A Survivor’s Guide to the Synod

COMMENTARY: If the Oct. 4-25 synod deliberations cause anxiety and confusion, faithfulness and prayer must be the sure anchor for faithful Catholics.

(photo: CNA file photo)

After the difficult events of the extraordinary synod in 2014, I know I’m not alone in feeling a sense of anxiety and powerlessness about the synod that opens Oct. 4. Cardinal Raymond Burke is clear that we are facing a pivotal time in the history of the modern Church. He told Polish television:

“We’re in a time of crisis in the Church, a critical moment in which we may have to give our all to safeguard both the truth of the faith, not only for our own salvation, but for the salvation of our world and for the generations to come.”

My own experience confirms Cardinal Burke’s sense that the Church is facing a grave crisis. I am hearing directly and reading about Catholics becoming ill, disillusioned or driven to desperate measures by the chaos caused by the two synods. Friends tell me that the constant news of cardinals questioning, even brazenly contradicting, doctrines of the faith has resulted in relapses into clinical depression. On social media I’ve read Catholics openly considering joining the traditionalist group the Society of St. Pius X [SSPX, which currently has no canonical standing in the Church] because they, mistakenly, conclude that the Catholic Church is no longer “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Other Catholics are considering leaving the Church altogether because the procession of cardinals and bishops betraying Christ’s explicit teaching is making them lose confidence in the claims of faith being true.

For all these reasons I have written this “survivor’s guide” to the synod to help my readers and me get through the next three weeks.


What’s Going to Happen?

It’s going to be a long-haul gathering lasting three weeks, Oct. 4-25, compared to the shorter 2014 extraordinary synod that lasted two weeks. Its official theme is “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World.”

Pope Francis has explained that the synod will systematically work through the instrumentum laboris — the working document composed from the 2014 synod’s final report and further worldwide consultation by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. This highly controversial document has been criticized by Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, in his exclusive interview with Catholic Voice:

“In the light of a careful analysis of the facts, one is left with the suspicion that the authors of the instrumentum laboris try to push forward the agenda of a certain clerical pressure group in order to change the Divine law of the non-admission [of] the divorced and remarried to holy Communion.”

According to the analysis of the Catholic pro-family group Voice of the Family, the instrumentum laboris also reduces the doctrine of indissolubility to a mere ideal, proposes exploring the basis for same-sex civil partnerships, remains neutral on the morality of in vitro fertilization that has killed millions of embryonic human beings and undermines the primacy of parents as their children’s educators in sexual morality.


Let Prayer Defeat Scheming and Manipulation

The majority of deficient proposals that seek to undermine sacred doctrine are scheduled to be discussed by the synod fathers during the last week. This well-known ploy of leaving contentious issues until late in the day is often used by left-wing militants attempting to impose their agenda on a group. In the last week, faithful synod fathers may well be fatigued and jaded by the first two weeks. However, the faithful synod fathers will need to have their wits about them during this last week because their opponents are planning to propose compromises, as if it is possible to find middle ground between truth and error. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one the leaders of the “clerical pressure group” seeking to soften or overturn doctrine, has admitted that they will not follow a confrontational approach but will seek to achieve compromises:

“It is very important that the synod does not have the spirit of ‘all or nothing.’ It is not a good way. The synod cannot have winners and losers. That is not the spirit of the synod. The spirit of the synod is to find a way together, not to say, ‘How can I find a way to bring my position through?’ Rather: ‘How can I understand the other position, and how can we together find a new position?’ That is the spirit of the synod.”

However, in a recent interview on EWTN, George Weigel predicted that faithful synod fathers would seek to challenge the instrumentum laboris and the planned schedule at the first working day of the synod. If this proves true, these faithful prelates will be taking a page out of the “progressives’” playbook when they rejected the pre-written schemas and schedule at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. We must pray that these African, Polish and American delegates are successful in stopping this gross manipulation of the synod. Bishop Schneider gave Catholic Voice the following advice about how to react to any signs of manipulation:

“In order to stop such manipulations, we must, first of all, implore fervently Divine and heavenly intervention, so that the following words of God may be realized in our days during the upcoming synod: ‘God frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end’ (Job 5: 12-13).”


