Peeking Inside the Synod on Synodality’s Boardroom

COMMENTARY: Austen Ivereigh and the other ‘experts’ at the recent synodal summit in Frascati act as if John Paul II’s papacy added nothing constructive on the lay faithful, families, clergy and other topics related to Vatican II.

Press conference for the presentation of the document for the continental stage.
Press conference for the presentation of the document for the continental stage. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA / EWTN)

The latest step in the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church was unveiled in late October, a document for the “continental” stage. That stage will occupy the meeting agenda until next March, when all of the new papers generated will be returned to Rome for further collating, summarizing, synthesizing and drafting. 

The cud at this point having been masticated prayerfully, “leaving space for the Holy Spirit,” an instrumentum laboris (working document) will then be produced for the planetary, or “universal,” stage, which was to conclude with a synod of bishops next October in Rome.

The “universal” stage was recently extended for a year by Pope Francis. The synodal process will now include a second synod of bishops in October 2024, on the first anniversary of the first synod on synodality. 

And how is the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church proceeding? Swimmingly, with “unprecedented” participation, and “exceeding all expectations.” Some of the more fevered enthusiasts consider it the most important ecclesial event since Vatican II, certainly more significant than the Council of Trent (1545-1563), but perhaps not as important as Nicaea (325). At Nicaea, though, the massaging of manuscripts was a bit easier, as the “continental” and “universal” stages were more or less the same thing in the fourth century.

For those who may find the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church a bit opaque, papal biographer and amanuensis Austen Ivereigh lifted a veil on how the “continental” stage document was woven together over two weeks by a committee of “experts” in Frascati, near Rome. There is cause for concern.


The Hand of History, Heart of the Church

Ivereigh’s “insider’s account” opens with a confession that he was “struck by the solemnity of the task” and how they felt “the hand of history and the weight of responsibility on our shoulders.” They apparently bore up rather well.

If the suspicion arose that the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church was going to be a touch “self-referential,” to borrow the Holy Father’s favored phrase, Ivereigh’s account confirms that in spades. The designated “experts” — papal insiders, consultants, leadership gurus, communications specialists, ecclesiocrats, curial apparatchiks — were all huddled together, reviewing reports, breaking down into small groups, reporting back to the plenary session, recalibrating the small groups, adjusting the drafts, and reporting back again to the plenary. One bishop was included among some two dozen experts. It was the Church not so much locked in the sacristy, to borrow again from Pope Francis, but in a boardroom. 

“I hope you’re keeping a diary,” Ivereigh’s friend advised him.

It may be that the Ivereigh account will be the first of several episodes as he records their expert service to the Church. And a lofty service it was.

“We are the heart and ears of the Church, to hear the cry of the people of God,” Ivereigh records Cardinal Mario Grech, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, telling them. 

The experts’ last full day in Frascati was Oct. 1, the feast St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who died 125 years ago and famously declared that her vocation was “to be love in the heart of the Church.” Cardinal Grech did the saint one better; he seems to believe he and his convoked experts are the heart of the Church, pure and simple.


Bones and Brain Function

The anatomical imagery evidently caught on, as Ivereigh declared that “it was time” for the heart and the ears “to put flesh on the bones of the Second Vatican Council’s understanding of the Church as people of God.”

The heart and ears may be in tip-top shape, but the brain seems to be a bit wobbly. Cardinal Grech’s experts seem to have forgotten recent Church history. Vatican II put plenty of flesh on its own bones, as it were; indeed, its dogmatic constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) is a rather fulsome account of the Mystical Body of Christ.

As for Vatican II’s “People of God,” it is the entire body, not just the laity, as Lumen Gentium amply taught. A man as intelligent and well-read as Ivereigh would certainly have read his fellow Englishman on Vatican II, Dominican Father Aidan Nichols, in his book Conciliar Octet:

Lumen Gentium’s chapter on the People of God pays no special attention to the laity when compared to any other component of the Church. What became a typical post-conciliar journalist’s habit of calling the laity ‘the People of God’ is without foundation in the conciliar texts. ... ‘People of God’ denotes the Church totality of which the laity constitute one part — albeit, of course, numerically speaking the predominant part.”

There was a good bit of such laziness at Frascati, with the experts conflating reports from far-flung listening sessions with the Holy Spirit speaking authoritatively in the Church. The drumbeat of the synodal process, that something entirely new is underway, is deliberate; otherwise attentive folks might recall that a great deal of “flesh” already has been put on the “bones” of Vatican II. 

