Certainly, one of the most important – and most positive – developments in the Catholic Church since the 1960s is the synodality movement. Very frankly, if synodality does not work, I suspect the current Catholic exodus will accelerate.
The Catholic synodality movement is a series of high-level conferences of bishops, lay, and religious people to discuss a broad range of contemporary theological and organizational questions concerning the Catholic Church. Catholics in many countries have already had a series of national synodal gatherings.
The next big Synod will be held at the Vatican on 4 to 9 October 2023. There there will be an even mix of participants from six different continents. In total, 363 people will be able to vote in the October Synod, according to the Holy See Press Office. Among them, 54 of the voting delegates are women. But only 54. In addition to the voting members, 75 other participants have been invited to the synod assembly to act as facilitators, experts, or assistants. Curiously, as historical theologian Massimo Faggioli (born 1970) observed in La Croix International (13 July 2023), “Representatives of academic Catholic theology from the United States and Germany are almost completely absent. Comparatively speaking, theologians from the UK, Ireland, Canada, and Australia are more present.” Why? Yes, that is an important question.
The final Synod at the Vatican will be in October 2024. A final synodal advisory document will be voted on by synod assembly participants in 2024 and then presented to Pope Francis. The pope can decide, if he wishes, to adopt the text as a papal document or to write his own at the conclusion of the synod.
The contemporary synodal movement, with its theme of “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission”, will go down as an historic event – positive or negative — in the life of Pope Francis who is close to eighty-seven years old and has now been pope for ten years. Just before the October Synod, Francis, on 30 September, will appoint 21 new cardinals, bringing the total number of cardinals with the right to vote in a conclave to 137.
Right now, opposition to the October Vatican Synod is growing within far-right Catholic groups. Last month, the Societies for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, or TFP, and its sister organizations released The Synodal Process is a Pandora’s Box, a book by two political activists, Chilean José Antonio Ureta and Peruvian Julio Loredo de Izcue. In the United States retired Cardinal Raymond Burke (born 1948) has praised the Ureta and Loredo de Izcue book. He stressed, as reported in the National Catholic Register (23 August 2023), that Catholics have always professed the church to be “one, holy, and apostolic.” But now, Burke observed it is “to be defined by synodality, a term which has no history in the doctrine of the church and for which there is no reasonable definition.”
Describing the German Catholic Church’s “Synodal Path” as a process that sowed confusion, “error” and division, Cardinal Burke said that with the upcoming synod assembly at the Vatican, “it is rightly to be feared that the same confusion and error and division will be visited upon the universal church. In fact, it has already begun to happen through the preparation of the synod at the local level.” Cardinal Burke was once the head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (Latin: Supremum Tribunal Signaturae Apostolicae) – from 2008 to 2014 — the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church.
Both U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke and U.S. Archbishop Joseph Cordileone of San Francisco (born 1956) and well known for his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage have strongly criticized the German Synodal Way.
The German Synodal Way, I suggest, was actually very clear about the direction the Catholic Church should take. Called Der Synodale Weg, it was a series of conferences that began on 1 December 2019, and finished on 11 March 2023. It brought together 230 members, made up of bishops as well as an equal number of lay members from the Central Committee of German Catholics.
The majority of the assembly endorsed that:
- Women’s ordination should be allowed by the Vatican.
- The laity should have more influence on the election of bishops.
- Homosexual partnerships/unions should get a public blessing ceremony.
- The Roman Catholic catechism’s teachings on sexual ethics should be reformed.
- Homosexual sexual acts within same-sex unions/partnerships should be theologically accepted and not classified as sinful behavior.
- Married priests should be allowed.
- There should be changes to the labor laws of the German church to prohibit the firing or refusal to hire people based on marital status.
On 10 March 2023, Bishop Georg Bätzing (born 1961) who is chairman of the German Bishop’s conference, expressed satisfaction at the end of the synodal assembly. As reported on the Pillar Catholic website, he said: “The synodal way is a concretization of what Pope Francis means by synodality. Above all, it is an expression of a lively, colorful, and diverse Church.”
Pope Francis was actually a bit more critical. As reported in Crux on 26 January 2023, during an interview with the Associated Press, Pope Francis warned that the German Synodal Way is both “elitist” and “ideological.” He also said that it is neither helpful nor serious, and contrasted it with the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality. He urged that Catholic Church members to be patient, to dialogue and to accompany these people “on the real synodal path” and to “help this more elitist [German] path so that it does not end badly in some way, but so is also integrated into the Church.”
The 4 to 9 October 2023 Vatican Synod, like its predecessors, it will be held behind closed doors with carefully tailored information fed to reporters concerning what’s happening. Russell Shaw, veteran journalist, writing in the National Catholic Register (12 September 2023) asked a key question about the Vatican Synod starting next month: “If the synodal Church that Pope Francis wants is to be the open, transparent affair he speaks of, is a closed-door synod, with tight controls on the information flow, the best way of launching it?”
And so, we remain observant and alert. This synodal story is hardly over. The Catholic Church may not be a democracy, but for too long the organizational structure of the Church emulated the structure and style of Constantine’s fourth century Roman Empire. Early Christian communities, however, were not that way. They belonged to communities of equals. Their leadership was anchored in solidarity with the community not above the community but part of it, walking and discerning together.