Is ‘Global Catholicism’ a Top Priority at the Synod on Synodality?

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Synod on Synodality’s 364 participants come from around the world; but when it comes to the 50 papal nominees selected specifically by Pope Francis — less so.

Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, in St. Peter's Basilica, Oct. 27, 2019.
Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, in St. Peter's Basilica, Oct. 27, 2019. (photo: CNA / EWTN)

ROME — “Global Catholicism” has been a major emphasis of Pope Francis’ arguably from the very first moment of his papacy, when the newly elected Argentinian Pope told those gathered in St. Peter’s Square on March 13, 2013, that his fellow cardinals “went to the end of the world” to find the new Bishop of Rome. 

The Pope’s emphasis on incorporating the worldwide diversity of Catholic thought and practice into the institutional Church’s perspective — and, conversely, his eschewal of a predominantly Westernized focus — has also come through in concrete actions, most notably in his geographic reshaping of the College of Cardinals, which has seen European representation fall from 52% in 2013 to 40% today.

But when it comes to perhaps the most defining initiative of this pontificate, the upcoming Synod on Synodality, is “global Catholicism” taking a backseat to other priorities?

It’s a seemingly odd question to ask because a quite different claim — that the Synod on Synodality is a singularly significant expression of global Catholicism — is the talking point currently circulating in certain Catholic institutional and journalistic circles. 

For instance, Massimo Faggioli has suggested that “the significant presence of theological thinking coming from places other than Western Europe” is the most interesting feature of the upcoming synod, which will help “move Catholicism from its European paradigm to becoming a truly global Church.” Likewise, Jesuit Father Thomas Reese has described the synod as Pope Francis’ “global effort to hear what Catholics think about their [C]hurch.”

To be sure, the synod will include participants from around the world. But this is as much due to the nature of a synod of bishops in 2023 as it is a unique and additional focus. 

Of the 364 voting members, the single largest demographic are bishops who were elected by their respective episcopal conferences (167), with the number of delegates per conference determined by the size of the flock they serve —standard practice for a synod of bishops. Therefore, at a time when the Catholic populations of Asia and Africa are increasingly a greater proportion of the universal Church, these places will have significant episcopal representation at a synod of bishops as a matter of course.

Likewise, the geographic diversity of the non-bishop voting members who had participated in the continental stage of the synodal process, a new addition to the Synod on Synodality, was already baked into the October meeting’s structure, as each of the seven continental assemblies provided a list of possibilities to the Pope, who chose 10 from each for a total of 70. And while some could say that certain parts of the global periphery are generously represented in some cases (the Middle East and Oceania each have 10 participants, equal to the number from all of Europe), the counter claim can also be made (Africa and Latin America have only 10 non-bishop representatives each, the same number as the delegation from just Canada and the United States).

The fact that geographic diversity among these groups of synodal participants was already a certainty by default, therefore, suggests that perhaps there is a more salient place to evaluate the importance of global Catholicism in the selection of synod participants: the 50 pontifical appointments.


Papal Appointments

As the name indicates, these 50 figures were appointed to participate in the synod by the Pope himself, with no additional criteria: no continental quotas to meet, no standards of proportional geographic representation to guide the selections, but simply a designation from the Holy Father. Therefore, these appointments might give some unique insight into the Pope’s priorities in terms of synodal attendees.

The results are as follows: Excluding the seven appointments who serve or have served primarily in Curial or diplomatic roles (all of whom are of a European or North American background), 23 pontifical nominees are from Europe (17 from Western Europe); nine are from Latin America; six are from the United States; three are from Africa; and Asia and Oceania both have one representative among the nominees.

To put things into perspective, more than half of the pontifical appointments are from Europe or North America. The U.S., Italy (seven) and Spain (four) all have more nominees than the entire continents of Africa and Asia. The disparity in representation between the Western core and the global peripheries appears even more pronounced when considering the number of papal appointments in relation to the size of the local Church. The growing Catholic population in Africa (256 million) is now only slightly behind that of Europe, and trending in the opposite direction, yet Europe has over seven times more papal appointees to the October synod. The U.S., with its six appointees and a Catholic population of just 62 million, has a ratio of appointees to Catholics that is more than eight times greater than all of Africa’s. And Latin America, despite having nearly twice the number of Catholics (roughly 500 million) as Europe, has less than half of historical Christendom’s papal appointees.

