The working document of the European continental stage of the Synod on Synodality was presented last October 27th. It is an open document, full of stimuli and citations from the experiences of the bishops’ conferences. It is characterized by a generally upbeat tone even when it speaks of the inevitable criticalities that have emerged.
A conclusive document cannot be expected. In reality, the document does nothing but underline an openness to listening that seems necessary in every synodal process.
What, then, can this document lead to?
First of all, it is a document that seeks to be inclusive. All views are represented in a broad synthesis that gives a voice to many episcopal conferences. And this also at the expense of it causing some problems. For example, the acronym LGBTQ appears in a Synod document for the second time. It had already appeared in a document of the Synod on young people. But this approach to give space to all views also leads to substantial problems.
The Holy See has never talked about LGBT precisely because it refused to categorize people on the basis of sexual orientation. Indeed, the Holy See has often criticized the use of acronyms that specifically advance an agenda that risks causing reverse discrimination.
In this document, the term is found in a contribution from the United States Conference of Bishops. And the question arises: do synodal documents have to adapt to secular language? Can’t we look at the problems instead by using the vocabulary of the Church? How are God’s people formed?
The question of formation is crucial. It was present in the documents on the Synod of the Family of 2014 and 2015, and this also helped to balance some openings that seemed to have an impact on the doctrine. However, even the doctrine is protected if there is preparation.
But now, the formation question seems to be set aside in favor of a more general tendency to listen. It is said that one must listen and discern. Yet, the document has, above all, the part of hearing, but never of discernment, with the risk that one adopts positions that can go outside the Catholic faith.
Is it a risk worth taking? Yes, according to Pope Francis, for whom a process is more important than what comes in the end. But, here comes the second issue, doing this also runs the risk of creating divisions and of parliamentarizing the synodal debate.
In practice, there is a risk of ending up with the transformation of the Synod into a parliament, which is something that Pope Francis always insists that we should avoid. But if discernment is only a subsequent step, and if this is entrusted to a post-synodal document signed by the Pope alone, there is a divided and parliamentarized Church at the moment of the process. Then a centralized Church focused on the Pope alone at the end of the process. In practice, collegiality and synodality, even when defended and proclaimed, are put at risk.
After all, it has already happened with the reform of the Curia, which has led the Pope to have a much more central role. Or it happened in general with the government of the Church because the Pope’s consistent legislative activity, with many motu proprio and rescripta, made collegiality disappear in favor of central decision-making.
The document of the stage of the continental Synod speaks of synodality as a very well-received method. The question, however, is which synodality are we talking about. Is it only the synodality of various discussion groups that need guidance, or the synodality that comes as part of the discernment of already formed Catholics? At times it almost seems that the charism of listening takes the place of the Church’s charism of being a guide. It can be a new development. It can be a problem.
Then there is the liturgical question. We note the need for liturgical peace, also a desire to have more forms of liturgy. But can there be liturgical peace when the traditional liturgy is suddenly marginalized and defined as an instrument of division? The Church has always worked by synthesis, never starting from scratch, and even the concessions made to the ancient rite by Benedict XVI were in the spirit of maintaining a synthesis. Now, however, there is a risk of a further split. Cardinals sensitive to the issue, such as Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna, know this and are looking for a solution. Zuppi, certainly not a traditionalist, participated in the Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage. It may be considered by some to be a move ahead of the Conclave. If so, this move creates a problem that must be considered.
Could synodality lead to a synthesis? Of course, but unfortunately, there is no answer to the question. And here is the limitation. The terminology is sociological because, in the end, everybody listens, lives, and works in worlds outside the vocabulary of the Church. If this is the case, there is no way out of secularization and the problem of secularization.
Amid so many ideas, a prophetic word is missing in the document. There is talk of the role of women, clericalism, organization, migrants, and the poor, but there is an omission of groups that have highlighted the saving power of Christ and the Church. There is talk of giving space to the liturgy of the Word, but there is no mention of Eucharistic adoration.
There is a risk, in the end, of forgetting the Church. It is no small risk, and it is certainly not the aim of the Synod. So there will be much work ahead and a lot to think about.