Who Is Managing the Synod on Synodality?
NEWS ANALYSIS: Voices supportive of Church teaching are not being given adequate exposure.
VATICAN CITY — In light of the controversy stirred up by the working document for the next stage of the multiyear Synod on Synodality, questions have arisen over who prepared it and how it came into being.
The 45-page “Document for the Continental Stage” (DCS), published Oct. 28, attempts to summarize discussions with the lay faithful, clergy and religious who participated in the synod’s first stage of “listening and discernment” and aims to be the basis of the work for the second — or continental — stage, which runs until next spring.
Much of the document, officially entitled “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” (Isaiah 54:2), focuses on “listening as openness to welcome,” which, it says, should derive from “a desire for radical inclusion.” The phrase “no one is excluded” is often mentioned in the text.
But the text controversially includes explicit calls for the transformation of Church structures and content that dissents from the Church’s magisterium, as well as placing an emphasis on welcoming, without a clear mention of amendment of life, groups who feel excluded from the Church such as the divorced-and-civilly remarried, “LGBT” people, and even people living in polygamous marriages.
As a consequence, the document has received some trenchant criticism. In a blistering commentary, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Mutsaerts of 's-Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands, said he believed the synod’s listening process has led to a document that acts as a “megaphone for non-Catholic views” and that the process resembles more of a “sociological experiment” than the Church’s mission to proclaim the truth.
For Bishop Mutsaerts, the process gave space “to a little too many defenders of gay marriage, folks who don’t really think abortion is a problem and never really show themselves defenders of the Church’s rich creed, wanting above all to be liked by their secular surroundings.”
“One thing is clear to me,” he said. “God is out of the picture in this wretched synodal process. The Holy Spirit has absolutely nothing to do with it.”
Writing in the Italian Catholic daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, journalist and author Luisella Scrosati said those whose views are mostly reflected in the document have been reached “not by the preaching of the Gospel, but by the typical phrasing of pseudo-Christian ideology.” She said their responses were then “amalgamated with the dominant ecclesial ideology” so that what emerges “is not at all the sensus fidei [sense of the faith] as the document suggests” — that is “the consensus of the faithful, by virtue of the theological virtue of faith, infused in them in Baptism” — but rather a consultatio fidelium [consulted faithful] ideologically conducted and reported.”
As with other synods of this pontificate, the Synod on Synodality is being managed and run by personnel with distinct ideological backgrounds and similar perspectives, especially when it comes to sociopolitical issues and doctrine. Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the synod secretariat, called for the Church to be “more accepting of LGBT members” when he was bishop of Gozo, Malta. He was also the primary author of the Maltese bishops’ contentious guidelines on Amoris Laetitia that opened up admission to Holy Communion for civilly remarried divorcees if they were “at peace with God.” For Cardinal Grech, the DCS is part of a process of “growing increasingly into a synodal mindset” and shows the “People of God are converging in calling for a profound renewal of the Church.”
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod’s relator general, has caused controversy in recent months for saying same-sex-union blessings are “not a settled matter” and that Church teaching on homosexuality “is no longer correct” and can be changed. And in April, Xavière Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the synod’s secretariat, gave an uncritical address to New Ways Ministry, which promotes “LGBT” rights in the Church, leading to strong criticism from Church leaders and prominent lay faithful.
Arguably most relevant to this stage in the synod is Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, head of the synthesizing task force who worked with 26 experts to prepare the DCS for two weeks in Frascati, near Rome, over the summer. Last year, Father Costa caused indignation for saying Italian anti-homophobia legislation (called the “ddl Zan” bill) “was needed,” as the “priority is the defense of the person against all violence and against all discrimination.” Italian bishops and the Vatican opposed the bill, which, among its measures, would have mandated that Catholic schools and other institutions celebrate an annual anti-homophobia day. The legislation was later defeated in the Italian Senate.
Working under Father Costa’s guidance were 26 experts, most of them with similar heterodox visions for the Church. They included Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne, dean of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for the Sciences of Marriage and the Family. In 2015, the theologian appeared to dissent from Humanae Vitae’s teaching on artificial contraception and last year approved of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples under certain conditions.
Another was Church polemicist Austen Ivereigh, who recounted his experience in Frascati in America magazine last month, saying he believed the document “harvested the fruits of the greatest-ever exercise in listening and consultation the Catholic Church has ever carried out.”
Ivereigh, who wrote The Great Reformer, an authoritative biography on Pope Francis, is well known for his progressive opinions and support for leftist politics, which he often shares on Twitter. A former deputy editor of the British liberal Catholic weekly The Tablet, he is now coordinator of the project “The Path to a Synodal Church” and a fellow in contemporary Church history at the Jesuit-run Campion Hall at the University of Oxford.
Mauricio López Oropeza is a native Mexican who played a significant role in the 2019 Amazon synod, serving as executive secretary of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM). The organization had a major role in running that synod and was chiefly responsible for the pachamama controversy. He says he was inspired by his early experiences and later working with the Jesuits, and like Ivereigh, he is an associate at Campion Hall.
