Making the Best of an Imperfect Process: US Dioceses Complete Synodal Consultations

NEWS ANALYSIS: Some local Catholics registered their views, but low turnout and confusion over the purpose of the synod raised questions about the value of the process.

A bishop's biretta cap is seen at St Peter’s Basilica during Pope Francis mass for the Synod of Bishops opening on October 10, 2021 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis celebrated Mass at St Peter’s Basilica for the solemn opening of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place in three stages over the next two years.
A bishop's biretta cap is seen at St Peter’s Basilica during Pope Francis mass for the Synod of Bishops opening on October 10, 2021 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis celebrated Mass at St Peter’s Basilica for the solemn opening of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place in three stages over the next two years. (photo: Vatican Pool / Getty)

WASHINGTON — When Pope Francis announced last year that the Synod of Bishops would shift its focus from more traditional topics, like evangelization, to tackle the very meaning of synodality itself, the Vatican rolled out plans for an unprecedented two-year synodal process that would begin with local diocesan consultations across the globe and culminate with an October 2023 assembly in Rome. 

“The fullness of the synodal process can only truly exist if the local churches are involved [in] that process,” stated a communiqué issued by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, which presented the new topic at hand: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”

At the time, the plans for wide-scale consultation in the U.S. excited the hopes of many ordinary believers who were impatient to have their voices heard. But some theologians worry that many in the Church are not adequately prepared to engage in a poorly defined process that some analysts warn might be used to justify changes to Church doctrine and discipline. 

“In our fast-paced age, the People of God are neither spiritually nor theologically properly prepared” for such an exercise, said Father Emery de Gaál, chairman of dogmatic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.

“The resultant danger,” Father de Gaál told the Register, “is that the synodal process will raise expectations from good people, who are informed and formed from outside the Church, it cannot fulfill. This may lead to a crisis.”

Theologian Larry Chapp offered a harsher assessment of the unfolding process.

“The use of non-scientific questionnaires developed by some faceless ecclesiastical bureaucracy in order to achieve predetermined results is no way to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit,” Chapp, a former professor of theology at DeSales University, told the Register in comments that echoed broad suspicions about the agenda of key officials overseeing the process. “Discerning the will of the Holy Spirit requires constancy in prayer and penance, with a deep examination of conscience. And even then God’s whispers can be hard to discern.”


Local Feedback Sent

Nevertheless, the U.S. bishops have supported the synodal process, organizing local liturgies, listening sessions and online surveys over the past year. 

After each diocese completed the consultations, a summary or “synthesis” of local feedback was sent to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. Over the summer, the conference finished its own “synthesis” and forwarded the document to the Synod of Bishops in Rome.

“Every Latin diocese in the U.S. has contributed to the synthesis process in the United States,” Julia McStravog, a consultant working with the USCCB Synod 2021-2023 staff, told the Register. 

Likewise, U.S. service members and their families, former Anglicans who have joined the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, and “112 organizations” also took part. 

The USCCB synthesis will help provide the groundwork for the second phase of the synodal process, a North American “continental dialogue” between the U.S. and Canadian bishops. 

“The Synod of Bishops will create a document for the continental phase of the synod based on all of the national syntheses it receives,” said McStravog.

Meanwhile, individual dioceses in the U.S. have posted their own “synthesis,” and, for the most part, local Church leaders contacted by the Register expressed satisfaction with their work, while regretting the admittedly low participation numbers.


Oakland and Louisville

“Against all the skepticism in our diocese, we were happy with the opportunity to dialogue with Catholics of all ages,” said Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, California. Eleven thousand people participated in a variety of synodal forums, a small percentage of the 500,000 Catholics based in Oakland. But Bishop Barber celebrated the opportunity to engage with local Catholics and singled out one session with 70 teenagers and another with 70 young adults. 

“Both were overwhelmingly positive” and began with a Holy Hour, “which made all the difference,” the bishop said.

“One high-school football player asked me, ‘How do I get other people to join the Church and practice their faith?’ They are thirsty for the Catholic faith, and they are looking at priests and catechists to share it better,” he said. 

Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, Kentucky, told the Register that local consultations with the laity were a sign of “hope” and a reminder that ordinary believers have had their voices “heard and considered.” 

Asked if he was concerned about the low turnout — 2,389 participants in a local Church with 200,000 Catholics — the archbishop acknowledged that “numbers do matter. I wish more people would have participated.” But he was grateful for the people who did show up and suggested the experience might spur them to get more involved with the Church at the parish or diocesan level.

The synthesis of local feedback posted by the Archdiocese of Louisville noted strong interest in priestly vocations, anger at the clergy-abuse crisis, and worries about polarization in the Church.

Testimonies of gratitude for the Church’s countercultural witness were matched with calls for a less “judgmental” Church that welcomed those on the margins, including people who were divorced or identified as “LGBTQ.” There was a strong push for pastoral engagement and catechesis across all age groups. And some expressed deep sadness at the absence of young people in the pews.

“I fear that once the middle-aged and older adults pass away,” said one respondent, “there will no longer be any youth that will continue the Catholic faith.” 


Concerns and Proposals

Other diocesan summaries registered a similar mix of concerns and proposals, along with striking divisions. 

The Archdiocese of Chicago’s initial “synopsis” recorded “about 40,000 individual and collective responses ... approximately 2% of the local Catholic population.”

