Stopping the ‘Spirit of the Synod’ Before It Starts

EDITORIAL: Those attempting to exploit the Synod on Synodality are beginning to use a tactic employed by post-Vatican II agitators; their methods should be called out and dismissed before they get started.

From left, Archbishop Jan Graubner of Prague, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the general relator of the Synod on Synodality; Archbishop Gintaras Grusas of Vilnius, Lithuania; Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops; Archbishop Ladislav Nemet of Belgrade, Serbia; and Father Martin Michalíček, the general secretary of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, attend the European continental assembly of the Synod on Synodality Feb. 6 in Prague.
From left, Archbishop Jan Graubner of Prague, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the general relator of the Synod on Synodality; Archbishop Gintaras Grusas of Vilnius, Lithuania; Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops; Archbishop Ladislav Nemet of Belgrade, Serbia; and Father Martin Michalíček, the general secretary of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, attend the European continental assembly of the Synod on Synodality Feb. 6 in Prague. (photo: Michal Krumphanzl / CTK via AP Images)

By most accounts, last week’s European continental assembly was an occasionally tense but overall constructive experience — and a significant setback for those intent on exploiting the ongoing Synod on Synodality as a way to change fundamental Church teaching. 

Beginning with a prophetic opening homily from Archbishop Jan Graubner of Prague, and including strong contributions from delegates from Poland, Ireland and elsewhere, a number of participants made it clear that the disruptive vision of synodality that has been promoted by activists, the media and even some clerical figures is not consistent with the sense of the faithful and authentic Church teaching.

But don’t tell that to those agitating for lay governance, the ordination of women, and the blessing of same-sex sexual relations. In their view, the Synod on Synodality will either produce the results they desire — or it isn’t the real synod. 

Take, as a prime example, an essay penned by Julia Knop, a German theologian and backer of the controversial Synodal Way in her homeland. Written during the early stages of the Prague meeting when it was becoming clear how widespread the opposition to German-style synodality actually was, Knop wrote that the continental assembly was not “properly synodal.” Why? Because, consistent with their apostolic mandate, the bishops would judge “in the end” ideas discussed according to the deposit of faith, and because the discussion would focus on synodality, not “reform impulses,” aka, changes to Church doctrine and discipline.

By contrast, “[The Holy Spirit] speaks the language of the people,” wrote Knop. “He cannot be tamed, neither in minutes of silence nor in episcopal self-reflection. It blows where it wants.”

Knop’s description of a synodal “Spirit” that defies the God-given constitution of the Church is not of a spirit that is “Holy,” but is instead simultaneously gnostic and worldly. It’s also entirely predictable.

A similar strategy was employed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council by clerics and theologians who had pushed for, but failed to secure, a radical break from the pre-conciliar Church. Instead of the actual texts that had been formally adopted by the Council, forged through the actual synodal discussions of the Council Fathers, this group lobbied for changes made on the basis of a nebulous “Spirit of Vatican II” — what the Council supposedly had meant to say, but didn’t actually say — of which they, of course, served as the chief interpreters.

As Knop’s essay indicates, this logic is at work again today, taking the form of an implicit “Spirit of the Synod.” Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, is certainly laying the groundwork for it, even criticizing Pope Francis’ understanding of synodality as not “the kind that is viable in the 21st century.” 

Even Cardinal Robert McElroy may be contributing to this dynamic. The San Diego prelate recently declared that, among other things, the ordination of women has no doctrinal obstacles and should clearly be secured by the synod — despite clear disagreement from theologians actually appointed by the Pope to evaluate the issue. With statements like these, the gap between expectations and reality grows wider, as does the likelihood of calls to follow the “spirit of the Synod” when these heterodoxical reforms inevitably fail.

The message of the “spirit of the Synod” is something that only true seers like Knop and Bishop Bätzing will have access to — but one can be confident that this “unpredictable” spirit will predictably call for women’s ordination, lay governance, and the normalization of same-sex sexual relations.

Aided by an all-too-willing media, the “Spirit of Vatican II” distorted the Council’s true teaching and caused confusion and instability in the life of the Church for decades to come. Whether or not those aiming to exploit the Synod on Synodality today mention the “spirit of the Synod” by name, their likely appeals to its logic should be called out and opposed by Catholics from the get-go.

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