Stay Faithful

Cardinal Burke was recently asked how faithful Catholics should respond if the synod “takes a strange turning.” His eminence gave a two-word reply, “Stay faithful.”

During this crisis, when many priests and bishops are betraying the faith, we need to re-examine the source of our personal faith. When many of you were christened, your godparents were asked by the priest, “What do you ask of the Church of God?” And they replied, “Faith.” We received the grace of faith from the Mystical Body of Christ, from the Bride of Christ, not from the priest, our bishop or pope. Bishop Schneider exhorts us to hold onto this fact of our supernatural life in Christ during the storms around the synod:

“We must remain faithful to our baptismal vows. In baptism, you promised to remain faithful to the faith: not a part of faith, but the entire Catholic faith. You have not done your baptism greeting to the pope or your bishop, but to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And so you have to report after your death, not the pope or the bishop, but to God. That is why we need to keep our fidelity and even be ready to die for every truth of the Catholic faith.”


We Are Fighting Principalities and Powers

When I studied and undertook the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola for three years, I learned that one of the signs of the activity of Satan and evil spirits for faithful Christians in a state of grace, free from mortal sin, is confusion, disorientation and disquiet. St. Ignatius advises that when souls are advancing in holiness, the influence of the devil is sensed as “rough, accompanied by noise and disturbance, like a drop of water on stone.” I’m certain that the disturbance suffered by so many faithful Catholics during the last synod, and in the run-up to the current synod, is a sign that the attacks on the faith are inspired by the devil.

Cardinal Burke has explicitly talked about the influence of Satan behind the present confusion at the heart of the Church:

“The pervasive confusion and grave error about the most fundamental truths, the most beautiful realities and the lasting goods of human life and its cradle, the human family, as they come to us from the hand of God, are the tragic signs of Satan’s presence in our midst. When we see how he has succeeded in corrupting a culture which was once Christian and in sowing the seeds of confusion and error even within the Church herself, we can easily become frightened and discouraged.”

If, during the upcoming synod, we witness clergy causing chaos within the hearts at the Holy See by undermining Our Lord’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, we need to recollect that this occurs through the permissive will of God. As St. Thomas Aquinas so succinctly put it, “God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good.” If we remain faithful, no matter the cost, in the face of their faithlessness, the activity of the evil one will be turned by God to the advantage of his plan of salvation. Have hope!


Resist With Love and Truth

Both Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider exhort faithful Catholics to “resist” our bishops if they fail to defend the Divine truth entrusted to the entire Church by God. St. John Fisher also used the word “resist” when his fellow bishops visited him in his prison cell in the Tower of London to persuade him to join them in betraying the doctrine of indissolubility and the apostolic nature of the Church in the wake of the demands of Henry VIII, St. John Fisher replied:

“The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.”

Four hundred and eighty years after St. John Fisher’s martyrdom, the fort is again being betrayed by those who should defend it, and therefore the challenge of resistance faces all faithful Catholics. Our Lord promised St. Peter that the “gates of hell will not prevail” (Matthew 16:16), and as the Catholic novelist Louis de Wohl writes, “Each of us must live as if that promise of Christ depended upon him alone” (The Last Crusader, p. 320).

The way we resist infidelity to Christ’s divine truth will determine if we cooperate with God’s plan to bring good for the future Church out of the present evil or if we contribute more evil to the growing catalogue of evil. Therefore, we must resist those bishops who refuse to defend the faith with love and truth. When feelings of anger, anxiety or powerlessness assail us during the next three weeks, I pray that God’s love fills our hearts: “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8).

Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to EWTN Radio’s Celtic Connections program.

This article originally appeared in the Catholic Voice newspaper

and is republished here with permission. It has been edited for style.