Synod on Synodality 2023: Facts, Anecdotes, and Analysis From the First Week

A Synod Recap Week 1: Pope Francis speaks on and off the cuff, more methodology gets defined, dubia responses raise expectations on synod outcome and Cardinal Zen dispatches lengthy letter of concern

L to R: Pope Francis, the round tables at the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and Paolo Ruffini.
L to R: Pope Francis, the round tables at the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and Paolo Ruffini. (photo: Credit: EWTN News)

As the Synod on Synodality commences in Rome amid numerous open questions, one key answer was provided this week with the publication of the rules of engagement for the approximately 450 participants of the gathering in Rome.

The regulations for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops were issued on Wednesday afternoon at the conclusion of the first working day by Cardinal Mario Grech, the organizer of the synodal meeting.

Yes to confidentiality, no to pontifical secret during the synod

The regulations lack the often-dreaded “pontifical secret.” However, their plea for privacy and confidentiality is arguably more stringent than any pontifical secret. In previous rules — known as “ordines synodi” — pontifical secrecy was invoked concerning the discourse and standpoints of others but not one’s own. The current regulations emphasize that “each of the participants is bound to confidentiality and discretion regarding both their own interventions and the interventions of other participants.” Furthermore, this “duty remains in force once the synodal assembly has ended.”

The regulation unveiling occurred on the evening of Oct. 4 alongside the introductory addresses of Pope Francis; Grech, the general secretary of the synod; Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the general rapporteur of the synod; and His Beatitude Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, the leader of the Coptic Catholic Church. While the spiritual retreat materials were shared with journalists well in advance, the opening speeches were only distributed post-delivery despite being broadcast live.

A precedent was set with Pope Francis, who spoke extemporaneously, appealing directly to journalists. He stressed that heeding the Holy Spirit requires “a certain fasting of the public word,” attempting to dispel notions that the bishops harbor fear in voicing their thoughts. Instead, Pope Francis urged journalists to recognize that “the priority is listening.”

This underscores a lurking anxiety over a media-orchestrated agenda, or at the very least, external influences, often masking a vulnerability in discussions and doubts surrounding the synod’s novel methodology.

Synod on Synodality 2023 summary report, not a final document

Contrary to previous conventions, no final document is envisaged; the regulations stipulate a summary report, encapsulating the key discussion points. Smaller circles will cast votes on their reports, seeking an absolute majority, while the summary report necessitates a two-thirds consensus from the full assembly. The process if the final report fails to garner the requisite consensus for publication remains ambiguous.

Synod’s innovative methodology: round tables

This innovative synodal design, featuring round tables of 11 individuals, aims to foster dialogue under the premise of equality before God, with predetermined themes and questionnaires to steer the discussions and experts to bolster the arguments.

Synodality as a method takes center stage, albeit with unclear potential outcomes. Pope Francis’ approach, keeping all doors ajar without prejudiced closures, holds its own challenges. The method could unveil unforeseen and unpredictable outcomes.

Such unpredictability also tinges the synodal process with apprehension. Earlier in January, addressing bishops’ concerns, Grech and Hollerich penned a letter to bishops worldwide, affirming the pivotal role of bishops.

Grech aimed to temper the zeal for change at the synod’s onset. At this historical juncture, he articulated that the Church is beckoned to embody and convey God’s love for all humanity, transcending theological or ecclesiological quandaries.

In a bid to deflect the anticipations set by various pressure groups, both internal and external to the Church, Hollerich honed in on the methodology, stating: “We are called to learn the grammar of synodality. Just as the grammar of our languages evolves over time, so does the grammar of synodality: It changes with time. Hence, discerning the signs of our time should aid us in unveiling a contemporary grammar of synodality. And in grammar, some fundamental rules remain unchanged.”

The synod is not a parliament, but what about the votes?

During the opening Mass on Oct. 4 and on numerous other occasions, Pope Francis reiterated that the synod is not a parliament; decisions are not to be cast in votes; instead, there’s a divine discourse to be heeded.

In essence, there’s a palpable papal concern that public opinion might overshadow the synodal process, with disseminated information potentially swaying the synod fathers’ interventions, thus jeopardizing the synodal discernment process.

Synod’s hot-button topics and agendas

The Roman pontiff reminisced about the Synod on the Family, where public opinion, shaped by worldly concerns, clamored for Communion for the divorced. He pointed out that the Synod for the Amazon faced similar pressures regarding the ordination of married men, “viri probati.” Now, as speculations swirl around “What will they do?”, “maybe the priesthood for women”, conjectures from outside circles portray bishops as hesitant to share the unfolding events.

The spiritual retreat for synod participants — held Oct. 1–4 — commenced with a meditation by Father Timothy Radcliffe, who reflected: “During our synodal journey, we may fret over our tangible achievements. The media might deem it a futile endeavor, solely words. They will adjudicate if bold decisions are made on about four or five hot-button topics.”

Such fears echoed those prevalent during and after the Second Vatican Council. Pope Benedict XVI, conversing with Swiss bishops on Nov. 9, 2007, reminisced: “When I visited Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, I was solicited for interviews, and the questions were predictably about women’s ordination, contraception, abortion, and other recurrent issues.”

The late pontiff added: “Engaging in these discussions portrays the Church as merely a moralist entity with antiquated convictions, obscuring the true magnificence of faith.”

Today’s synod organizers strive for equilibrium amid the various agendas intersecting at the gathering. Hollerich, envisioning the future, points to a “road map” for the upcoming year, delineating areas of consensus and those necessitating deeper reflection, to respond to the Holy Spirit’s call. Yet, the road map also acknowledges the need for further contemplation along this reflective journey.

Dubia on the synod and what to expect

Pope Francis again reiterated in this context: “The synod is not a parliament.” Nonetheless, this synodal gathering ideally will link up with responses to the dubia of five cardinals by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), endorsed by the pope. In the face of inquiries regarding possible doctrinal alterations, reinterpretations, and sacramental discipline for the divorced and remarried, the dicastery abstained from a mere “yes” or “no.” Instead, it sought to provide reasoned, comprehensive responses to specific situational analyses.

There may be concern over public debate and media framing, but such concern also points to other agendas. DDF prefect Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández emphasized that “if reinterpreting implies a better understanding, then it’s the Church’s calling.”

However, the question of how to determine a “better” interpretation remains contentious, extending beyond merely changing the grammatical rules described by Hollerich.

For now, it may well be that it is not the Church’s doctrine that is being examined but primarily its perception.

Cardinal Zen’s disquiet over synod tactics and agenda

This sentiment is widely shared, so much so that Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, dispatched a lengthy letter voicing concerns and alleging organizers were skilled in “the art of manipulation.”

Zen criticizes the synod’s methodology, highlighting that initiating with smaller circles poses challenges, as the general assembly is where crucial controversies emerge and require resolution. The Synod on Synodality should not avoid honest, spirited discussions, Zen wrote, since open, robust dialogue — much like during Vatican II — is required for the Holy Spirit to truly work at the gathering. 

Ultimately, the latest dubia and Zen’s letter become part of the very life of the synod. Under Pope Francis, the gathering has shifted from being a one-time event to an ongoing process. Now, the challenge is for the bishops to decide if they should discuss their ideas openly in the meeting hall. Some will do it freely, giving a glimpse of light to a dark process. Others will prefer to maintain absolute confidentiality, making it impossible to understand the mood of the synodal assembly.

Indeed, communication plays its own particular role in the synod. Although there’s a rule of keeping things confidential, this might backfire on the synod’s General Secretariat. The synod is about private discussions, not secret ones — it’s a gathering for all, during which Pope Francis will clarify what he wants to see done.