2023 Synod Major Theme at USCCB Assembly — in Public and Private

In addition to public comments on the Synod on Synodality from the papal nuncio, the USCCB’s outgoing president and its doctrinal head, the bishops are believed to have selected four delegates to next year’s Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Above, the U.S. bishops gather in Baltimore. Their fall meeting was Nov. 14-17.
Above, the U.S. bishops gather in Baltimore. Their fall meeting was Nov. 14-17. (photo: Katie Yoder / CNA)

BALTIMORE — The ongoing Synod on Synodality was a major theme at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general assembly, both in the plenary sessions open to the press and behind closed doors.

Among the items slated to be addressed in the assembly’s private executive session Nov. 17 was the election of delegates to the XVI General Ordinary Synod of Bishops, also known as the Synod on Synodality, which will take place in Rome in October 2023 as part of the final universal stage of a synodal process that is currently entering its continental phase.

According to a memo sent by the USCCB general secretary to all bishops in mid-October and obtained by the Register, the bishops were set to select four delegates and two alternatives from a list of 10 nominees. Each bishop had been asked to nominate up to five delegates prior to the general assembly.

The memo also stated that it was not clear if the delegates selected to attend the 2023 Synod of Bishops would also attend the 2024 synodal session in Rome, which was recently added to the process by Pope Francis.

Unlike other elections conducted at the USCCB general assembly, such as those for conference president or chairmanships of various committees, the election of synod delegates is held in private. This, according to the memo, is “to assure the confidentiality of the names of those elected until such time as the Holy Father confirms the final roster of delegates and alternates.” Until the USCCB’s chosen delegates are confirmed by Pope Francis, “the names of those elected cannot be made public.” 

When asked to confirm that the selection of delegates took place, USCCB spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi declined to comment, citing conference policy not to discuss the contents of executive sessions.

Although keeping delegate-elects private until papal ratification appears to be standard USCCB policy, delegates to ordinary synods are also commonly leaked to the press, as they were for the 2018 synod and 2015 synod. The time between election and Vatican approval can also be lengthy. For instance, while the bishops reportedly selected delegates to the Synod on Young People in November 2017, the USCCB did not announce the official delegates until July 2018.


Likely Delegates?

The Synod of Bishops was established by Pope St. Paul VI in 1965 as an advisory body of bishops that regularly meets with the pope to provide counsel on pertinent issues in the life of the Church. With the promulgation of Episcopalis Communio in 2018, synods now have the capacity to produce documents that have the status of ordinary magisterium in certain circumstances, making the role of participating synodal fathers even more significant.

In previous selections of delegates to ordinary synods of bishops, the conference has tended to follow a predictable pattern, electing a combination of USCCB leadership and bishops with an expertise on the theme of the specific synod. 

For instance, in choosing delegates to the 2018 Synod on Young People, the bishops selected Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, then the USCCB’s president and vice president respectively, as well as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, three prelates with USCCB committee assignments and/or apostolates related to young people, catechesis and evangelization.

Following this logic, likely delegates to the 2023 Synod on Synodality include newly elected USCCB president and vice president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, respectively, as well as Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, who, as head of the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine, is leading the conference’s engagement with the synodal process. 

Archbishop Gomez is also a possibility, given that past presidents have been picked to be synod delegates before, which may be even more likely in this instance, given that elections for the current USCCB president and vice president were held after the time when the bishops were asked to submit nominees for delegates.

In addition to delegates elected by the USCCB, Pope Francis has also made a habit of selecting additional U.S. bishops to serve as synod fathers. Cardinals Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and Blase Cupich of Chicago were tapped by the Pope to take part in the 2018 Synod on Young People. Cardinal Cupich was also appointed by the Pope to take part in the 2015 Synod on the Family after being designated as an alternate by his brother bishops.


Synodality a Major Theme

According to sources within the USCCB, discussions about synodality and the ongoing synodal process also took place among the bishops in closed-door fraternal sessions. Bishops were assigned seats for this portion, creating opportunities for more widespread conversation, which was aided by the atypical seating arrangement in the general assembly: seats encircling round tables instead of along horizontally arranged desks.

