Permanent Synodal Church — A Progressive Jesuit Cardinal’s ‘Dream’ Come True

Today’s announcement of a two-year process for the upcoming synod on synodality appears to reflect the ideas of Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who viewed synodality as a vehicle for questioning Church teaching.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan visits St. Peter's Basilica on April 12, 2005.
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan visits St. Peter's Basilica on April 12, 2005. (photo: Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images)

The Vatican’s announcement today that Pope Francis has changed his plans for the next Synod of Bishops and made it into a multiphase process over two years comes closer to fulfilling a “dream” of the late progressive Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. 

The former cardinal-archbishop of Milan, a favorite of those pushing for heterodox reforms in the Church, had envisioned a permanent synodal Church in which the idea of collegial governance introduced at the Second Vatican Council could be better realized. 

The Jesuit biblical scholar, who died in 2012, “had a dream” in 1999 of a Church capable of being in a permanent synodal state, with a “collegial and authoritative exchange among all the bishops on some key issues.” 

For Cardinal Martini, those key issues comprised “the shortage of ordained ministers, the role of woman in society and in the Church, the discipline of marriage, the Catholic vision of sexuality, penitential practice, relations with the sister Churches of Orthodoxy and more in general the need to revive ecumenical hopes, the relationship between democracy and values and between civil laws and the moral law.”

In a later interview in 2004, he said he also saw the Synod of Bishops — as Pope Francis does — as an important element in a less centralized form of Church governance. 

Rather than argue for a Third Vatican Council, he believed his vision of a permanent synodal Church would not only be more in line with the Second Vatican Council’s call for collegial governance, but an effective vehicle for introducing the key issues he mentioned. 

Echoing a similar kind of synodal permanence, Pope Francis’ upcoming synod will be entirely devoted to synodality for two years (the official theme is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission”) and follows almost-annual Vatican synodal assemblies during Francis’ pontificate.   

Originally scheduled for October next year, the upcoming meeting will now consist of a “diocesan phase” running from this October until April 2022, a “continental phase” from September 2022 to March 2023, and a “conclusive phase” for the universal Church in October 2023. It will have two working documents (instrumentum laboris) instead of the usual one. 

Referring to the extended synodal period, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech, said in an interview with Vatican Media on Friday that it was consistent with Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution on the Synod of Bishops, Episcopalis Communio, which transformed the synod from being an “event into a process.”

That process, he added, is aimed at ensuring the “wider participation of the People of God” and, according to the Synod of Bishops’ announcement today, listening to what “all of the baptized” have to say.

Given the tensions and acrimony associated with recent synods, and especially the national “Synodal Path” underway in Germany, which critics say could lead the country’s Church into schism, apprehension is growing about the disunifying effects of this kind of governance and its tendency to be used to introduce heterodoxy into the Church. 

These concerns have also grown in view of the fact that so many of the faithful, especially in the West, have been poorly catechized for the past 60 years.  

Cardinal Grech sought to allay such concerns in his interview, asserting that, for Pope Francis, “the sensus fidei [the sense of the faithful] best characterizes this people [of God] that makes them infallible in credendo

“This traditional aspect of doctrine throughout the history of the Church professes that ‘the entire body of the faithful ... cannot err in matters of belief’ by virtue of the light that comes from the Holy Spirit given in baptism,” he said.

“The Second Vatican Council teaches that the People of God participate in the prophetic office of Christ. Therefore, we must listen to the People of God, and this means going out to the local Churches.”

“The governing principle of this consultation of the People of God is contained in the ancient principle ‘that which touches upon all must be approved by all’ (Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari debet),” he said. “This is not about democracy, or populism or anything like that. Rather, it is the Church that, as the People of God, a People who by virtue of baptism, is an active subject in the life and mission of the Church.”