Pope Francis and the challenge of the Synod
An article in the magazine America by Cardinal Robert McElroy - and the following McElroy’s remarks in a podcast - opened a debate destined to last throughout the synodal process, which will end in 2024. McElroy spoke of the need for a “radical inclusion” of LGBT people, women, and others in the Catholic Church.
The argument was this: the synodal path passes through the continental assemblies, whose theme is “Enlarge the space of your tent.” And widening the tent also means deconstructing what the cardinal calls the Church’s “structures of exclusion.” We need a Church that is in step with the times, allows everyone to be part of the decision-making processes, and puts aside doctrine to be, instead, synodal, according to the real spirit of the term.
It is an argument that arises on the eve of the continental stages of the Synod, and obviously, Cardinal McElroy launched his provocation in view of the North American stage. In short, the Cardinal was addressing a precise public, a certain democratic intelligentsia which, at least in the Church in the US, seems to be a minority compared, instead, to a proper orientation of the bishops, which goes in an opposite direction—think of the path of “Eucharistic Renewal” launched by the US Conference of Bishops.
The theme launched by the Cardinal is, however, more universal. In Europe, for example, its effects can be seen in the synodal journey of the Church in Germany. This path, among other things, has provoked several warnings from Pope Francis. It is no coincidence that the reports from the interdicasterial meeting with the German bishops in June were made public, which never happens. Not surprisingly, Cardinals Parolin, Ladaria and Ouellet wrote to the German Conference of Bishops emphasizing how the latest decision of a synodal council would clash with some prerogatives of the relationship between Rome and the episcopal conference.
But from Germany, they replied that the Pope didn’t understand. Otherwise, he wouldn’t react that way. And even when it was pointed out to them in Rome that it was Pope Francis himself who did not want such a synodal path, the German bishops maintained that they had explained in Rome how a synodal path proceeds.
I’m paraphrasing, of course, and maybe exaggerating for emphasis. But the substance of the question and answer is precisely this, and they contain all the elements that made Larry Chapp comment that McElroy’s is a “grand deception.”
Chapp argues there is a strong sense of authoritarianism in those words. We are democratic – to sum Chapp’s up – only until we reach our conclusions, and when we arrive at those, democracy ends, and our reasons are asserted by force. At that point, there is no more discussion, and there is no more synodality.
This is true for McElroy, but it is also true for those pursuing the same debate and the same arguments in different situations and geographical areas.
It must be admitted that Pope Francis has, in some way, contributed to this “great deception.” First, on the Synod of the German Church, he expressed concern on several occasions, but then some of the themes of the Synod were re-proposed by him in different, even contradictory, forms and ways.
The question of homosexuality is an example: the Pope shows that he is welcoming of homosexual couples but then approves a document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has a solid pastoral emphasis but rejects blessings to homosexual couples.
Then, in indirect words, he distances himself from the document, whose authors are then marginalized. Still, in an interview with the Associated Press, he goes so far as to say that homosexuality is a sin. Realizing that his words have created a “hole” in public opinion, he writes to Father James Martin, the guru of LGBT pastoral care, that it must be understood that the Pope cannot be precise when he speaks in an interview with cameras on.
In this continual ambiguity, in this continual distinction between situations and actions, the Pope’s thought seems unclear or, in any case, not settled. And that’s probably where the possibility of implementing the “great deception” creeps in. We don’t know if the Pope is aware of it or if he is just acting in good faith. We just note the situation.
The problem is that this type of debate also carries over into synodal assemblies, and from there, it will end up at the Synod. Pope Francis has repeatedly reiterated that the Synod is not a Parliament. Yet, more and more often, the instinct to understand the evolution of the doctrine, thus trying to apply it, is attributed to a generic sensus fidelium. But it is the same sensus fidelium to which Pope Francis appeals, who claims that the center is better known from the periphery. As you can see, it’s a dog chasing its tail.
But is the Synod a process that must lead to substantial changes in the doctrine of the Church? And above all, why should it bring any? The same question was asked during the Second Vatican Council, after which it was said that it was necessarily disruptive. Nevertheless, given that the rupture did not occur with the Council because there are documents, deeds, and narratives to certify the will of the conciliar fathers, a lighter process is attempted, such as a synodal path. At the very least, this is the suspicion.
But there is one fact that should not be underestimated. The Second Vatican Council was born to take stock of the work that the Church had done on the field. So it wasn’t just an updating but the need to auto comprehend something already being done that hadn’t been assessed.
To be clear, when Paul VI thought of the Synod as “walking together,” he also thought of the many examples of the Church walking together. I’m not just talking about the many meetings at the episcopal level that took place – a relatively complete list of the European ones can be found in the “simple note” that the then Monsignor Roger Etchegaray wrote during the Council, giving life to what was to become the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences.
Instead, laypeople led initiatives that were then incorporated into the Church. Just think of the Missionary Works, which later became Pontifical, born from the genius and commitment of lay people to the cause of the Gospel. Think of Catholic Action in Italy, founded by a layperson. Even the Sunday Angelus prayer was born from an intuition of a layman, Luigi Gedda, who passed it on to Pius XII.
There are many more examples. After all, it was a Church that was already synodal in practice. And perhaps the greatest sin that men of the Church can commit is to forget what the Church has always been. In a world where the waves of secularization had attacked the very meaning of the Christian faith, it was the laity who supported the bishops and, together with the bishops, built a new Church.
Of course, perceptions can be different. There have been threatening gestures and dire situations. But there hasn’t been anything in the history of humanity that hasn’t been achieved through a hierarchy and an elite. And when these were replaced in the name of democracy, they gave way to new elites.
But perhaps it should be recognized that the elites of the Church have always been committed to the common good, with all their defects and human errors. In Latin America, there is an extraordinary example in the reducciones, the Jesuit missions.
In this synodal debate, the “grand deception” is to describe the Church for what it is in theory and not instead look at what it actually is and was. The “Grand deception” is to bring the issues to a level too down to earth for them to be truly understood. The “Grand deception” is to talk about doctrine and doctrinal changes when that is not the point. The point is, instead, whether the Church can authentically speak about Christ. That’s where the future lies.