Perhaps as a result of having an opportunity to address the synod behind closed doors, discussion in the public segment devoted to the topic on Nov. 15 was relatively muted. Following Bishop Flores’ report on the synodal process, which largely focused on the transition into the continental stage, only a few questions and comments came from the floor, mostly dealing with technical aspects of the process.

An exception came when Cardinal Tobin expressed his disappointment that the North American continental stage of the synodal process would not include an in-person gathering of all the respective delegates from the United States and Canada, though the New Jersey prelate did acknowledge that “we’ve been building the airplane as we’re flying,” in terms of the implementation of the synodal process.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, followed Cardinal Tobin, first acknowledging the graces that have come from engaging in the synodal process in his archdiocese and expressing his support for the effort to become “a more listening Church,” but then bringing up what he described as “the elephant in the room.”

“I think there’s a lot of concerns amongst Catholics that this process can be manipulated,” the archbishop said, citing “disturbing” ways in which synodality is being used as a pretext for promoting doctrinal changes in European countries, but also concerning statements by those leading the synodal process, a possible reference to Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator general of the Synod on Synodality, who had publicly called for the Church to change its teaching related to sexual relations between members of the same sex.

The synodal process was also addressed in keynote speeches by Archbishop Gomez and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States. Archbishop Pierre underscored that, in accordance with Pope Francis’ vision, the synodal process should be “understood in a missionary key,” aimed at evangelization as opposed to self-preservation, while Archbishop Gomez expressed his hope that the Synod on Synodality will serve as a reminder that “the Church is all of us together.” 


Bishop Flores Addresses Concerns

In his capacity as USCCB doctrine head, Bishop Flores addressed concerns about the synodal process, both in his comments during the general assembly and also in remarks to the press.

In terms of concerns about the way synodality is being exercised in other parts of the world, he emphasized the U.S. Church’s primary responsibility to ensure the integrity of its own contribution to the synodal process, but also stressed the significance of the principle role of the Holy Father and the bishops in union with him in discerning how to receive and implement what’s emerged in the synodal process in a way consistent with the Church’s faith and practice.

“When people express a certain amount of skepticism [about the synodal process], I tend to say, ‘Well, we’re not done yet,’” said Bishop Flores, who said that the listening stage of the synod’s incorporation of any and all viewpoints “may not be the neatest thing,” adding that apparent tensions or contradictions will be addressed in the universal stage of the process.

In a brief interview with the Register after his remarks to the press, Bishop Flores underscored that synodality or “the way the Church relates to itself,” though perhaps previously unarticulated theologically, is rooted in the Church’s tradition, especially the Acts of the Apostles.

“There’s already an apostolic sense that you have to be in communication with the very ones that you are preaching to and trying to form so that we can give this common witness,” explained Bishop Flores, also pointing to St. Paul’s style of closeness to the communities he wrote to and also the patristic era bishops’ practice of bringing “the testimony of their local Church” to ecumenical councils.

Bishop Flores said his sense of why Pope Francis is emphasizing synodality in this moment is to encourage a return to a more “dialogical expression,” in which the faith of the local and particular Churches informs the Church universal’s judgment, and a bishop can be trusted to convey to the wider Church “the faith of the people of God” in his local Church.

“That’s hard for us,” he said, noting a tendency to jump to the conclusion that this kind of sharing of the local with the universal is necessarily animated by an agenda when it appears to differ from the faith. “This is a suspicious world we live in.”

At the same time, Bishop Flores expressed some criticism for the way certain theological terms with precise meaning are used rather loosely in discussions about the Synod on Synodality. Specifically, he described the document for the continental stage’s characterization of various perspectives included from national synodal syntheses — which include calls for women’s ordination and descriptions of polygamous marriages as “loving relationships” — as the sensus fidei emerging as “premature.” 

Sensus fidei [fidelium], or “the sense of the faith on the part of the faithful,” is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” Bishop Flores told the Register he would not use the term to describe the collection of opinions about Church teaching and practice that have been expressed during the synodal process thus far.

Ultimately, the USCCB’s doctrine head emphasized that the synodal process is “a journey of faith.”

“I do believe, as a Catholic, that the Holy Spirit works through the voices that we hear, but also works in a particular way in the role of the pastors and ultimately in the role of the successor of Peter. I do not doubt the guidance of the Spirit in those matters, and so I don’t really lose sleep over it.”