And Father Louis Cameli, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich’s delegate for formation and mission, agreed that the numbers were disappointing in a column for the Chicago Catholic newspaper. 

Further, the Chicago priest expressed frustration with the narrow perspective of many respondents.

“Pope Francis envisioned a process that included moments of prayer, encounter, dialogue and discernment,” he noted. 

But as Father Cameli saw it, just a handful of local Catholics, such as religious orders, actually followed the Pope’s direction. Most people approached the consultations as if they were “engaging in a parliamentary process,” registering “their opinions” on Church doctrine and discipline. 

The Eucharist emerged as a common concern for all, he reported, but sharp differences were evident. Though many called for more “inclusive and creative liturgies,” a smaller number “wanted a retrieval of the Tridentine Mass.”

But if most Church leaders sought to make the best of an imperfect process, they were uncertain about what lay ahead and were still waiting for more details. 

Archbishop Fabre, for example, did not know how the continental dialogue would unfold or whether he might be called to participate in that effort. 

“I don’t know very much about” it, he said. 

“I don’t know what the paradigm for discussion will be. But if I am invited, I would participate.” 

Bishop Barber, too, was uncertain about the continental phase. But he was clear that the bar must be very high. 

“We have to be obedient to Revelation and to Tradition,” he said. 


Permanent Roots

Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, for his part, is eager for the synodal process to put down permanent roots in the U.S. 

“[T]he current synod process offers a glimpse of a church yet to come,” he wrote in an article published in the July/August issue of America magazine, the Jesuit publication. This is a new vision of the Church that “humanizes” the truth, he explained. 

And instead of waiting for Francis’ forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the matter of synodality, Cardinal McElroy suggested that Church leaders take immediate steps to “sustain and enlarge this process of listening, observation and illumination by deepening our quest to discover the ecclesial and societal reality that can provide a foundation for genuine renewal.”

But if this Church leader views synodality as an engine for ecclesial transformation, many other diocesan officials have more modest goals. 

The process “was about providing the opportunity for Catholics to authentically listen to each other,” said Father Michael Sedor, director for canonical services at the Diocese of Pittsburgh, who quickly discovered that “the idea of ‘synodality’ itself [was] very foreign to the modern American mindset.”


Recent Events in Rome

Even if many Church leaders share Cardinal McElroy’s hopes, recent events in Rome are more likely to inspire caution than enthusiasm for the synodal process. 

During the recent August consistory, newly minted cardinals asked synod officials to explain what “synodality” meant, a request that marked ongoing confusion about the entire process as well as its goals.  

At the same time, Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator general of the synod, has come under fire for publicly challenging Church teaching on homosexuality, deepening suspicions that the process could be manipulated.

During an Aug. 26 Vatican press conference, where Cardinal Hollerich and other synod officials outlined the upcoming continental phase of the process, a reporter asked if he wanted the Synod on Synodality to bring about a change in Church teaching on homosexuality. “I have no personal agenda for this synod,” the cardinal replied, in comments that made headlines.

During the press conference, Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, acknowledged that actual participation numbers in the global consultations were “limited.” 

Still, he framed the process as “an ecclesial dialogue without precedent in the history of the Church, not only for the quantity of responses received or the number of people involved (which to some who want to rely solely on numbers … may seem limited) but also for the quality of participation.”

Cardinal Grech explained that the working document for the continental phase will be drafted by a team of “experts.” 

And both he and Cardinal Hollerich emphasized the need for listening and discernment during the next two phases of the process. 

“[N]o one in the Church has the exclusive right to the truth,” said Cardinal Grech.

Cardinal Grech also dismissed concerns about the potential “hijacking” of the synodality process by political interests, commenting that the synod “would only be hijacked by one, the Holy Spirit.”

Yet the cardinal’s public comments have only provoked more questions about his own judgment and thus his ability to win the trust of Catholics.

Days after the Vatican press conference, for example, Cardinal Grech questioned whether Church leaders should have criticized the German “Synodal Way,” a national synodal process that has prompted repeated warnings from the Vatican.


Doubts Stirred

These developments have only stirred more doubts about the value of the entire process. 

“There are so many questions which can be raised about the synodal process itself, from interest-group manipulation to the actually low-participation rates at the diocesan level,” Chad Pecknold, a moral theologian at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.

Pecknold then identified a third problem: general “‘exhaustion’ from the fog of uncertainty about the purpose and stability of it all. While it’s not a council,” he said, “the Synod on Synodality, and the synodal process more broadly, almost seems to be an attempt to relive the confusing and heady days of the Second Vatican Council, when there were competing hermeneutics concerning the spirit and texts of the Council.”

But Russell Shaw, an author and former USCCB spokesman, said he was reserving judgment.

The Second Vatican Council’s documents spoke about laypeople being given the opportunity to express their opinions on matters of importance to the Church,” said Shaw.

In his view, that promise has yet to be realized, and he nourishes some hope that the new push for synodality could make a difference. 

“That is the potential,” he said. “The reality is that synodality is having a rough shakedown phase, and there are signs of it producing a new synodal bureaucracy from the parish to Rome. Many Americans, being practically minded people, will make suggestions and see if something concrete happens. But the Pope said, ‘No, don’t expect that.’ So what is the outcome supposed to be, just endless talking?”

“The problem to date is not a problem of non-participation,” Shaw concluded. “The shoe is on the other foot. The planners need to do more work” and address these questions.