At the time of this writing, the summary document of the first part of the Synod on Synodality has not been published yet. However, the Letter to the People of God was posted. Several press conferences have highlighted various positions. There was some debate. Therefore, we can at least try to sum up this synodal experience, trying to understand what it means to be in search of a method.
If by synodal method we mean consulting all the people of God, or at least large representative segments of it, this method already existed.
The Vatican congregations and pontifical councils, as they were known, were made up of members, officials, and advisers (consultori), often lay people who were consulted whenever there was a particular problem to analyze. The members were always cardinals and archbishops; the officials could also be lay people, and so could the consultants, chosen from among the leading experts on the subject.
Pope Francis wanted some lay people to be selected as members of the departments, interpreting their membership as if belonging to a sort of “board of directors” and considering the question of including lay people as a “gender gap.” But that wasn’t the point. The members were bishops because they had to govern in hierarchical communion with the Pope, also a bishop. The consultants were, in fact, the people of God who participated in the decisions, who were involved.
If by the synodal method, we mean this new assembly model, already tested on a small scale in the August 2022 consistory on the reforms of the Curia, this is indeed a new method but also a problematic one.
Nobody has a general vision of the topics. Everyone is divided into groups and deals with a particular theme. They do it in depth, this is true, but they don’t have a general vision of things. It is a sort of positivist reform of the structure of the Church.
I call it a positivist structure because positivism creates the differentiation of the sciences, the fragmentation, and the detail instead of the global. It is a reform that can be seen in many details. For example, in the way in which Pope Francis reformed the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith, with four independent offices and a very structured disciplinary one, but which treats discipline as a goal in itself. Previously, even disciplinary measures had to come from a global and shared vision that included questions of faith. Now, the sanction comes before the explanation of faith.
The point is that, in the desire to create a more open Church, the Church is equated to an association, a “merciful NGO,” as Pope Francis says.
Synodality, therefore, becomes a synonym for creating a para-democracy in which majorities can be manipulated. There was also this idea at the Second Vatican Council when participants were grouped in small lobbies. But at the Council, everything was overcome with the principle of communion and, above all, with a clear Christian vision. And then there were the popes, in particular Paul VI, who wanted the openings of the Synod to be inserted into the tradition of the Church and not against the tradition of the Church.
It is no coincidence that there has been frequent talk of communion, and the search for a method should also lead to a community model. How it may work is to be determined. Sometimes there is the impression that there is no real discussion. But it was also like this in other circumstances, as with the internal statutes presented to the Council of Cardinals that had already been approved by the Pope, without a minimum of discussion. It is necessary to find a balance between the various positions.
What can the synodal method consist of? So far, personal discernment has been dramatically emphasized, with prayer and empty spaces that serve to understand the reasons of the other in a search for political correctness and lack of conflict, which cannot generate good results. At the very least, there are no clear decisions.
For example, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Archbishop of Vienna, said that the Pope would decide on the possible blessings of homosexual couples but that the Church cannot exclude anyone in any case. Archbishop Laszlo Nemet of Belgrade goes as far as saying that there should have been more talk about abuse. Other themes that enter the discussion are those of our time, from peace to migration.
Is this what the Synod should address? Or is the Synod called to provide doctrinal and practical tools on the direction to be given to the Church so that no one feels excluded?
Looking at the signs of the times is a legitimate approach, and has become a way of looking at oneself. So, it is unsurprising that the Synod on communion, participation, and mission did not make much news, except in some Catholic media, while everything was concentrated on what was tangential to the Synod, from requests for peace to questions of migration.
It is a limit that is also present in the Letter to the People of God, which becomes weak in the search to be inclusive and only vaguely allows the idea of structuring a path for the next Synod to emerge. Who knows if it is a deliberate choice, with the idea of postponing the discussion until next year, or instead, it is a decision dictated by events.
At the end of the Synod, the big question remains: what will it have brought to the Church? Some say you don’t have to get anything and that conversing is still lovely. Conversing, however, had already been done before. So, has everything changed? In the emotion of being together? In the possibility of not wearing the cassock during the synod meeting? Or is there something that is changing in the way of governing the Church?
These questions remain and will be burning questions throughout the year of preparation for the next Synod.