Synod Reflections From Down Under: Interview With Archbishop Anthony Fisher

Dominican archbishop praises the will of those involved to bring young people closer to Christ and his Church, the general mood of the meeting, and the contributions of the young auditors.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher
Archbishop Anthony Fisher (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, was on the information commission for October’s youth synod, and he was elected to the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops, which will prepare the next assembly.

In this Oct. 28 interview with Rome correspondent Edward Pentin, the Dominican archbishop praises the will of those involved to bring young people closer to Christ and his Church, the general mood of the meeting, and the contributions of the young auditors.

But he also highlights what he sees as weaknesses, including a “disappointing” diffidence about the Church’s moral teaching, an unwillingness to provide translations, and that almost all of the synod fathers felt “shut down” from speaking after they had given their interventions (speeches).

Overall, he has concerns with the forum in its current form: “In this synod, we were writing doctrine, as it were, on the run,” he says. “This is not the way to make doctrine.”


How do you think the synod went overall? Are you happy with the outcome?

Like the curate’s egg, it was good in parts. The sheer investment of time and resources was a tribute to how seriously the pastors of the Church take the issues of “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” There was real affection for our young people and passion for drawing them closer to Christ and his Church. It was also very valuable to hear the very different issues on the minds of young people and their pastors in different parts of the world. I, for one, was very enriched by that. And there were treasured moments of prayer, contemplation and conversation.

On the other hand, I think the final document is far too long and in some places ambiguous. When you think of who it is for — for young people, or people engaged in youth ministry, or pastors who are trying to get young people interested in Church — few of them are likely to read something so long and convoluted.

There are some beautiful parts of the document, but often followed by more tiresome secular-sociological analysis. I think the document could have done with a really good editing. It would have been much more effective if it was half the length and clearer.


How does the final document compare with the working document, the instrumentum laboris? Is there a danger in the suggestion that the two have to be read together?

The final document is a significant improvement on the instrumentum laboris, and it is significantly the work of the bishops. Many of the synod fathers were surprised by the talk of having to read the two documents together — after all, it is of the very nature of a working document, and the various drafts, that the final document replaces them. The working document was compiled by synod bureaucrats and does not have the authority of the bishops.


Does the final document being potentially magisterial make this particularly problematic?

The Pope has foreshadowed that rather than issuing his own post-synodal apostolic exhortation — as has been customary in the past — he might instead adopt the final document of the synod as his own. This would give the synod document a weight it has never had before.

Given the rushed way that the synod document was prepared, I’d counsel against it getting any automatic “tick” by the Pope. And it should be clear that the working document and the draft final document cannot share in the magisterium because they are not exercises of the pastors of the Church when teaching and governing. Such documents may be very well-informed because of the theologians and sociologists and arguments behind them, but they are not the conclusions of the pastors of the Church.


The mood was generally good I hear.

Yes. It seemed good to me, and those who had been to several synods told me it was better than many. There wasn’t the tension in the air that some experienced at the previous two synods.


There wasn’t much reference to the moral teachings of the Church in the final document, and yet these are crucial to young people’s formation, aren't they?

So many of the young people’s concerns were moral and spiritual at heart, and so it was disappointing that the document’s drafters were so diffident about mentioning the moral teaching of the Church. Some of us tried to get in more about the Church’s teachings on the natural law, moral absolutes, prudence and the operation of conscience, and on specific issues such as life and sex, and there were improvements. The final document would have been more helpful if it was clearer on such things.


Why do you think there was so little on these matters in the documents?

One factor was probably the desire to respond to the perceived preferences of contemporary youth culture, which is so often at odds with the Catholic Tradition on moral matters. Another factor that I sensed was an implicit view that the previous two (or more) pontificates had been too intellectual, too catechetical, too determinative, and that this synod should mark a shift that has been occurring from the head to the heart, from speculative and moral intellect to affective discernment.

The drafters seemed uncomfortable, not just with particular teachings of the magisterium, but also with the methodology of the magisterium to date and with the way it prized the practical intellect.


What are your views on the paragraphs on homosexuality?

The “LGBT” talk is gone, and the final document is much more careful to follow the Church’s teaching Tradition about these things, rather than the spirit of the age. It gently restates or points toward Catholic teaching on man and woman, sexuality and marriage, and away from reducing people to their sexual desires.

Some of us might have liked it clearer and stronger — for instance, I don’t think the final document is clear about the goal of generating children. But it’s significantly better than the working document and the draft final document.


Was there a problem with translations of the final document?

Some of the organizers seemed to resent that at least half the synod fathers and nearly all the auditors did not speak Italian. But the fact is that less than 1% of the world’s population speaks Italian.

If the Church is to have truly international meetings, it has to improve its act linguistically and ensure everyone gets the texts in the several official languages of the meeting. That did not happen at this synod. There were other problems with the timetable and synod rules that also left some feeling manipulated.


It’s very difficult to vote on a paragraph just by hearing it through the interpreter, isn’t it?

