad idea. Exhibit A is Germany. The German synodal path may not be what Francis intended. But Rome opened the door. Rome let it happen. So Rome bears at least part of the responsibility for the results.
Second: The 2018 text justifying the idea of synodality claims that, “Although synodality is not explicitly found as a term or as a concept in the teaching of Vatican II, it is fair to say that synodality is at the heart of the work of renewal the Council was encouraging.” To call that a rather large and disputable leap of logic would be generous.
Third: A process of listening to the global faithful, and making the synodal process somehow systematic and permanent, raises several questions. What do we mean by the idea of fidelity? And who exactly are the Catholic faithful? All the baptized? Those who actually practice? Should the indifferent and chronically alienated have the same weight in shaping the Christian mission as people who actually know, believe, and seek to live what the Church teaches? What would the various levels of an ongoing consultation process cost in terms of money, time, and personnel? Who will staff and oversee it? Who will write the questions? What constitutes a numerically credible response – and are such data really the same as the sensus fidei (an authentic “sense of the faith”)? Who will assemble and write the reports? And most importantly: Who will interpret them, and to what ends?
The impulse behind the synodal process is essentially sociological. It presumes a horizontal model of the Church. It can easily become just another form of inwardly-focused sclerosis, a creature of the bureaucratic arts. How – if at all – does it serve the confident evangelical witness of a Church mandated to “make disciples of all nations”? What prevents synodality from becoming a kind of rolling Vatican III, without the burden of getting all the world’s bishops together so they can actually talk, face-to-face?
Leaving Asunción in 2015, Pope Francis told young people to “make a mess.” It will be a great sadness if his legacy is precisely that.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.