The Synod on Synodality: Navigating Between Hope and Anxiety

COMMENTARY: Reflections on some of the issues that emerged in the meetings or sessions prior to the synod.

A boat navigates the Tiber in Rome, with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.
A boat navigates the Tiber in Rome, with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. (photo: Filk / Shutterstock)

On Sept. 16, 2023, the International Catholic Jurists Forum hosted an online “International Meeting of Experts” to discuss key themes in the working document for the Synod on Synodality, namely the Instrumentum Laboris of the 16th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (May 29). The following statement is the outcome document of that meeting.


The upcoming Synod on Synodality begins on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis. Pope Francis believes “synodality is a constitutive element of the Church,” and he hopes the two-year synod will help the members of the Church to journey together on a common path towards Christ, the Lord.

Much has been written about the upcoming synod. Some have expressed their hopes while others have expressed anxieties. Many hope for a Church in which the faithful — both clergy and lay — walk together, listen to each other, and pray together for deeper communion and fidelity to Christ. Others, though, have expressed hopes for a more “inclusive” Church, which seemingly would be one that is able to accept all people regardless of their commitment to Catholic faith and morals. This type of “inclusivity,” though, has raised concerns and anxieties on the part of many Catholics who believe the synod might be used to change Catholic doctrine.

In an attempt to navigate between these hopes and anxieties, we would like to offer the following reflections on a number of issues that emerged in the meetings or sessions prior to the synod. These meetings have been promoted as a global achievement for the Catholic Church, but, in reality, they only have involved a small percentage of Catholics.

Listening Sessions

The expression “listening sessions” has been used to describe what has occurred thus far in the various stages of the Synod on Synodality process. While listening amongst the faithful is always good, some believe these “listening sessions” follow the pattern of secular programs of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs that gather employees together under the leadership of a DEI consultant. The concern is that these ecclesial “listening sessions” have sometimes been used to promote certain agendas that are not in harmony with Catholic faith and morals.

The bishops of the Church need to listen to the faithful, but they also need to exercise their threefold office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 873). All of the faithful — the shepherds and the flock — must ultimately listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and Christ, the Good Shepherd (cf. John 10:14-18). The Instrumentum Laboris (10) correctly notes that the Synod must have “faithful people, College of Bishops, Bishop of Rome: one listening to the other; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), to know what He ‘is saying to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).”


Vatican II teaches that all people are called to belong to the new people of God (Lumen Gentium, 13), and the Savior “wills everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Some, however, wonder whether the call for “radical inclusivity” is a way to undermine the need to live according to the teachings of Scripture, tradition, and the laws or norms of the Church. Pope Francis has said that all are welcome in the Church but there are “rules” to be followed. Inclusivity, moreover, is often understood as a political or secular category.

The term “inclusivity” is undefined and provokes many questions. What does it mean? Does not inclusion presume the concept of exclusion? What does exclusion mean? Does not every group or institution have membership rules for inclusion? Are such rules problematic per se?

We know that many DEI policies in various institutions use “inclusion” to refer to one’s feelings, sense of belonging, and subjective self-identity, which, in turn, implies “proportionate representation, [in a group] even if the traditional standards for membership must be relaxed or altered to achieve such representation.” So, for example, in college admission cases, the inclusion equation encompasses the exclusion of “deserving individuals.”

From a Catholic perspective, however, communion is a more fitting term, and, as Vatican II teaches, there are degrees of communion with the Catholic Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, 14-16). The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the supreme expression of ecclesial communion, but the reception of the Eucharist is regulated by certain norms (cf. the 1983 Code of Canon Law, canons 844 and 916). We hope the synod will highlight the importance of worthy reception of Holy Communion according to the teachings of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:27-32 and canons 915-916 of the 1983 Code).

Within the Catholic community, we ask very different questions. Consider those of Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who has integrated the secular notion of “inclusion” into the Church context, with the following list of rhetorical queries to demonstrate the limitations of the term.

