The Promise and Peril of Synods

Published December 9, 2021

The Catholic Thing

Steven Covey, the late, great effectiveness guru, liked to remind his readers to “begin with the end in mind.”  I suspect he purloined the idea from Ignatius Loyola.  But it’s still good advice.  So I’ll start by asking, candidly and upfront, whether the forthcoming 2023 synod on synodality might be a really bad idea.  Not bad as in “wicked.” The intent of Pope Francis is clearly admirable: listening to and walking with each other; broadening the faithful’s consultation and involvement in the life of the Church; and (presumably) sharing more authority with local and regional bishops’ synods closer to the specific needs of their people.

Yet such a synod may still, arguably, be unwise.  I’ll explain.  And I’ll do it by borrowing from people with direct experience.

Local diocesan synods, like the ones designed to prepare for the 2023 synod in Rome, can be healthy exercises in dialogue and discernment.  But in practice, they’re often a very mixed bag.  They demand a serious involvement of time, personnel, and financial resources.  They’re prone to bureaucratic manipulation and dominant personalities.  And their outcomes are often ambiguous or dead on arrival.

When Charles Chaput took over as archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011, virtually none of the recommendations from Philadelphia’s diocesan synod of 2000 had been pursued.  In the words of one senior pastor and veteran of the process, the synod experience had been a “dud.” And its outcomes began to molder as soon as the synod closed.

According to another veteran local pastor,

I found the 2000 synod to be more of an administrative process rather than one that tried to discern better ways or best practices to proclaim the Gospel and strengthen the life of the Church in Philadelphia. The synod articulated six or eight “goals” that were broad and not really attainable. For example, you could read the goal for Catholic education and water it down to “saving Catholic schools.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it has a kernel of truth. I did some reading at the time about the previous archdiocesan synod convened by Cardinal Dougherty in 1934.  The goals and results of that synod I found to be pastorally concrete and doable . . . [In contrast,] nothing was done to implement the goals of the 2000 synod.

And from another senior pastor involved in the process:

[The 2000 Philadelphia] synod could have done a great deal of good, but a lot of manipulation went on.  There are many good fruits that can come from a general consultation with the Church’s members, but it needs to be wisely guided.  I’ve read extensively about the proposed 2023 synod on synodality.  If handled right, the Church could identify a number of areas which need the light of the Gospel.  But it seems to me that the current synod plans seem to invest all truth in the corporate “People of God.” There’s rarely any mention of Tradition, Magisterium, Canon Law. . .and the proper role of the hierarchy.  In dioceses where saner heads reign, I think that their local phase of the synod will be quite good.  Elsewhere, I predict that the outcomes will be like a lot of recent, and unhappy, chapters of religious orders.

Of course, most places are not like Philadelphia, and other bishops can point to successful diocesan synods in the past.  But the potential for manipulation is not an imaginary problem.  Nor is it limited to random local dioceses.

Archbishop Charles Chaput served a term on the permanent council of the Synod of Bishops, and attended three different synods as a delegate over a 21-year period.  He described the experience in his 2021 book, Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living,

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.

So much for the potential of synodal manipulation.  It needn’t happen…but it too often can.

The other and more fundamental reason to question the prudence of a 2023 “synod on synodality” is simply a matter of common sense.  In a time of confusion and fragmentation – the German Church is its poster child, but hardly the only example – the very last thing Catholics need is more of the same, inadvertently confirmed by the Holy See.

The Petrine ministry carries with it a duty to foster unity and clarity of belief.  Pope Francis surely understands this.  Whether the theme and architecture of the 2023 synod serve that ministry is still to be seen.

© 2021 The Catholic Thing.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.

*Image: The Council of Florence by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, c. 1490 [The illustration appears in the Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated world history written by Hartmann Schedel]

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.

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