The last-minute change in the calendar of the Synod assembly showed an advantage and a limitation of synodality. The advantage is that listening also leads to changing decisions and redefining what was planned. The limit is that in this way there do not appear to be, nor can there be, long-term projects. Instead, everything remains provisional, instantaneous, indefinite, and only a person of a higher hierarchy can truly restore order. Thus, while everyone listens to each other, the Pope, and he alone, can make decisions, bringing everything back to himself.
In fact, this is what Pope Francis has always done until now. The Council of Cardinals has often met, but the Pope took reform decisions before the meetings, where he presented them after the fact, or even suddenly, as when he surprisingly published the text of the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium.
And, in fact, this is a style of government also tested in the 2022 Consistory. For the first time since the beginning of the pontificate, Pope Francis wanted the cardinals to meet to discuss among themselves, and the discussion concerned the reform of the Curia. But the cardinals could not speak in general congregations. They were divided into linguistic groups. Some were forced to turn over their speeches.
The methodology of this synod is similar. The synod fathers are immediately divided into smaller circles, into groups of 11 or 12 people. Each circle, however, discusses only one of the “sub-topics” of the modules into which the discussion has been divided scholastically, and when moving on to the next module it will discuss only one module, and so on. In fact, no one really has a global view of the debate, but everyone has a view of a particular part of the debate that took place at his circle.
Of course, the Pope is always at the center, but the point is precisely this: the Pope must not be part of the synodal process, but rather he is called to guarantee unity. Unity is achieved when everyone has a complete, and not partial, vision of the debates.
This situation allows, in some way, the formation of organized communication lobbies that tend to manipulate situations to their advantage. The campaign for LGBT inclusion benefited from the news that the Pope met with the co-founder and staff of New Ways Ministry, the campaign for a “more synodal structure of the Church” carried out by journalists from the German and Latin American progressivists who support a reform of the Church also in terms of democratization, and so on. Everyone can say something about the Synod because the Synod on communion, mission and participation was born without direction, but with the clear intention of making everyone talk.
No, it is not a talk show, nor a Parliament – the prefect of the Communication Department Ruffini always repeats this – but the impression you get is precisely that of a place where people discuss without deciding. In fact, the Synod will not have decision-making power, but only consultative power.
What does the Pope want then? To bring together a large Parliament and then take his own decisions, and at the same time give the impression that everything has changed?
The question is legitimate, if we consider that Pope Francis himself said that “synodality” (or the “life of the Church”, as the General Secretariat of the Synod prefers to call it) was only the second theme chosen for the Synod, as the first one was the question of priesthood.
Why, then, did Pope Francis choose to discuss synodality? This is also a legitimate question. The presumed opening of this synodal meeting, which however somehow includes a selected elite of the Church, gives many the impression of being able to participate in Church decisions for the first time. But this aspect, which is highly emphasized, already brings with it some problems.
The Church, in fact, is not a democratic structure, where everyone must have a voice and where those who have a voice must feel satisfied. It is not a place to think about gaining parcels of power and responsibility. It is, rather, an assembly in which one serves, and one serves according to one’s skills, and regardless of sex, race, and sexuality.
The underlying crisis behind this Synod is a crisis of faith, which entails a cultural crisis. In practice, the debate at the Synod has reached the positivist paradox: everything is analyzed part by part, but then the overall vision is lost and there is a risk of causing damage. Before, the idea was to do a global analysis and then go into details.
With the Second Vatican Council, we tried to start from the particular to arrive at the universal, and the conciliar constitutions are a true jewel in that sense. But they are a jewel because the particular invariably became universal, not vice versa, and it became so with the support of a cultural project that now seems to be missing.
What do you do, in fact, when you have more opinions than ideas? Popular and populist topics are chosen, such as the reception of migrants, the question of communion for divorced and remarried people, the idea of a change in doctrine, even if this change were never to arrive.
Culture, on the other hand, allows a common sense in the debate, and also a contextualized understanding of the facts. It does not avoid divisions, but allows divisions to absorb and understand each other. Culture is synodal.
It is a crisis of faith that arises from the fact that the Catholic faith is not known except through tradition or prejudice. It is a crisis of faith that affects priests, and consequently bishops. It is a crisis of faith that is recorded in the figures for Mass attendance – increasingly low, also a sign of poor liturgical care.
Synodality, however, does not allow itself time for cultural construction. Obsessed with the answer to the here and now, the Synod finds itself discussing various topics and having to include everyone, while changing the calendar to give greater discernment to the synod fathers. Or is discernment needed by the General Secretariat of the Synod?
Synodality is a limit, and practiced in this way has an even greater limit. There is a strong fragmentation, and this can truly lead to a Church that turns in on itself and on a few major themes, losing sight of the common debate.
Yet, now is the time to rebuild. Not from the Synod, probably, because that of the Synod risks becoming a dictatorship of the majority. But we still have to rebuild. On the other hand, Jesus asked in the Gospel (Lk 18,8): “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on this earth?”