Also among the experts are Jesuit Father Paul Béré from Burkina Faso, professor of Old Testament exegesis at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, who was awarded the Ratzinger Prize for his work on faith in the contemporary world and African theology; and Jesuit Father David McCallum, who, since 2020, has served as the founding executive director of the Program for Discerning Leadership in Rome.
Another of the experts is Father Ormond Rush, a professor of dogmatic theology at Australian Catholic University, who is regarded as an expert on Vatican II and praised by dissenting theologians such as Father Peter Hunermann, whom Benedict XVI criticized for leading “anti-papal initiatives,” and Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University who is often critical of orthodoxy and tradition.
Among the women experts are Medical Mission Sister Birgit Weiler, a German who worked with REPAM and participated as one of the experts in the Amazon synod. Sister Birgit has campaigned for a “stronger role for women in the Church,” specifically for a female diaconate and for women to vote in synods. (The Amazon synod was expected to pave the way for a permanent diaconate for women, as well as reconsider the notion that the exercise of Church governance must be linked in a permanent way to the priesthood, but it fell short of achieving those goals in Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia.)
Other experts are Christina Kheng, a planning consultant with the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific. Kheng has remarked that the “sensus fidei of the People of God” comes from listening to the word of God “and to the world around us so as to read the signs of the times.”
Congregation of Jesus Sister Gill Goulding is professor of dogmatic theology in the Jesuit faculty of theology at the University of Toronto. Sister Gill is an active member of “Church Action on Poverty,” an ecumenical organization working for the alleviation of poverty in the U.K.
Pope Benedict XVI appointed her in 2012 to be a theological expert at the Synod on the New Evangelization.
Sister Anne-Béatrice Faye is a member of the Association of African Theologians from Burkina Faso who, since 2021, has been an editorial board member of Concilium. The journal, founded after Vatican II by progressive theologians Yves Congar, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, aims to “reinterpret and re-apply” the Council’s vision “to changing social and religious realities.” Former editors have included dissenting theologian Leonardo Boff and Church historian Alberto Melloni, a member of the Bologna School, which believes in a hermeneutic of rupture after Vatican II.
One bishop was among the experts: Bishop Timothy Costelloe, president of the Australian bishops’ conference.
During the 2018-2022 plenary council of the Church in Australia, he highlighted care for Indigenous people, the abuse crisis and the role of women in the Church. On the latter, he said “a lot of work” remains to be done.
According to the synod secretariat, all the experts were personally chosen or approved by Cardinals Grech and Hollerich, and most were selected from three commissions for the synod established in July 2021. Others, such as Ivereigh and Anna Rowlands, an associate professor of Catholic social thought and practice at the University of Durham, England, were chosen because of their skills in communication, but the secretariat stressed it did not endorse any of the experts’ personal views. Cardinal Grech told the Register Nov. 18 the experts’ names were published to be as transparent as possible, and no “formal accusations” have been made regarding their choice.
Asked why they did not include experts known for their orthodoxy and knowledge of Tradition and Church history, a synod source, who was not authorized to speak to media and requested anonymity, told the Register, “We wanted a group able to work together and not include people who think totally differently, who’d force us to stop because they’re not open to listening.”
Ivereigh told the Register they were looking for “a good balance of men and women, a mix of ecclesial status (lay, religious, clerical) and a balanced representation from the seven regions (Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, Oceania, Middle East). We all had to have either English or Italian.”
And rather than possessing the same ideological visions, Ivereigh contended that he and his fellow experts had “the large mix of backgrounds and perspectives” that “made it easier to ensure that you didn’t get unconscious bias.” He said they were “all there to do one thing, and that was to be faithful to what we heard.”
“We were paying attention to what was consistent over the reports, but not just to majority views,” he continued. “We also paid attention to minority views where they were consistent across the reports.” But he added that consistency and a majority view received most attention, and in particular he cited the issue of women, saying he found it “amazing how the topic of the role of women came up in virtually every report.”
But the synod organizers seem keenly aware that many on the orthodox side of the Church are not being given adequate exposure, neither in the local and national stage nor within the synod’s leadership. “Most of the people on the other side haven’t said anything to us,” said the synod source.
“They started to be more present after the local stage, but only to criticize, and this isn’t a proper approach, as then there’s no possibility for dialogue.”
The source added: “If they think we’re totally wrong, they must have arguments to share, so why don’t they do that?” The synod organizers stress they can still participate through the bishops during the continental stage, which runs until next spring.
Another suggestion would be to appoint a clearly orthodox-thinking prelate to help Cardinals Grech and Hollerich lead the synod, perhaps Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo or Dutch Cardinal Willem Eijk. Although Cardinal Grech told the Register this is “not within the competence” of the synod secretariat, the synod source said it is something they may consider.
For the moment, however, the synod coordinators are trying to allay fears by stressing that the synod is in a listening phase and that it is the bishops, not the baptized so far consulted, who will make the final decisions — decisions which, given other recent synods, many believe have already been made.