Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
An element of the draft final document of the Youth Synod of concern to some Synod Fathers this week has been the unexpected addition of the theme of “synodality” — a word that has come to mean decentralizing and democratizing the Church and the magisterium away from the papacy and the Vatican to local churches.
The subject was hardly discussed during this month’s meeting, and yet it dominates the third part of the draft document, surprising many of the Synod Fathers.
After several days of debate and tabling of amendments (modi) to the draft, the final document will be voted on by 267 Synod Fathers Saturday, concluding the Oct. 3-28 synod on the theme: “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.”
The Register has seen the relevant texts on synodality, which consist of three chapters, two of which are entitled The Missionary Synodality of the Church, and Synodality in Everyday Life. This month’s synod has reawakened synodality, the document says, which it defines in various ways, including listening, collaborating and dialogue with all people of good will, especially those on the peripheries.
Pope Francis has long advocated a “synodal” Church, one in which everyone listens to one another and learns from them. The concept of synodality is an ancient one and is generally understood to represent a process of discernment, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, involving all the faithful.
In a key address on the subject in October 2015, Francis said the “journey of synodality is the journey that God wants from his Church in the third millennium.” A synodal Church, he added, is one of “reciprocal listening” in which each person “has something to learn.”
The model of governance was especially favored by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini who hoped for “a sort of permanent council of regents for the Church, beside the Pope.” He was one of the first to propose the model of a “synodal” Church in which the Pope no longer governs as an absolute monarch.
Asked at a synod press briefing Thursday what synodality means, Archbishop Hector Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte of Trujillo, Peru, said it is about more than Church governance — it involves all the faithful in a spirit of collaboration.
“When I say everyone, I don’t just mean the Church as in the bishops, priests. No! It is also the laity and the faithful at all levels,” he said. “And all of us bishops are called — and this is part of that synodality — to make collaboration grow.” Archbishop Cabrejos said it involves the entire Church “walking together,” not only with young people who are in the Church but “also with those who are far, with nonbelievers.”
And yet, about a dozen Synod Fathers voiced deep concerns about its inclusion during general congregations held to debate the draft Wednesday. They believe its more “horizontal” style of governing the Church could potentially place synods and their teaching above the authority of the pope. They further argue that it marks such a change in Church governance that it deserves much greater attention and perhaps a synod dedicated to the concept.
The overriding concern is that it could easily be exploited by various groups and individuals, influenced by fads and the spirit of the world, to undermine the Church’s teaching and unity. This is especially of concern now that Pope Francis has applied the weight of the papal magisterium to synod final documents if he wishes (some theologians believe the Pope would exceed his powers if he did so). They also wonder why the need to promote synodality now, when the Anglican Communion, which has long had a synodal model of Church governance, has been torn apart by it.
Speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity Oct. 25, various sources inside and outside the Youth Synod said they are concerned the inclusion of synodality in the final document is simply in anticipation of next year’s Pan-Amazonian synod, which they believe will be used to introduce married clergy in the Latin rite (priest shortages in the Amazonian region could be used in the context of a synod to permit a far wider provision).
They also believe it is being used to smuggle in a softening of the Church’s teaching on irregular unions, in particular homosexual relations.
The draft document’s third chapter on synodality, for example, speaks of the need, requested by young people, for a deeper anthropological study of sexuality to be carried out in a synodal style.
“We thought the LGBT issue was the important one,” said a synod source, “but the real issue is this one, because if that doesn’t pass, they can circle back around and get this introduced locally through synodality.”
The synod fathers therefore called it a “dangerous” and “imprudent” move, especially if it isn’t adequately explained or understood.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, was especially opposed, according to multiple sources, saying he has seen other ecclesial communities such as the Anglican Communion use it and it “doesn’t work.” Modi were submitted to change it.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias, a member of the drafting committee of the final document, has also expressed his reticence about the inclusion of synodality in the document.
Sources say Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna sought to play down the concerns, telling the synod it is merely a realization of Pope St. Paul VI’s vision of synodality and is not about governance, although he told reporters Oct. 26 that synodality “concerns the functioning of the Church.”
Force for Good?
If handled correctly, some see synodality as an authentic force for good. The synodal model was intended to “increase communion between bishops and the pope,” said Dominican Father Thomas Petri, the vice president and academic dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C. — something, he added, which Francis “articulated” in his 2018 apostolic constitution on synods, Episcopalis Communio.
Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, an associate professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, similarly underscored the strength of the synodal model, saying it resonates with Vatican II and Pope St. John Paul II’s emphasis on lay participation. The young people’s contributions at this synod, he added, “can offer a creative voice to catalyze effective pastoral efforts of formation, discernment and sanctification.”
But they both also acknowledged the dangers.
Father Petri drew on the precedent of the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family and resulting “ambiguities,” which led to concerns that it opened the door to pastoral practices that “diverge” from universal ones “grounded in revealed teaching.”
Synods, the Dominican priest said, are dependent on the Pope exercising his role “clearly and effectively” to create agreement, unite bishops, confirm teaching and correct conclusions if necessary. If ambiguity is allowed to remain, he said, it can give the impression of “synodism or conciliarism” that places such gatherings and their teaching over the authority of the Pope.
Father Gahl warned that “any attempt to democratize the Church would be dangerous” as it is the Church that “hands down a divine message” and is “not merely a place of consensus building through democratic processes.” Synod fathers have an “obligation to act in communion with the entire People of God,” he said, “which includes the saints in heaven.”
But Catholic synodality would not necessarily have the same negative effects as the Anglican model.
“The Petrine charism should, in principle, prevent synodism or an Anglicanism according in the Church,” said Father Petri, but he added: “This has not been tested.”
Others say it is dependent on the Petrine authority keeping the barque of Peter on course, rather than being “hands off,” which has been a criticism of Pope Francis’ style of governance, for example on the recent controversy over intercommunion for Protestant spouses.
In Anglicanism, synods have been effective in liberalizing once-orthodox institutions, which is said to be why those pushing heterodox positions are strong advocates for synodality, but Father Petri is “not sure” Francis’ “overarching aim is to liberalize Catholic teaching and practice, “no matter how much those around him or those who claim to speak for him want us to believe that.”
Others, however, disagree, and believe the Pope is using synodality precisely to liberalize Church teaching and effectively “protestantize” the Church. They cite the softening of the Church’s teaching on Holy Communion for some “remarried” divorcees that followed the Synods on the Family. They have also been made suspicious by how this issue has been inserted into the synod with little time to discuss it, and the fact that the International Theological Commission’s recent paper on the subject, released with little publicity, shows that this has probably been the intention all along.
This has led to a perception of synods being geared towards undermining Catholic doctrine and morals as some previous synods have been. The Synod of Pistoia in 1786, for example, was universally condemned as heretical by Pope Pius VI in 1794 who said it introduced “troublesome novelties under the guise of a sham reform” and was convoked by bishops who were “innovators in the art of deception.” Francis' vision of synodality, critics say, is more similar to the Protestant model, and likely to foster disunity, with different voices no longer univocally preaching the Gospel as Christ gave it to his apostles and passed on through the centuries.
But according to Father Gahl, Pope Francis “promotes synodality not to dilute doctrine but to foster participation.” The Pope’s intention, he believes, is “to open new gates to the Holy Spirit so that the Sanctifier may effectively speak through every Christian.”