The Holy Spirit and the Synod on Synodality

COMMENTARY: To insist that the Holy Spirit is always present in synodal structures or in this synodal process is a case that has to be made, not simply asserted

Pope Francis leads a session of the Synod on the Family inside the Vatican's Synod Hall Oct. 10, 2014.
Pope Francis leads a session of the Synod on the Family inside the Vatican's Synod Hall Oct. 10, 2014. (photo: Catholic News Agency)

The synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church is just weeks away from the first phase of its planetary stage. Phase 1 will take place beginning Oct. 4 in Rome, with Phase 2 set for October 2024. The local, diocesan, national and continental stages have been concluded. More than two years into the greatest talking shop in the history of Christianity, some oddly undermining things are now being said — and by the greatest proponents of the synodal process themselves.

Consider just three voices — the Holy Father himself, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Jesuit Father James Martin. The latter two were appointed by Pope Francis as voting members of the synod. Cardinal Cupich was not elected as a member by his brother bishops in the United States.


The Holy Father

Last month, Pope Francis acknowledged that the entire synodal process strikes many as exactly the kind of ecclesial self-absorption that the Holy Father has inveighed against since his election. 

“I am well aware that speaking of a ‘Synod on Synodality’ may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, and of little interest to the general public,” Pope Francis said on Aug. 26. 

Indeed, others share the papal frustration with the lack of interest in, and confusion about, the entire process in all its stages, from parochial to planetary. 

In November 2021, when the synodal process was newly unveiled, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio in the United States, said that if it was a “meeting about meetings,” it would be a “purgatory.” Indeed, the very “idea of having a meeting about meetings” would mean that “we would certainly be in one of the lower rings of hell in Dante’s Inferno!”

Eighteen months later, Archbishop Pierre addressed the U.S. bishops again and the tone was not so lighthearted, replaced by a grim acknowledgement “that we are still struggling to understand synodality.” That may be because synodality is, in Cardinal-designate Pierre’s phrase, “about a way of being Church” that is new and challenging.

Having failed to enthuse people about a new “way of being Church,” the Holy Father has recently taken to reassuring people that this is a very old way of being Church, as it were. 

“[St. Paul VI] created the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops because he had realized that in the Western Church synodality had disappeared, whereas in the Eastern Church they have this dimension,” Pope Francis said in August. 


Cardinal Cupich

The archbishop of Chicago adopted the same line in his local Catholic paper, accusing critics of “stoking fears” by suggesting that the gathering could “radically alter Church teaching and practice.”

That was a direct attack on Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, who has written that the Church should do exactly that, advocating “open” admission to Holy Communion, something that the Church, following the biblical teaching of St. Paul, does not teach or practice.

Cardinal McElroy was also appointed to the planetary stage of the synod by the Holy Father, having failed to get elected, like Cardinal Cupich, by his brother bishops. 

Cardinal Cupich repeated the Eastern approach, saying that it is “an ancient reality” in the Catholic Church that should trouble no one.

How far is Cardinal Cupich stretching to generate enthusiasm for the synod? Last month, in a message to the World Parliament of Religions meeting in Chicago — the program chair for which was an actual witch — he wrote that “the parliament is a unique opportunity for Catholics in Chicago to take part in Pope Francis’ call to grow into a more synodal church.” 

The Holy Father has repeatedly stressed, insistently and incessantly, that the synod is not a “parliament.” Yet Cardinal Cupich sees a certain harmony between the synodal process and the witches at the World Parliament of Religions. That may trouble a few people and undermine the vision of Pope Francis for this synodal process.


Father James Martin

Father James Martin, writing in America magazine before his own participation in the planetary stage, detects the origin of the entire synodality project in the Holy Father’s understanding of conscience. Hence Father Martin seeks to allay fears about the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church by casting the whole exercise as an expansive development of the Holy Father’s airborne reply to a question about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?”

For Father Martin, for whom homosexuality and transgenderism is a pastoral priority, “Who am I to judge?” was an early highlight of the pontificate. He proposes that the synodal process offers a chance to relive that not only in the skies, but with a planetary embrace.

For his part, Father Martin did not look so much to the East, as much as he looked straight to heaven. 

“First, do we trust in the Holy Spirit?” he asked. “And second, do we believe that the Holy Spirit is active both in this gathering of the faithful and in the individual consciences of the people participating in the synod?”

Father Martin trusts in God — “As for me, I trust in the Holy Spirit,” he wrote — but is not sure that other Catholics are quite up to the level of trust.

“Do we believe in the Holy Spirit?” he wrote. “Catholics profess this in the Nicene Creed during Sunday Mass. But do we trust in the Holy Spirit? On an individual level — that of conscience — and on an ecclesial level?”

Having failed to generate genuine interest in a process that appears to many to be “abstruse, self-referential and excessively technical” (the Holy Father’s words), the promoters of the synodal process are now arguing if we look back (“an ancient reality”), look East (to the Eastern Churches) and look up (to the Holy Spirit), all fears will give way to active engagement.


Eastern Churches

That line of argument is mistaken. If the current synodal process is rediscovering the ancient reality of the Spirit speaking to those Churches that are governed by synods, is it not relevant that the very process is currently amid the greatest crisis of synodality in history?

Why, then, the confidence that the Holy Spirit speaks through synodal processes?

Is the Holy Spirit speaking through the synod of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has excommunicated Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople?

Is the Holy Spirit speaking through the synod of the Orthodox Church in Alexandria, which has broken off communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, after the Russian synod “invaded” Alexandria’s canonical territory?

Is the Holy Spirit speaking through the synod of the Church of England, which approved the possibility of blessing same-sex unions? Or is the Holy Spirit speaking through those Anglican primates, representing more than 80% of the Anglican dioceses worldwide, who have broken off communion with the archbishop of Canterbury over that issue?

Is the Holy Spirit speaking through synodality in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, where the voices of priests and laity have defied their own synod of bishops, to the point of denunciation, disobedience and violence?

Is the Holy Spirit speaking through the synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the Eastern Churches, when it frankly tells Pope Francis that his words about Russia and Ukraine have caused “deep pain” and given succor to their enemies?

It is too facile to say that the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church should be trusted because in the East there are synods and because the Nicene Creed professes faith in the Holy Spirit. These new arguments will not allay any more fears than previous arguments.

Is the Holy Spirit speaking through Cardinal McElroy when he calls for changes in St. Paul’s teaching on the Eucharist? I stand with Cardinal Cupich, who thinks not.

Certainly it is good that Father Martin trusts in the Holy Spirit. That does not require that I trust that the Holy Spirit speaks through Father Martin. Or in the synodal process as a whole. As the global crisis in synodality demonstrates, the Holy Spirit sometimes does not speak through synodality. 

To insist that the Holy Spirit is alive and in the Church is simply to be Catholic. However, to insist that he is always present in synodal structures, or in this synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church, is a case that has to be made, not simply asserted.