I wrote a few weeks ago about the synodality movement. This week the Synod on Synodality is getting started in Rome. This is a major and very significant event in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. I hope it will be successful, which means that it will lead to a genuine transformation of Roman Catholic structure and pastoral practice.
Certainly, as journalist Robert Mickens observed, last week, in La Croix International:“Both fans and foes of the Synod are campaigning and lobbying hard to pressure the assembly’s participants and Church officials to adopt their respective views. A number of Catholic reform groups, almost entirely made up of lay people, have even come to Rome to push for changes such as the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, Church blessings for same-sex couples, a greater lay participation in the exercise of ecclesial governance, and a whole-scale reform of the way candidates are selected and prepared for ministry, as well as how bishops are chosen… The list goes on.”
I am not a pessimist but a cautiously optimistic realist. I remember my great excitement about the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, held in Rome in October 2019.
The Amazon Synod’s agenda, expressing the feelings and desires of many representatives of the Amazon people, had called for ordained married clergy, a reexamination of the role of women in the church, and a number of liturgical and pastoral change’s reflecting the local culture of indigenous peoples rather than the traditional Roman Catholic Western European culture. In the end, it was mostly a lot of nice talk. It is often easier to be talking about change than to be making change happpen.
If this October 2023 Synod on Synodality follows the path of the Amazon Synod, with minimal pastoral implementation, I suspect it will lead to widespread Catholic dissatisfaction. And more people will be leaving the Catholic Church. I truly hope the current Synod succeeds. We need a Roman Catholic restructuring and an energetic pastoral transformation.
As Robert Mickens observed, people pro and con the Synod have been streaming to Rome. Two significant former Vatican “leaders” who are now highly critical of the Synod on Synodality are the German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller and the U.S. American Cardinal Raymond Burke.
Müller was appointed head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and held that position until 2017, when he was removed by Pope Francis. During an interview on the conservative Catholic news network EWTN in October last year, he warned that the current synodal process could result in a “hostile takeover of the Catholic Church.” He had called the proposed introduction of indigenous culture elements into the liturgy at the Amazon Synod held in 2019: “The paganization of the Catholic liturgy.”
Cardinal Burke sees the synod process underway around the world inflicting “evident and grave harm” on the Catholic Church, as he wrote in the foreword to a book published in August The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box, by José Antonio Ureta and Julio Loredo de Izcu. Burke is considered the voice of Catholic traditionalism and is a major proponent of the Tridentine Mass: the traditional Latin Mass, going back to 1570 CE and celebrated with the priest’s back to the congregation. Cardinal Burke is the former head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church.
In the United States, a bishop who is a major critic of the Synod is Bishop Joseph Strickland, Bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. As the New York Times reported on October 2nd, Bishop Strickland has accused Pope Francis of undermining the Catholic faith. Strickland has suggested that other Vatican officials, as well, have veered so far from church teaching that they are no longer Catholic, and has warned that the global Synodal gathering that opens this week at the Vatican could threaten “basic truths” of Catholic doctrine. Bishop Strickland has great popularity among conservative U.S. Catholics. He has has a weekly radio show, and more than 145,000 followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
In any event, a good friend asked what I think a successful post-synodal implementation of changes would mean.
- I want to see a church that is not a strongly doctrinaire, authoritarian institutionbut a truly supportive community of friends: people truly striving to live in the spirit of Christ. The innate danger in all institutions is that, if left unchecked, they cease being service-oriented structures and become hard-nosed self-serving institutions demanding unquestioned loyalty. That leads to a kind of institutional idolatry.
- I want to see a church that affirms the dignity and equality of ALL people — regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I don’t want to read just a lot of official institutional rhetoric. I want to see changed institutional behavior. Talk is easy. We need male and female ordained ministers. IGBTQ+ people should be accepted and welcomed in church ministries and employment. For too long church leaders have patronized, insulted, or simply removed people who do not fit their mold. And it still happens.
- I want to see an honest and humble church that realizes it does not possess all the truth and that it has to collaborate with a variety of people in pursuit of the truth. It has to acknowledge as well that all church doctrines are time and culture bound. Official doctrines are provisional and changeable. Some doctrines may have been meaningful in the past but just don’t work today. Others have evolved more from religious fantasy and folklore. Like, as I wrote a few weeks ago, that Peter was the first pope. That he was the first pope is pure fantasy from the fifth century. He was never a bishop of Rome.
- I want to see a church that asks questions and welcomes the questioner. Asking questions brings greater self-knowledge and a more realistic life understanding. All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” And of course, Jesus of Nazareth asks in the synoptic gospels: “Who do people say that I am?” In John 7:19, Jesus asks: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
- I want a church in which the higher-up ordained leaders dress and act like normal contemporary leadership people not museum-piece Renaissance princes. I often think about Jesus’ observation in Mark 12:38: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes…”
- I want a church in which leadership people are elected by the community for set terms of office, like five or ten years. This applies to the bishop of Rome as well.
- Last but certainly not least, I want a church that promotes personal and community spirituality and encourages and promotes their growth in the stages of faith development.
We live in the present. God is alive and closely with us right now. Not as a controlling authority but as a loving companion. But for many people today the old anthropomorphisms just don’t work. God is just as much Mother as Father, but much more than that. Why don’t Christian religious leaders sit down with, pray, and meditate with leaders of non-Christian religions? Jesus was not a Christian and God is much more than a Christian. As a very good priest friend wrote to me last week: “Jesus didn’t start an institution or teach law, he formed a small community and taught the Gospel.”
We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived. The Spirit us with us. And a healthy Christian community is our GPS.
PS — I will now refrain from comments about the October Synod until it is over.