  • Are we to understand Our Lord’s call for repentance to be fostering a culture of exclusion?
  • Was the clear and challenging teaching of Jesus regarding marriage or the consequences of lust intended to alienate, or was it an invitation to liberation and freedom?
  • Was radical inclusion Our Lord’s highest priority when many disciples walked away after his Bread of Life Discourse?
  • Should any of us be surprised that, when we listen to those on the peripheries, those not in our churches, those who are not Catholic and even those who do not believe in Jesus, many will disagree with our countercultural moral teaching?
  • Does this mean that we should repent for creating structures of exclusion and embrace the spirit of the secular culture?
  • If we are striving to be true disciples of Jesus, does this not require us to be countercultural?
  • At the Church’s beginning, what drew people to Christianity? Was it radical inclusion?
  • Certainly, the Gospel of Jesus was offered to everyone, male and female, Jew and Gentile. However, included in Our Lord’s invitation, there was always a call to repentance, not a welcome to all on their own terms. Were Paul’s epistles or Peter’s sermon on Pentecost about radical inclusion, or were they a call to conversion?

These questions provoke deep considerations and discussions within the Catholic faith. We know as Catholics that each “human being is made in the divine image,” Catholics are therefore called: 1) “to revere every human being to be of such immense worth that Jesus gave his life on Calvary for each one of us;” and 2) to “treat every human being with the highest reverence and respect” yet this “is not to say that we respect and reverence every choice made.”

We need to ask whether the Synod is concerned about “Who do we Catholics say Christ is?” or “Who do you (others) say Christ is?” (Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-29).

Doctrinal competence

All of the faithful must respond to Christ’s question to Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). A synodal Church must listen to the faithful, but the shepherds of the Church must also teach the truth in love. There must be authentic communion in faith and morals (cf. the 1992 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Communionis Notio). Conferences of bishops do have teaching authority, but they must teach in communion with the bishops of the universal Church and the Roman Pontiff (cf. John Paul II’s 1998 apostolic letter, Apostolos Suos). Unity in faith and morals is essential for authentic communion and synodality.

The Church is described as the People of God in Lumen Gentium, 9-17, but some now seem to think that the People of God should include everyone in full communion regardless of beliefs. This is a grave problem.

Women in the Church

There is a need for a greater appreciation of the gifts of women in the life of the Church. We hope the synod will build upon the insights of St. John Paul II in his 1998 apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem. There should be deep reverence for the genius of women and their contribution to the life of the Church in the different states of life — single, consecrated and married. The indispensable role of mothers in bearing and educating children must be cherished as an essential contribution to the Church’s mission in the world.

There is a true story of a woman who came up to a professor who gave a lecture on the role of the laity in the Church. The woman said she hoped to do something for the Church in the future but that she could not right now because she was caring for her five young children at home. The professor needed to remind her that caring for her children was an essential apostolate of great dignity and importance within the Church.

Catholic women need to know that whatever their occupation — mother, lawyer, professor, physician — they are already working for the Church by virtue of their baptism. All of the faithful — women and men — promote the mission of the Church according to their state of life. Vatican II teaches that the lay faithful are to “work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (Lumen Gentium, 31).

Proposals for female ordination to the priesthood cannot be considered in light of the definitive teaching of John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994). Proposals for the ordination of women to the diaconate — like those for the priesthood — often do not refer to evangelical or theological reasons. Instead, they invoke entirely secular arguments, such as empowerment and the prohibition of discrimination. There might also be a type of clericalism behind proposals for female ordination. These proposals could imply that only clerics have authority and influence in the Church. They completely ignore the essential place that Mary the Mother of God occupies as the living heart of the Church and seem to fall into the trap — so prevalent in our culture today — that only the masculine principle counts.

Studies on the diaconate have not demonstrated that female deacons received sacramental ordination in the early Church. Pope Francis has stated that the commission studying this question has not reached consensus.

