The ‘synodality’ masquerade  

George Weigel

During the 2001 Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who’d suffered through a lot of synodal speechifying and small-group discussions over the years, made a trenchant observation: “Jesus Christ didn’t intend his Church to be governed by a committee.”

Indeed.

The mechanisms of consultation that exist in the Church — from parish councils through diocesan pastoral councils to the Synod of Bishops — exist to strengthen the governance of the Church by its pastors: priests in their parishes, bishops in their dioceses, the Bishop of Rome in terms of the universal Church. The Synods of 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019, however, suggest that the committee model deplored by Cardinal George has morphed into something arguably even worse: the masquerade model, in which a “synodal process” of “walking together” provides cover for effecting serious changes in Catholic self-understanding and practice for which there is little or no doctrinal, theological, or pastoral warrant.

In the Final Report of the recent Amazonian Synod, this masquerade model was described in language sodden with clichés:

“To walk together the Church today needs a conversion to the synodal experience. It is necessary to strengthen a culture of dialogue, reciprocal listening, spiritual discernment, consensus and communion to find spaces and modes of joint decision and respond to pastoral challenges. This will foster joint responsibility in the life of the Church in a spirit of service. It is urgent to work, propose, and assume the responsibilities to overcome clericalism and arbitrary impositions. Synodality is a constitutive dimension of the Church. You cannot be a Church without acknowledging an effective exercise of the sensus fidei of the entire People of God.”

Leaving aside the question of how an “effective….sense of the faithful” involving 1.2 billion Catholics could be measured, much less “exercised,” what does this gobbledygook mean? Confusions on that front were amplified by a prominent celebrant of the cult of synodality, whose prose parses but whose grasp of the reality of recent synods seems deficient. Thus Villanova’s Massimo Faggioli, writing in La Croix International, recently made several claims about synodality, none of which stands up to what the courts would call “strict scrutiny” by those actually present in Rome during recent synods:

“…Francis has turned the synods into real events.” Baloney. The synods led by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, chosen by the Holy Father as secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, have been at least as orchestrated as their predecessors. And after there was serious pushback to the manipulation of Synod-2014 by the Synod general secretariat, care was taken at the Synods of 2015 and 2018, and at the recent Amazonian regional synod, to ensure that voices potentially disruptive of the Synod-managers’ plans were not prominent among the invited.

“They [the recent synods] have been prefaced by a serious consultation of the faithful at the local level.” Really? Can you, gentle reader, name anyone in your circle of Catholic friends who was seriously consulted about the issues at Synods 2014 and 2015 (the nature of marriage and sacramental discipline)? Leaders of some of the most evangelically successful youth ministries in the United States were noticeably absent from the preparations for Synod-2018. According to several Amazonian Synod spin-doctors, 87,000 people were consulted prior to the development of that synod’s working document. But how can a local Church unable to tell us how many Catholics there are in Amazonia credibly count the precise number of people “consulted” (much less tell us how well-catechized those people are)? And how was it that 87,000 Amazonians spoke in progressive German Catholic accents, emphasizing “issues” that may be agitated in the Biergärten of Munich but that seem somewhat removed from the real-world pastoral challenges of the Brazilian rainforest?

“The actual Synod gatherings….in Rome have featured genuine freedom of expression.” This, I’m sure, would come as news to the African bishops warned against consorting with American bishops at Synod-2018, as it would to the members of the final-report drafting committees at Synod-2015 and Synod-2018, who complained about the manipulation of the process by the Synod general secretariat.

Serious consultation and collaboration are essential to effective pastoral leadership, including the leadership of the Bishop of Rome. But over the 50-plus years of its existence, no one has figured out how to make the Synod of Bishops really work. Propaganda about “synodality” that functions as rhetorical cover for the imposition of the progressive Catholic agenda on the whole Church is not an improvement on that track record; it’s a masquerade, behind which is an agenda.

Featured image by Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

COMING UP: Fearlessness and the American bishops in Rome

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I once knew a Congregationalist minister — Yale Divinity School graduate, decorated World War II chaplain, veteran campaigner for then-unpopular liberal causes — of whom it was said (sometimes by himself) that “David Colwell so fears God that he fears no one else.” It was a striking statement, redolent, perhaps, of the Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) School of American Protestant Homiletics. But the source of this man’s fearlessness was rather different than that of a man I was just coming to know when David Colwell and I were friendly jousting partners on questions theological and political.

That man was Pope John Paul II.

The dissident Yugoslav Marxist, Milovan Djilas, who had seen a lot in his life, once said that the Polish pope impressed him as a man utterly without fear. As I wrote in Witness to Hope, however, John Paul’s fearlessness was neither stoic nor driven by concerns about post-mortem divine retribution. Rather, it was a fearlessness rooted in John Paul’s rock-solid faith that God’s Kingdom had broken into history in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Because of that, those who became friends of the Lord Jesus and entered the communion of his Church could live beyond fear, here and now, because they had been empowered to live the life of the Kingdom, here and now.

That faith-based fearlessness might well inspire the bishops of the United States on their upcoming ad limina visits to Rome and the “thresholds of the Apostles:” the pilgrimage that every bishop is required to make on a regular basis, during which the Americans will meet in regional groups with Pope Francis and officials of the Roman Curia. Why ought the bishops display fearlessness in Rome? Because their task during the ad limina cycle that begins this month and concludes in February 2020 will be to correct the cartoon view of the Church in the United States that is widespread in the Vatican these days.

According to the cartoon, U.S. Catholicism is dominated by a rigid, legalistic cast of mind, more eager to condemn than to convert, warped by imports from the evangelical Protestant “prosperity Gospel” and beholden to wealthy Catholics with a hard-right political agenda. As any serious student of U.S. Catholicism knows, this is a vicious lie. But it has been successfully sold in the Vatican (and then broadcast by the more hard-edged mouthpieces of the present pontificate), despite the fact that an early version of the cartoon was propagated in Rome in 2013 by the now-disgraced Theodore McCarrick. The developed cartoon was then used to bully Third World bishops at Synod-2018, where warnings were issued against forming alliances with the Americans, who were “against the Pope.”

That, too, was a lie. With the possible exception of the Italian conference, no bishops’ conference in the world has been more deferential to the Holy See than the U.S. conference. But then the people propagating that lie are over-the-top ultramontanists — papal absolutists — whose idea of the range of the Pope’s teaching authority, and the deference due it, might make even Pius IX blush, at least a little (and on his better days). To such minds, even respectful challenge is infidelity.

The cartoon view of the U.S. Church was most ludicrously limned in a 2017 article, co-authored by a close papal adviser, Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, in the Rome-based Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica. Had I been given that article as a paper by a college freshman in American Religion 101, I would have returned it with an offer to the poor student-author: try again and do much better, or take an “F” for your paper. Yet a few weeks ago, while speaking with Jesuits in Africa, the Holy Father commended that very article; and while I would like to think that he commended it as a cautionary tale against publishing nonsense, I fear otherwise.

For all its faults — and they are many — the Catholic Church in the United States lives the New Evangelization better than any other local Church in the developed world.  More acute minds in Rome know that, though many are afraid to say it lest they be labeled “enemies of the pope.” All the more reason, then, for the U.S. bishops to correct the cartoon, respectfully but firmly, so that a serious conversation between Rome and America about the Catholic future in the United States can begin.

Featured image:  © L’Osservatore Romano