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Synod on Synodality 2023: Work begins on the final text as Second Week wraps up

The Synod on Synodality hit a stride this week as delegates not only walked the catacombs but elected a commission to oversee the drafting of a “synthesis report,” although an interim report on the German Synodal Way delivered to participants served as a reminder that potential storms lay ahead.

The lively debates and events outside the Synod, including a lay-led assembly that featured well-known Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, contrasted somewhat with the subdued atmosphere inside the Synod hall, where ideological pressures are expected to surface in the concluding week surrounding the drafting of the Synod synthesis document.

Synthesis report commission picks

Vatican spokesman Paolo Ruffini explained at a press conference on Oct. 10 that the synthesis report will be written by “the experts” attending the Synod.

The choice of commission members hinted at the varying sensitivities involved in shaping the document culminating this part of the Synod. For instance, the inclusion of Cardinal Marc Aveline of Marseille and Cardinal Giorgio Marengo of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in the “synthesis report” commission hinted at a broader geographical and thematic scope which some might see as a nod towards the peripheries.

Synod on Synodality spokesman Paolo Ruffini speaks a press briefing on Oct. 11, 2023, at the Vatican. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez | CNA

The task before the synthesis commission involves assiduous listening to the insights from smaller circles — garnering a two-thirds majority vote — and gauging reactions within the general congregation to craft a document resonating with the assembly’s sentiments.

However, some argue that if listening remains the priority, the summary document ought to encapsulate all viewpoints.

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Another concern expressed is perhaps more serious: What if a “borderline” thesis finds its way into a summary document, later serving as a foundation for subsequent Synodal deliberations?

Theological and pastoral tensions

The tensions surrounding the drafting of the document were mirrored in the briefings and interventions of the week.

Metropolitan Job, the Eastern Orthodox bishop of Pisidia and the permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the World Council of Churches, speaks to delegates of the Synod on Synodality on Oct. 9, 2023, at the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall. He is attending the Synod on Synodality as a fraternal delegate. Credit: Screenshot of Vatican Media livestream

On Monday, Metropolitan Job, an Eastern Orthodox bishop of Pisidia, said the definition of Synodality of the event organized at the Vatican “differs greatly” from the Orthodox understanding.

Referencing the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea in 325, and the Apostolic Canons, a fourth-century Christian text on the government and discipline of the early Christian Church, he said, “a Synod is a deliberative meeting of bishops, not a consultative clergy-laity assembly.”

While official statements are absent — due to the confidentiality clauses binding the Synod participants — informal chatter also revealed some discontent regarding the “uniformity of the composition of some tables,” potentially leading to the formulation of real agendas.

Certain topics and tables saw scant discussion due to a shared intent. For instance, the subject of ecumenism seemed to evoke a sense of familiarity among its discussants.

The discourse on “LGBTQ inclusion,” which failed to mention the 1986 statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressing the pastoral care of homosexual persons, saw a broader spectrum of disagreement, although a common sentiment among bishops and others seems to be respectful doctrinal accompaniment.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, New Jersey. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/ACI Prensa

At the press briefing on Oct 10, tensions surrounding the inclusion came to a head as Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, advocated for a more inclusive pastoral approach towards LGBTQ individuals, stating, “the real beauty of our Catholic Church is clear when the doors are open and welcoming,”  addding that “it is my hope that the Synod will help us to do that in an even more significant way.” In response, a reporter pressed the question about whether doors are shut to some traditional Catholics.

The American prelate also acknowledged that armed conflicts underway are on the participants’ minds — a theme taken up on Thursday by Margaret Karram, president of the Focolare Movement. The Israeli-born Arab Catholic spoke on the Israel-Hamas conflict and offered perspectives on the Christian experience in both Iraq and across the African ecclesial landscape.

Voices heard: the question of seating and discussions

There is a notable effort on the part of the Synod organizers to affirm that voices have been genuinely heard. But the novel — and confidential — approach to seating has raised many questions: Who is sitting with whom at the Synod on Synodality, and what topics are they discussing, exactly? And, more importantly, are there actual debates?

What is clear, however, is that there is a notable effort on the part of the Synod organizers to affirm that voices have been genuinely heard. Thus, one of the resources shared with participants is the book “The People Have Spoken,” by Myriam Wijlens and Vimal Tirimanna, aiming to provide a framework for the endeavors of the continental assemblies.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, said at the start of the Oct. 9 general congregation, encapsulating the event’s ethos: “All are invited to be part of the Church.”

At the press briefing on Oct 10, tensions surrounding the inclusion came to a head as Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, advocated for a more inclusive pastoral approach towards LGBTQ individuals, stating, “the real beauty of our Catholic Church is clear when the doors are open and welcoming,”  addding that “it is my hope that the Synod will help us to do that in an even more significant way.” In response, a reporter pressed the question about whether doors are shut to some traditional Catholics.

The American prelate also acknowledged that armed conflicts underway are on the participants’ minds — a theme taken up on Thursday by Margaret Karram, president of the Focolare Movement. The Israeli-born Arab Catholic spoke on the Israel-Hamas conflict and offered perspectives on the Christian experience in both Iraq and across the African ecclesial landscape.

Voices heard: the question of seating and discussions

There is a notable effort on the part of the Synod organizers to affirm that voices have been genuinely heard. But the novel — and confidential — approach to seating has raised many questions: Who is sitting with whom at the Synod on Synodality, and what topics are they discussing, exactly? And, more importantly, are there actual debates?

What is clear, however, is that there is a notable effort on the part of the Synod organizers to affirm that voices have been genuinely heard. Thus, one of the resources shared with participants is the book “The People Have Spoken,” by Myriam Wijlens and Vimal Tirimanna, aiming to provide a framework for the endeavors of the continental assemblies.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, said at the start of the Oct. 9 general congregation, encapsulating the event’s ethos: “All are invited to be part of the Church.”

“In deep communion with His Father through the Holy Spirit, Jesus extended this communion to all the sinners,” Hollerich said in his remarks. “Are we ready to do the same? Are we ready to do this with groups that might irritate us because their way of being might seem to threaten our identity?”

Failing to do so, he added, “will make us look like an identitarian club.”

German Synodal Way and the Synod on Synodality

The week risked being overshadowed by a letter shared with the Synod participants by Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg writing in his role as co-president of the controversial German Synodal Way — an event which was not a synod.

Participants of the Synod on Synodality received a 159-page document translated into various languages that provides the decisions taken by the event. Among them are controversial votes from the event, including calls for reevaluating homosexuality, blessing homosexual unions, and ending mandatory priest celibacy. It also addresses gender diversity, women in sacramental ministries, and involving lay people in selecting diocesan bishops.

In certain instances, the German resolutions are pastoral ideas, yet in many others the propositions veer towards altering the Church’s traditional teachings. The process’ statutes provide for these to be sent as propositions to the Holy Father.

In essence, Germany is forging ahead with plans for a permanent Synodal Council waiting to see if the Pope will ratify any doctrinal modifications. It’s an open question how Rome will respond to this, and whether alliances will emerge during this Synod.

Uncharted waters

Still, as the German Synodal Way introduces its contentious propositions, the undercurrents of this Synod might just carry along some of these rippling ideas into the discussions in Rome.

Whether this Synod on Synodality will be a new confluence of ideas, akin to the historic theological flow from the Rhine to the Tiber — an evocative phrase that symbolizes the infusion of progressive theological agendas from German-speaking lands into the broader Church discourse in Rome during Vatican II — remains unclear.

The ultimate course of this ecclesiastical river is yet to be charted — and its confluence with tradition, a story yet to be told.

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