Some have tried to claim that the 1736 Maronite Catholic Synod of Mount Lebanon shows that the Church has already given approval for the ordination of female deacons. The works of the deaconesses (diaconissarum opera) mentioned in the 1736 Synod, however, are not the same as those of the office of deacon (Diaconi officium). The deacon is able, inter alia, to incense the church and the people (ecclesiam et populum incensare); read the epistle and the gospel publicly (epistolam et evangelium publice legere); offer the Eucharist to deacons, lower clergy, and the people (eucharistiam diaconis, inferioribus clericis et populo praebere); and preach to and address the people (praedicare et concionari ad populum [Mansi Vol. 38 Col. 163]. Such ministries are not mentioned among “the works of the deaconesses (diaconissarum opera), who carry out all the duties conceded to them “yet are in no way permitted to approach the altar or offer communion to the nuns, even in the absence of a priest or deacon” (Ad altare tamen accedere aut communionem monialibus praebere, etiam in absentia presbyteri aut diaconi nullatenus permittuntur [Mansi Vol. 38 Col. 164].

Improvement of Clergy-Lay Relations

Pope Francis has been right to condemn clericalism. There must be authentic appreciation for the complementary roles of the clergy and the laity. What needs to be avoided, though, is the understanding of clerical-lay relations in a quasi-Marxist way as a class struggle.

Faithful members of the laity need to appreciate the gift of the ordained clergy (deacons, priests, and bishops), and the ordained must appreciate the God-given dignity of all the baptized who share in the threefold gift of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. What must be avoided at all costs is the creation of a lay bureaucracy that stands as a power bloc in competition with the Church’s hierarchy.

The problem of affective maturity needs to be addressed, including that of men who are attracted to men. Such attraction can color all relationships in a negative way — men in relation to men and men in relation to women. The issue continues to be the subject matter of study. Clerics who lack self-confidence sometimes seek prestige and influence in the Catholic hierarchy, and this is a reality that needs to be addressed.

We must remember that the true hierarchy in the Church is the hierarchy of holiness, not power. As John Paul II has noted, “It is to the holiness of the faithful that the hierarchical structure of the Church is totally ordered.”

In its 1976 declaration, Inter Insigniores, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recalled that “the only better gift, which can and must be desired, is love (cf. 1 Corinthians 12 and 13). The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.”

Catholic Morality and Intrinsically Evil Acts

Proposals for “radical inclusivity” sometimes obscure the reality that certain acts or categories of acts are intrinsically evil (cf. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor).

The Church must always welcome sinners and show them compassion as Jesus did. Some acts, though, can never be approved of under any circumstances (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, carnal sexual acts outside of marriage). Pastoral charity must always be grounded in the truth. In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI writes:

“To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, ‘rejoices in the truth’ (1 Cor 13:6).”

We hope the synod will manifest true compassion toward sinners and enable them to live in accord with authentic Catholic morals. While there can be factors that mitigate full culpability for sinful acts, certain acts must be recognized as intrinsically evil. The sacrament of reconciliation must be highlighted as the preeminent means for overcoming sin and living in harmony with the teaching of Christ.


We sincerely hope the upcoming synod will help the faithful journey together towards Christ, who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We ask the Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Church, to guide the bishops and other participants towards the Heart of her Divine Son, so the Church may truly be the light to the nations.

Jane F. Adolphe is professor of law at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida, adjunct professor, University of Notre Dame, School of Law, Sydney, Australia, founder and executive director of the International Catholic Jurists Forum, former official of the Papal Secretariat of State, Section for Relations with States.

Fulvio Di Blasi is an Italian lawyer, a legal mediator, a Thomistic philosopher, author (Palermo), and director of the Thomas International Center for Philosophical Studies.

Robert Fastiggi is professor of dogmatic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, member of the Pontifical Marian Academy International.

Deborah Savage is professor of theology, and faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.