Yes, it was read so fast the translators struggled to keep up, and the fathers could not take notes in their own language. So we were not always sure what we were being asked to vote Yes or No to.

Any serious international meeting today ensures the delegates get the texts in front of them in the official languages. If the U.N. or trade organizations can do it, so can the Church. …

I recognize, of course, that the Vatican has a small staff compared to many international organizations. But if we are going to invest in the travel, accommodation and time of 300 or so Church leaders and advisers for a whole month, the cost of professional translation would be small by comparison.


How influential and how representative do you think the youth auditors were?

We had a group of 36 young people present throughout. They were delightful. They were lovely to talk to informally, and they were not backward in coming forward in the general assemblies and the small-group discussions. Most of them were very idealistic. It really added to the whole process, having them around. But at times I felt they hunted in a pack: They would clap and cheer and whoop comments that played to a very particular script. Some said the young people were being coached to promote certain viewpoints — I don’t know about that. But one of the most international of the synod fathers observed that there seemed to be no or few young people of a more “classical disposition” (his words) present to speak for that point of view and that this made the young auditors not entirely representative of their generation.


Did you sense that people who were advocating more tradition and orthodoxy, like the Africans, were shut down, perhaps?

No, I don’t think it was just the more traditionally minded who were shut down: We all were. The fact was that after our initial short speeches, it was almost impossible for bishops to get a hearing again in the general assembly.


Even in the free discussions?

The free discussions were very few, usually in the last hour of a very long day. On at least one occasion, that time was taken up almost completely by speeches from ecumenical representatives. On other days, various announcements intruded. And when free discussion did happen, only cardinals and youth auditors were heard; no bishops at all. You got your little speech at the start, and that was about it, when it came to the general assembly.


How was it that so much material on “synodality” got into the final document?

Well, it wasn’t in the working document, it wasn’t in the general assembly discussions, it wasn’t in the language-group discussions, in wasn’t in the reports from the small groups — it just appeared, as if from nowhere, in the draft final document.

There was some pushback from the synod fathers against this obvious manipulation. It meant some voted against the synodality paragraphs, not because they disagreed with them, but because they disagreed with these ill-fitting paragraphs being intruded so late in the process for no good reason.


Do you think those paragraphs were introduced with a view to the forthcoming synod on the Amazon?

That’s what some people think: that it was to give the synod on the Amazon permission to diverge from the universal Church in its position on, for instance, priestly celibacy; or to allow other bishops’ conferences, e.g., the Germans, to diverge from the universal Church on matters such as blessing same-sex unions.

That might be it, but I have a slightly different take on it. There has been a push for decentralization of various aspects of the Church, away from the pope, the cardinals and the Roman dicasteries, toward the more regional and local level, and a push for more lay involvement in Church decision-making. Depending on what and how, that seems quite sensible. But there are ecclesiological challenges here, and the use of synodality talk is often very fuzzy.

A document on synodality was prepared and rather hurriedly approved by the International Theological Commission in May. How to give it magisterial authority? Well, one way is to have it quoted approvingly in a synod of bishops and have that document approved by the Pope.


Do you think there’s a danger with these synods, that they can be vehicles for heterodoxy?

Yes, a real danger. This is not the way to make doctrine. If you are preparing a Vatican document on a topic, you get a group of highly qualified theologians or experts in that area to do drafts and redrafts. You get others to critique it. You ultimately bring it to the bishops of the CDF.

The pope may contribute at various stages along the way, and, finally, it is his approval that gives the document real authority. It all takes time — in my experience, usually several years — before a document is mature enough for publication as the faith of the Church. But in this synod, we were writing doctrine, as it were, on the run — with respect to synodality, in less than a week.


And voting?

And then voting on it in a matter of minutes, and under terrible pressure of time, with no opportunity for further amendments. To me, that’s not the way to make doctrine.


What do you think of the argument made by Cardinal Louis Raphaël I Sako, when he said in his speech, “Peter's boat is not like the other boats, Peter's boat, despite the waves, remains strong, because Jesus is in it and will never leave it.” Do you think we don’t need to worry in a sense about synodality because we’re not like the Anglicans?

I think it’s right and wrong. Of course, we’re not like the Anglicans because we have Peter. The papacy is hugely important, as long as it does its job of steering the boat when needed, especially through heavy storms, of uniting the brethren and confirming us in the faith of the apostles.

But if Peter takes a hands-off approach and leaves things to the local captains, the ship might take many different courses, not all of them for the best.

Synod fathers who’ve seen how synodality has messed up the Anglican church, or how it works in the Eastern Churches only after centuries of evolved synod etiquette, were not unaware of the benefit of our having the papacy. What they were wary of, I think, is the way synods might be manipulated today, swept up by the fashions of the age. They were wary, too, of all the vague talk of “synodal style” and “synodal discipleship” and the rest, some of which has survived in the final document; that can mean all sorts of things in different mouths and ultimately be very divisive.

Let’s hope we Catholics can agree on a clearer sense of synodality going forward.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.