Synodality Itself Reaches a New Level of Scrutiny

COMMENTARY: Has the process been undermined with the publication of ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ and its subsequent clarification? Consider these 12 questions.

The second universal phase of the Synod on Synodality, the first phase of which was held last October at the Vatican, will be held this October.
The second universal phase of the Synod on Synodality, the first phase of which was held last October at the Vatican, will be held this October. (photo: Daniel Ibañez / CNA)

This year will mark the completion of the Synodal on Synodality for a synodal Church. The first of two planetary phases was held last October in Rome; the second will be held this October. American dioceses have been asked to conduct more synodal meetings in the coming months.

The synodal process may well be challenged by the publication late last year of Fiducia Supplicans, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF)’s Dec. 18 declaration on the blessings of “irregular and same-sex couples.” That such a major initiative was launched without any significant consultation may appear to undermine the spirit of synodality.

Synodality itself will thus be examined more carefully in the months ahead. On the eve of the October assembly, Pope Francis, acknowledging concerns about the process, conceded that “speaking of a ‘Synod on Synodality’ may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical.” Nevertheless, the Holy Father insisted that synodality was “constitutive” of the Church.

At the beginning of the 36-month synodal process, Pope Francis clarified that the Holy Spirit was “the protagonist of the synod,” stating bluntly that “if the Spirit is not present, there won’t be a synod.”

So it is of primary importance to discern whether the Holy Spirit has in fact been active in the synodal process. That has frequently been asserted, but it might just be a pious desire. It is routine in ecclesial circles to assume that the Holy Spirit has animated whatever decision has been taken or process engaged.

Pope Francis knows well that the assertion of the Holy Spirit’s presence, or even a confident feeling that he is present, requires a thorough and careful discernment. That the Holy Spirit is always present in the Church is not in question. The specific question is whether He has been the protagonist of this process. That is the criterion established by Pope Francis in October 2021.

Notably, the Holy Father has already provided an example of the Holy Spirit not guiding a synodal process. The 2019 Amazonian Synod approved a proposal for married priests. Pope Francis rejected it and later explained that the discussion of that topic was not a proper “discernment.” That synod, in the Holy Father’s judgment, “could not escape that [parliamentary] dynamic.”

Pope Francis repeatedly insists that the synod must not be a parliament. If the Amazonian synod, at least in part, was not led by the Holy Spirit, then it is fitting to ask whether the 2021-2024 synodal process on synodality is being led by the Holy Spirit.

Since Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernandez, new prefect of the DDF, arrived in Rome, a new fashion has taken hold. Dubia (formal questions) are being answered on a variety of topics. Two sets of responses were given over the summer, one set on Amoris Laetitia and another on synodality and same-sex unions. Another set was answered on transgender baptisms and godparents. Yet another on cremated remains was given, and then once more on single mothers and Holy Communion.

In that fashion then, herewith are 12 questions about the Holy Spirit in the synodal process, formulated in a somewhat provocative manner. The most searching questions will produce the most persuasive answers. These kinds of questions were heard frequently enough in Rome last October. If convincing answers to these questions were given by those directing the synod, it would strengthen confidence in the entire synodal process.

1. Is the Holy Spirit the protagonist of a process marked by contradictory explanations of what was being done? Repeatedly, it was insisted that the synod was not about specific issues, but about a method — hence the title, “Synod on Synodality,” sometimes critiqued as a “meeting about meetings.” The synod was supposedly about a process, not about substantive issues. Yet issues — including the so-called hot-button issues — were endlessly discussed; and the final summary report, at some 40-plus pages, included dozens of them. If the process is at odds with how it has been officially proposed, is that a mark of the Holy Spirit’s action?

2. Is the Holy Spirit the protagonist of a process that remains unclear in is basic definitions, so much so that the final summary report in October called for theological study of what synodality actually means? How can “synodality” be “constitutive” of the Church while remaining an obscure concept?

3. Is the Holy Spirit the protagonist of a process in which theological reflection on divine Revelation takes very much a secondary place to the shared testimony of felt experiences? Does the Holy Spirit lead with the Word of God or the words of men?

4. Is the Holy Spirit the protagonist of a process that appears to diverge from the teaching of Vatican II in Lumen Gentium on the essential difference between the priesthood of the baptized and ministerial priesthood? If synodality emphasizes the common priesthood at the expense of the ministerial priesthood, the centrality of the Paschal mystery in the life of the Church is diminished.

5. Is the Holy Spirit the protagonist of a process that is heavily bureaucratic, saturated in the language and techniques of business schools? Does the Holy Spirit work more through ecclesial bureaucrats, many of whom were the “non-bishops” at the October assembly, than through parish priests or campus evangelists, who were not included in the assembly?

6. Does the Holy Spirit desire the Latin Church to “recover” synodality at this point in history, given that synodal governance is experiencing the greatest crisis in its history amongst the Orthodox Churches, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion? One reading of the signs of the times might suggest that ecclesial “participation, communion and mission” are better served today by less synodality, not more.

7. Is the German Synodal Way led by the Holy Spirit? Pope Francis has repeatedly indicated that it is not. Why, then, was so much attention given at the October assembly to questions also featured in the German discussions, instead of priorities that might be more relevant in other, healthier, parts of the Church?

8. Was the Holy Spirit’s voice clearly heard in the voting process at the October assembly? Synod members were given a 40-page Italian synthesis — without translation into any world language — on Thursday. More than one thousand proposed amendments were submitted on Friday. The amendments were considered overnight, and a revised text was finalized on Saturday morning. The Italian text was then read aloud and voted upon that very afternoon. Did that process leave room for the Holy Spirit to speak?

9. Was the Holy Spirit speaking through the retreat master of the planetary phase, Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, former master of the Order of Preachers, given his rather ambiguous orthodoxy on moral matters related to sexuality? What does it mean that he was chosen instead of say, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household for more than 40 years and a giant of the Spirit-driven Charismatic Renewal?

10. Was the Holy Spirit the animator of the planetary phase process, where discussions were tied tightly to an agenda of prefabricated topics and worksheets, with all interventions limited to three minutes and little, if any, time for back-and-forth discussion or debate? Did the management of the process make room for the parrhesia (frank speech) that Pope Francis has invited in synods?

11. Was the Holy Spirit acting through the two principal synod managers, Cardinal Mario Grech and Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich? Cardinal Grech, when a bishop in Malta, authored guidelines on Amoris Laetitia that proposed a novel understanding of conscience. Cardinal Hollerich has expressed his view that certain aspects of the Church’s teaching on sexuality are wrong. Does their presence inspire confidence that the Holy Spirit is leading the process?

12. The synodal assembly discussed the matter of blessings of same-sex couples and decided not to include that topic in the final summary report. At the very same time, unbeknown to the assembly participants, the DDF was preparing its declaration on blessings. Was the decision not to tell the synodal assembly what was afoot inspired by the Holy Spirit?

“Without the Holy Spirit there is no synod,” warned Pope Francis. There will be a synodal assembly this October. Will the Holy Spirit lead the process? Or will proper discernment be lacking, as Pope Francis judged to be the case in 2019?