Indeed, synods of bishops have been putting “flesh on the bones” of Lumen Gentium for decades. St. John Paul II convoked synods on the family (1980), the lay faithful (1987), priests (1990), religious life (1995) and bishops (2001) — to say nothing of a half-dozen regional and special synods — all of which were followed up with extensive apostolic exhortations. The various chapters of Lumen Gentium have all received significant and sustained synodal attention for decades.

The Frascati experts wish to set all of that aside, as if nothing constructive has been said since Vatican II on all these topics. John Paul’s 1988 Christifideles Laici, on the vocation and mission of the laity; his letters to women, the family, the elderly and youth — all of this is an immense amount of “flesh on the bones” of the people of God.

The premise of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church is that this recent patrimony matters little and can be set aside as the “Spirit” blows through a vast series of synodal sessions for the Synod on Synodality.

The setting aside of John Paul’s papacy has become a hallmark of the Pope Francis synods. The Holy Father’s first two synods on the family produced Amoris Laetitia, which remarkably pretended that Veritatis Splendor had never been written. Now, this second pair of synods on synodality for a synodal Church is attempting, as was evident in Frascati, to set aside the entirety of John Paul’s synods over some 20 years. Along with the ongoing degradation of the Pontifical Academy for Life — another John Paul project — the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church is another step in the de-John-Paul-izing of the Church.


The Jesuit Hand and the Empty Chair

“The process was intense and tiring, and the task a race against time,” writes Ivereigh of the collaboration on drafting the working document. How, then, did they manage to avoid being crushed by the “hand of history” and get their work finished on a tight deadline?

Enter Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, an official in the synod secretariat, “an expert in processes of group discernment” and  “the engineer of our process,” according to Ivereigh’s description. 

In the prolonged synodal processes of Pope Francis, the Holy Spirit has the able assistance of Jesuit engineers, Father Costa on the front end and Father Antonio Spadaro on the back end. 

Readers may remember Father Costa from the 2019 Amazon synod, where he was dispatched on several occasions to explain the curious presence of the pachamama. But his role was more clear at the 2018 Synod on Youth. In the draft final document for that synod, a goodly amount of material about synodal processes and synodality was inserted, even though it had formed no part of the actual deliberations.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, a member of the Holy Father’s “council of cardinals” and close papal adviser, let it be known that the synod secretariat had engineered that text and suggested Father Costa himself might have been the engineer. It now appears that Father Costa had been at work on this synodal process before the last one had even finished.

“In Frascati, I also learned the importance of not just including everyone but also going in search of the missing,” wrote Ivereigh. “We were told to add an empty chair to our groups and to ask several questions: … Whose prophetic voice had not been heard? Which perspective has not yet come up?”

The “empty chair” is a clever tool. If this topic does not arise, or that position is not sufficiently emphasized, then the empty chair can speak. One imagines that the empty chairs at Frascati did not say anything that would disturb the predominant thinking of the experts. To the contrary, one imagines that the experts heard from the empty chairs what they would have said themselves, but could now attribute to others who have no voice. The empty chair ensures that the engineer always has a seat.


Empty Chair in an Enlarged Tent

Another hallmark of the synods of Pope Francis is an idiosyncratic use of Scripture. During the family synods, innumerable advocates of relaxing Church discipline and contradicting Scripture spoke of the Risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. He drew alongside the despondent disciples, and they went “walking together,” it was pointed out, which is the preferred image of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church.

Yet Emmaus is a more complex picture of accompaniment. Jesus rebuked the disciples for their foolishness. They were instructed as to the error of their ways; they reversed direction and went back to Jerusalem. They had a conversion. The family synods were not big on conversion.

This time around, the scriptural mischief has landed upon Isaiah 54 and the image of “enlarging the tent.” 

“The existing containers are not adequate to hold the diversity of the Church, nor to enable the participation of all in the mission,” writes Ivereigh. Time for a bigger tent. 

Yet the tent of meeting for the children of Israel required rigorous purification before entering. And the enlarged tent of Isaiah 54 is an image of Israel subduing the enemies on her borders; enlarging the tent is more an image of conquering, not walking together.

In any case, enlarging the tent is an odd image for a moment when in many countries the tent already appears too large; Catholics have abandoned the faith in large numbers, and parishes are being shuttered, not expanded. 

In such places, an empty tent may be the better image — all the better to fill up with empty chairs.