The dominance of European and American pontifical appointments to a synod of bishops is nothing new — even during Pope Francis’ tenure. At the 2015 Synod on the Family, for instance, 29 of the 45 pontifical appointments were likewise from the West (24 from Europe, five from the U.S.); 10 were from Latin America, while Africa, Asia and Oceania combined for only six appointees. The fact that papal appointees to the 2023 synod, which account for nearly one out of every seven voting members, are in continuity with this precedent is another reason to question the narrative that the selections for the October synod are uniquely reflective of “global Catholicism.”


Africans in Absentia?

Furthermore, given the likelihood that the Synod on Synodality will address issues related to homosexuality, attempts to ordain women, and pastoral care related to those who are divorced and civilly remarried, the overrepresentation of voices from progressive Western countries among the papal appointments at the expense of those from more countries with more traditional views is likely to raise some eyebrows.

This is perhaps especially the case with the disproportionately low number of African papal appointments to the Synod on Synodality.

It’s no secret that African representatives have clashed with more progressive European voices at previous synods, especially on issues related to sexuality. At the 2015 Synod on the Family, African bishops complained about Western nations imposing secular values in exchange for aid and saw their role as “reiterating the teaching of Christ on marriage” in order to “protect the family from all the ideologies that want to destroy it.”

Their stance sparked some serious backlash. German Cardinal Walter Kasper controversially said at the synod that African bishops “should not tell us too much what we have to do” and suggested that African Catholic views on sexuality were grounded not in Church teaching but cultural “taboos.” Clearly, some are of the opinion that African Catholics represent a roadblock to efforts to change certain Church teaching and practice.

It is also striking to note that while the Pope appointed only three Africans directly to the Synod on Synodality, his European-American appointees include the likes of Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, a major proponent for a blessing for same-sex couples in Belgium, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, who has openly said that the synod is the time to promote admitting women to the diaconate, and Jesuit Father James Martin, an American priest who is primarily known for his LGBTQ+ activism within the Church.

Given the role that African Catholics have previously played as synodal watchdogs for orthodoxy, their relative absence among the list of papal appointments could have the practical effect of allowing progressive Western views to have a greater impact.


An Unhelpful Narrative?

It has been suggested that Pope Francis used many of his 50 appointments not to strengthen the resonance of European and North American voices vis-à-vis the peripheries, but to balance them internally. For instance, by adding American bishops like Cardinals McElroy and Blase Cupich of Chicago, the Pope offered a counterweight to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ picks, which included the likes of Archbishop Timothy Broglio and Bishop Robert Barron. Similarly, although perhaps in the opposite way, the Pope appointed prelates like Bishop Stefan Oster and Cardinal Gerhard Müller from Germany, perhaps to bolster more orthodox perspectives that are likely to differ from German Bishops’ Conference picks like Bishop Georg Bätzing or Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck. 

However, if this is part of the explanation for the Pope’s Euro- and North American-centric synod picks, it’s still true that utilizing several of the finite 50 papal appointments in this way came at the expense of giving Catholics from other places more proportionate representation. This suggests that mediating intra-Western struggles was a greater priority when it came to papal appointments to the synod than elevating perspectives from the global peripheries.

Of course, the synod is ultimately a consultative effort. It is the Pope’s prerogative to assemble whichever voices he wants and to decide what to do with whatever proposals emerge from the process in his effort to forge a more “listening Church.” 

Still, it seems clear that framing the event’s attendees (and therefore its outcome) as uniquely representative of a “truly global Catholic Church,” one that is shifting the focus from the West to the rest, is not backed up by the facts — at least if the list of Pope Francis’ 50 pontifical appointments is any indication. Forced efforts to define the Synod on Synodality as a paramount expression of global Catholicism will likely be received by many as disingenuous spin and could do more to harm than help the synod’s credibility.

Pope Francis holds his rosary during the Mass for the conclusion of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops Oct. 29, 2023.

The Need for a Deeper Theology of Synodality

COMMENTARY: Without explicit clarification, the synthesis document of the recent Synod on Synodality seems to teeter on a Protestant understanding of ministry, where all ministry flows from baptism, and a correspondingly Protestant ecclesiology, which is essentially baptismal and only secondarily Eucharistic, if at all.