Pope Francis announced that the synodal assembly on synodality will be held on two sessions, in 2023 and 2024. This allows greater discernment to mature the synodal process’ fruits. The decision came following the meeting with the General Secretariat of the Synod, which brought the results of a first summary document outlined during a meeting of the select committee in Frascati for the Continental step. The document was not published yet but only delivered to the Pope, who decided to extend the synodal assembly by another meeting.
Pope Francis has placed the Church in a permanent state of synod for some time. The Synod on the family was held in two sessions, in 2014 and 2015. After the Synod on Youth in 2018, there was a Special Synod on the Pan-Amazon region in 2019. With the current synodal journey, which will continue to 2024, it can be said that more than half of the years of Pope Francis’ pontificate has been with the Church in a state of Synod.
It is a striking fact if you think that, in one of the first interviews granted after the election of Pope Francis, his auxiliary in Buenos Aires, Bishop Garcia, said that Cardinal Bergoglio did not like diocesan Synods, and every time proposed, he would note that instead it was better to do works, that a Synod would only produce documents that no one would read.
These synods also produce documents that, in reality, few remember but which form the basis for some local pronouncements and interpretations that have no official endorsement and therefore create division. It is clear, however, that Pope Francis has changed his mind on the subject, deeming the synodal path helpful for discussion, or in any case, a better means of carrying forward the idea of the Church that he has in mind.
At the beginning of the pontificate, there was much fear that Pope Francis might have convened a Vatican Council III. This permanent Synod appears to be a council in disguise. The only difference is that the significant issues are not discussed openly by bishops and experts in a transparent and dynamic assembly. The great themes arise in the synodal discussions, in situations with no deliverables but only steps forward or backward, which will then be up to the authority to define. The authority, however, does not determine them but instead continues this permanent discussion.
Perhaps it is precisely because the Pope does not take a clear-cut position that some episcopal conferences have gone a long way on their own, arriving at proposals for substantial doctrinal changes. This is the case of the synodal journey of the Church in Germany, but not only. You can read the national reports of this Synod of France, Germany, and Switzerland to see where we are moving at the doctrinal level, not to mention the decision of the bishops of Flanders in Belgium to define a model for the blessing of homosexual couples.
The situation in Flanders is emblematic because, in their texts, the bishops were very careful to formally remain within the confines of doctrine, not giving a formal blessing to the couple or the union. And so, between a formalism, a tough stance, and in the end, a certain indifference, the face of the Church is changed without formally changing it.
Even during the Second Vatican Council, there were several steps forward and campaigns to change the doctrinal positions of the Church. For the first time, the media entered the debate and took the opportunity to direct it. Nothing new in this. But there is a problem in this state of permanent Synod, which was precisely also a problem at the Second Vatican Council.
After the first assembly of the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII died. The successor was Paul VI, who completed the Council. Paul VI had a sense of John XXIII’s tradition and a particular will to change without revolutionizing, which somehow helped to have a transition in the name of continuity. Paul VI, however, suffered enormously from external pressures.
After the media campaigns that followed the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae on contraception in 1968, Paul VI no longer wrote encyclicals. Instead, he limited himself to lighter documents in a magisterium that became prophetic, itinerant, and which, however, was considered weak.
What will happen if, amid this state of permanent Synod, Pope Francis dies or gives up? How will his successor manage this synodal process?
Inevitably it is an issue that enters the discussions of the cardinals and that, at the same time, will enter the Conclave. Will Pope Francis’s fluid approach be maintained, moving forward in that direction? Or will it be otherwise, with a Pope who will lead the synodal process in the first person?
This could be understood as Pope Francis leaving the decision to others. But that is not so. On the contrary, the Pope presents himself as a natural decision-maker, and no discussion has led him not to make decisions. Just think of the reform of the Curia, made and promulgated almost always outside the meetings of the Council of Cardinals.
The Pope, however, does not take precise positions in the debates. He leaves everyone the opportunity to interpret, and only later does he let it be understood which, according to him, could be the best interpretation. Thus, you leave everything as it is, simultaneously changing everything. The Pope remains the central reference point, but above all, in government cases. It is an almost secular government. On doctrinal issues, everything seems suspended, apart from some decisions that, however, concern the liturgical sphere – such as the abolition of the liberalization of the Usus Antiquior Mass
What the next Pope will do remains to be seen. Indeed, the state of permanent Synod will stay for a while. With all its consequences.